Ga Duniya

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Category Archives: Europe

Planes, Trains, Boats, & Bicycles: An Afternoon in Amsterdam


The timing couldn’t have been better. I arrived in Amsterdam — after one long, but otherwise pleasant enough flight from Portland — at 11:30am. And my connection to Nairobi wouldn’t depart until 8:30pm. Although I hadn’t slept much on the plane, the sunshine and curiosity gave me energy to head into the city.

That part was a bit easier said than done. After printing my next boarding pass and finding a locker to store my backpack, I found my travelling colleague David and repeated the steps with him. Then we tried to buy train tickets at a kiosk. Two attempts using four different credit cards two times each. Not accepted. So we waited in line to buy them from an agent. “That’s 20 euros.” David hands him $20. “Those aren’t euros.”

This is when we first pointed out how friendly the Dutch are. Everyone we spoke to was genuinely courteous and kind, even when they were telling us what we were doing wrong. The agent showed us where we could exchange dollars for euros, but we still walked back and forth across the station trying to find the place. Finally we had euros! Back in line for tickets, then (a mere 2 hours after landing, sheesh) we were actually on a train to Amsterdam.

First stop — A canal boat tour. I’m glad we went, but I have to give the tour mixed reviews.

The good things: It was easily accessible — impossible to miss upon exiting the train station. It was comprehensive, hitting both large and small canals throughout the city. There was an outdoor seating area for good photo ops.

The bad things: About that outdoor seating area — it was primarily used by smokers. Not pleasant. And there was no commentary at all! So, even though we saw a lot of the city, we really had no idea what we were seeing.

To get a better feel for Amsterdam, as soon as the boat tour ended we decided to explore the city by foot.

After narrowly avoiding being run over by the myriad bicyclists, or hit by the light rail that seemingly shares promenade space with pedestrians, we found refuge in the type of picturesque, narrow, European streets that I love. Turn here, turn there, we didn’t have a set plan. But suddenly we found ourselves deep in the Red Light District. And the rumors are true — there were no shortage of sex shops with flashy advertisements, and coffeeshops packed with 20-somethings lounging on cushions in the picture window and smoking hookahs. There were (what I could only imagine were) bachelor parties on the streets; crowds of young men loudly jostling a buddy in a gorilla suit or a head-to-toe multi-colored unitard.

Feeling a bit lightheaded by the haze and the debauchery, we quickly set out on our search for Anne Frank’s house. We headed in what we believed was the general direction, according to our inadequate maps. One reason I was especially thankful that the Dutch are so proficient in English, is that their language is so complex to read that I’d forget the street name I was looking for on a map within a second of seeing it above on a sign. But, I wasn’t about to approach a stranger to ask for help — I tend to take the stereotypical male characteristic of NOT asking for directions when I travel — instead David did all the asking. And I was thankful he did. We zigzagged our way through the streets and canals, even despite stopping for directions on multiple occasions.

Finally — finally! — we spotted a line a few blocks a way. That was it. We laughed that there was finally a sign pointingvisitors towards the house just a mere 20 feet away from the building. We could have used some signage an hour or so earlier! We didn’t have time to take the interior tour, so instead we documented the fact that we’d arrived at our goal, and promptly turned back around and returned to the train station.

We had a bit of deja vu with our inability to find the right train, and then relocate the baggage lockers. Let’s just chalk it up to extreme fatigue. And no matter — we made it to our gate in plenty of time to board the long-anticipated flight to Nairobi.

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Fireworks on the Alps

I don’t have a photo to remember it by, but I can never forget the beauty of New Year’s Eve in Innsbruck, Austria.

The locals had told me that many visitors feel claustrophobic in Innsbruck, as the mountains surround the city so intimately that you can see the former Olympic ski jumps in plain sight from the city center. As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, the landscape was dark enough to hide any trace of the Alps as I huddled in with the crowd that had gathered to welcome 2002.

And then the fireworks began. They felt closer than any I had seen back home. With every blast of color, a jagged mountain would light up in reflection and then disappear as quickly. It was as if I were wearing a blindfold that would be lifted for one second to glimpse the breathtaking Alps, and then hide the few before I could take it all in. FLASH — A red peak. BOOM — A green mountain. CRASH — Golden glaciers. You’d think it was a black night sky and then POW — Blue shining slopes.

I could have watched the show for hours.

The Paparazzi of Notre Dame

It’s un-exotically touristy of me to say it, but I love Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I love that it’s Ground Zero for the snail grid of Parisian neighborhoods. I love that it rests on its own tiny island, which allows for magnificent views over the water. I remember the first time I approached the church from the narrow streets behind it, turning a corner to gasp at the flying buttresses lit up in the night. I’ve climbed Quasimodo’s tower to greet the gargoyles, and I’ve marveled at the fact that a semi-truck could fit inside one of the aisles. I even showed up for class on the morning after my 21st birthday, knowing that our lesson that day would take place in front of Notre Dame.

It wasn’t until my last visit to Paris, in 2008, that I finally glimpsed the façade sans scaffolding. But it was a cold day in December, so I didn’t spend much time marveling at the outside, and instead sought the warmth of the interior.

The usual crowds were there, snapping pictures and thumbing through guidebooks. A faithful few worshiped in the center — roped off to signify that the cathedral’s purpose is greater than to look pretty.

I’ve always felt torn when admiring beautiful churches. Is it right to snap photos while others are praying? Is it unholy to relish praise on the design of the structure, rather than feel compelled to use it as a house of worship to God? I once witnessed a very old local woman kindly ask a tourist to stop taking photos during mass. I felt pity for her, realizing her desire to keep the house of God sacred, but knowing there were likely 100 other tourists taking photos at that same moment.

And of course I’ve taken interior photos too. But only probably half as many as I would have liked. I hesitate greatly.

Isn’t it wonderful, though, that places of worship can attract such crowds? I hope the faithful find solace in the hope that perhaps some of the snappy tourists also leave with a seed in their hearts for the knowledge of Christ.

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