So, Kabi…is this – is this some sort of “symbolic” way to welcome your twenties? You’ve done airports alone, sure, you’ve walked around a bunch of cities alone, sure, but not –
I didn’t plan for this one. It’s happened so quickly: one click and I’ve booked my bus ride, another click and voilà – I’ve a bed for the night. The bus leaves at 3:30am on the 4th of May – my birthday. Nineteen going on twenty.
I feel strange. You know how people ask whether you feel any different during or after your birthday, and you think it’s the dumbest question because you still feel the same?
That’s not how turning 20 feels like; at least not for me. I feel like I’m feeling. Feeling old, feeling new, feeling like there are too many things I’m not prepared for –
Do all the things you’re afraid to do.
My friend’s advice echoes in my head in a bid to fight all the doubts I’ve been having. My mind is an imaginative expert, it prides itself on playing out every possible contingency: what if, what if. It’s hard to not be scared when you don’t know what to expect.
DAY 1// 4th May, 2018
It’s now midnight. Cue the birthday calls.
8:00am, Brussels, Belgium
My bus is connecting here. I’m freaking out a little bit: where do I find my next bus?
Walk confidently, this is a train station, you have an hour, sit down and recalibrate. Ahh – a Starbucks, bless.
Note: I’ve truly had little shame in visiting a Starbucks when I’m abroad. There’s always comfort in familiarity, which always helps when you’re in a place you don’t know. As expected, this Starbucks has free WiFi, so with a latte in hand I map out where I will find my bus.
12.45pm, Amsterdam, Netherlands
I’m here. I mean –
I AMsterdam here. (Haha).
I’ve decided to go straight to Museumplein, a bustling area with some of the major museums that Amsterdam has to offer: Rijksmuseum (pictured above), Moco Museum (Banksy!), and the Van Gogh Museum – the latter of which I’ve bought tickets online for.
The Anne Frank House (not in this area though) was on my list but it was unfortunately sold out even a week and a half before.
I get to my hostel and here I realize that the typical Amsterdam building is not just skinny on the outside, it’s skinny on the inside too. The stairs are long and steep, the hallways are narrow, the roof awkwardly caves in. In comparison to some of the other hostels I’ve looked at, this one is a little pricey, but I only need a bed for one night. What’s most attractive is the location: it’s walking distance from the most important things.
There are six beds in this dorm, but at the moment I am the only guest here. I recharge a little, find some food. My ticket to the Van Gogh museum is scheduled for 4:30pm.
To be honest, I find that I’ve a complicated relationship with museums. They sometimes feel like an overload of information that is difficult to process in such little time. They sometimes make me feel pressured to sympathise with things I feel far too removed from. And, if you don’t have an audioguide or any context or pre-researched information, the experience just feels empty. Oh and, there’s usually too many people around. It feels like you’re on a conveyer belt.
Despite all this, I still go to museums. Not to mention that this is the Van Gogh Museum. In addition to the permanent collection, there’s the temporary exhibition focusing on Van Gogh & Japan. I enjoy my time here.
Now walking around the streets, pretending to absorb it all in. What to do, what to do…of course – a canal cruise! Or, a boat tour as I later find out. I pay about €18 for it, and the guide is a wide-shouldered Dutch guy with a super strong British accent and who smokes a grape-flavoured vape the entire journey.
Before we board the boat, he turns to me. “You should sit in the front so you can understand my English better!” I nod and sit in the front and he’s like, well, how good is your English? And I tell him it’s good enough, and he asks where I’m from, I say Kenya. So he asks what our main language is, and I say “English.” He looks perplexed.
The only other passengers are a family of three who aren’t English speakers. Thus, after two minutes of pretending to listen to the tour guide, they resort to taking pictures of each other. (So much for all the friends you can make during solo travel!)
It’s an interesting tour, the guide’s got a lot of information about the canals which were created in the 17th Century, as well as several notable buildings. There are some bougie places here and there. We pass a couple of military boats and party boats because it’s their National Remembrance Day today (we are asked to take two minutes of silence at 8:00pm) and subsequently Liberation Day tomorrow.
What’s particularly striking to me, though, are the boat houses! As we sail along, we pass by families and friends casually having dinner on their dining table – outside – on a boat. The boat houses come in different designs and colours, some with chipped paint and rust peeling off of them. I thus zone out during the tour and try and imagine myself living in a boat.
I don’t think I can.
DAY 2// 5th May, 2018
I’m not even going to lie, I totally forgot to journal things this day, so I’m really just going to throw in past tense at some point.
Hardest question to answer when you travel – what’s a good time to wake up? Like, I’m not really on a holiday, per se, so sleeping in would be wasteful; but I’m also not here to discover everything, so I don’t need to be up too early. To be honest, none of this matters anyway, because I’m woken up by some other four people in the room at 6am.
Hostel’s checkout time is 10am. I leave.
So look, I don’t consider myself a food enthusiast. I’m allergic to eggs (my life is very fine thanks) so desserts and pastries are usually out of the question. I’m kind of picky with everything else, so you’ll find me usually opting to eat what I’m familiar with. So if you’re wondering why I don’t go into detail about my meals on here, that’s probably why.
I HAD ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BAGELS EVER AND I CANNOT EVEN BEGIN TO DESCRIBE HOW MUCH MY DAY WAS MADE BECAUSE OF IT
It’s common knowledge that New York City is the place for Bagels, and so given the fact that I hadn’t been in NYC for five months now, I really was missing them. This shop’s name is Bagels and Beans, a cute little place with way better wifi than that of the hostel. Oooh and their coffee was pretty great, too.
(I will point out that in Amsterdam, a “coffee shop” isn’t exactly the place where you’ll find actual coffee, so one has to be rather creative with their google search if what they want is, indeed, some coffee).
I’d bought online tickets for The Heineken Experience, which is a complete tour of their retired first brewery. Bonus points for the two “free” beers at the end of the journey.
(Yes, I also did pay an extra €6.50 to get a bottle with my name on it.)
I am slightly convinced that it was really just an advertising gimmick for the company more than it was an objective historical museum. All the information boards were simply full of praise for everyone involved: Heineken had the best employees, everyone loves the beer, we are the best, Heineken yea. However, I’m still super inspired by the fact that its founder was only 22 years old when he started.
Basically, I’ve got two years to start brewing something up. Teehee.
Generally speaking, I can only stay in a city for so long until I begin to crave some green. Amsterdam became claustrophobic rather quickly. In addition to the narrow streets and similar-looking buildings, there are so.many.bicycles (I cannot begin to express the number of times I nearly got hit by them and how long I’d take to cross a street because they.wouldn’t. stop.coming.ahh.)! So no, I did not go to the red light district.
Instead, I took a bus up to Zaanse Schans, an area some 40-minutes out of Amsterdam. Here one can find traditional windmills, houses and a bunch of other objects and activities normally associated with Dutch culture (clogs, cheese, you name it). The area was recreated to emulate the look of a Dutch village in the 1800s.
And I also got a picture of me in a giant clog, which was pretty fun.
I was well pleased with my decision to visit Zaanse Schans simply because it reminded me of a couple things about myself and about the kind of things I enjoy doing when I travel. It was a tourist site, sure, but it didn’t feel like I was being ushered into a formulaic touristic experience as many sites often feel like. It struck a balance between the natural and the traditional, still all packaged in a way that you didn’t have to look twice to see the cultural value in it.
I would definitely recommend.
Some time in the evening
Once I got back, I decided to treat myself to a drink at a rooftop bar. If you saw my first post about Nairobi, you’re already familiar with my love for all things rooftop.
This was at SkyLounge Amsterdam, where I was lucky enough to catch the sun melt away over Central Station and over the rest of the city. The best way to end the trip, I felt.
BACK TO PARIS// 11:00pm (// I remembered to log this part in)
It’s going to be a seven-hour trip back home. Home? Haha, yup – Paris sure feels that way at this point. Being in a place you don’t know can really make you appreciate the places that you kind of do.
You really did it, Kabi. Yea, I did.
Would I travel solo again? Definitely. Was my first solo travel a life changing experience? Not at all. Maybe I need to travel alone for longer so I can have time to delve into a city, meet its people and fully experience its vibes. Or maybe the idea of one event being life-changing is a little cliché and the actual life change happens over a series of events.
What I will say is that the two days were filled with a lot of emotion. It was nice to listen to the sound of my own voice (metaphorically, literally), and it was nice to dictate my own schedule. It was nice to take my time at restaurants once I got over the nerves of eating alone.
What wasn’t nice was getting lost in random neighbourhoods without any internet to help me get back, and it wasn’t too nice nearly getting hit by herds of cyclists coming at me. It wasn’t nice being woken up at 6am by some random people in my room. And it was weird being the birthday child but not having anyone to tell or to share it with. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
You kind of realise that you can actually do all the things that you’re scared of doing – your body has a way of coping, of figuring it out. So yes, I’m sure I’ll definitely find myself visiting a bunch of places alone.
And what about Amsterdam itself, Kabi? Would you go back there? I mean, sure! There’s always, always something to go back to, wherever you go. This, however, is the part that I’ve not been sure about: should my preference/bias be included in my blog posts when they lean more towards the negative side? I guess I would prefer to be somewhat honest about how I feel, although I hope this does not serve as any form of discouragement. Thus, if you hadn’t picked it up, I will admit that Amsterdam did not particularly catch my eye. The people were nice enough, though, except for the one incident where I got a group of teenage girls screaming “Wakanda Forever!” very loudly and very publicly in my face.
Like I’d said, the thing is that you can go to a place twice, three times, four times, ten times, and the experience won’t ever be the same. In revisiting places like New York, Barcelona, Paris, London, I’ve had my opinions challenged, fixed, altered. Or something like that. So it’s always to say yes to seeing places in new, perhaps in better, ways. Should the stars align such that I return here, so be it! I’m definitely down to have that bagel again.
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