A story and adventure about travelling in a wheelchair in The Netherlands by Walt Balenovich.
When I first decided to backpack through Europe on the by purchasing a rail pass, I remember the thoughts and emotions that were running through my head as my brother, John and our friend, Phil picked me up from my tiny apartment to take me to the airport. "Is that all the stuff you have?" my brother asked incredulously staring at my small backpack and blue gym bag. I was scared stiff and in panic mode. "Do you think I’m doing the right thing?" I asked him. “You’ll be fine, if you get stuck just give us a call on the phone”, he reassured, as he waved me into the departure lounge.
I had never ridden the rails, never traveled in non-English speaking countries, and never worried so much about the things that could go wrong. I had planned a one-month excursion via EuroRail that would take me to 10 countries, from France in the west to Hungary in the east. All of a sudden my confidence seemed to abandon me.
One of the reasons I was landing in Holland was that I felt that in Amsterdam at least, I would be able to make use of my English and get a bit of Europe under my belt for a few days, while getting acclimatized to the new continent and its ways of doing things. The other reason was that I was flying on KLM. In the days before the invention of the internet, it was harder to try to arrange hostel accommodation, and I had spent the week leading up to my departure by exchanging faxes with various establishments, all informing me that their buildings would be unsuitable to me and my blue chair. That was another reason for panic. As I finally boarded the plane, KLM upgraded my economy ticket to first class and placed me into the nose section of the huge wide body aircraft with a number of elderly people. I never did find out if that is the policy of KLM to make it more comfortable for disadvantaged travelers, or they simply had the extra space (they put me back in economy on the way home a month later), but I appreciated it and my worries seemed to melt away with the hors d’ourvres and the champagne.
Arriving at the Schiphol Airport on a bright and clear Dutch morning, it was exhilarating to finally be in Europe after all the worry. I cleared customs, exchanged some traveler’s cheques, and needed to find my way into Amsterdam. At the info desk, I found out that the trains pull into the airport and one of the first stops is “Centraal Station” in the city center just 18 km away. The elevator on the concourse took me down one flight to the train tracks below, and after asking which train would take me where I wanted to go, I hopped on. It couldn’t be any easier. These Dutch seemed to have it all figured out. The conductor, looked at my EurRail pass, stamped it with the date and I could travel almost all over Europe for the next 30 days. I was all set to begin my European vacation.
In the central station of Amsterdam, there was a traveler’s information desk that would help you book accommodation for the evening. I told the good-looking young lady my problem and she spent the next 15 minutes phoning around town for me. After a short while, she smiled from the phone and gave me the thumbs up. I had a place to stay. She gave me a map of the city, pointed out where I was on it and where the hostel was. It didn’t seem to be too far away so I set off to find it, even though it was still morning and I knew it was too early to check in.
Amsterdam is a very flat city, and Holland is a very flat country. I guess that is what happens when your nation in mostly below sea level. There were cars all over, but they were very small and relatively quiet for a big city. What struck me was all the bicycles that were on the streets. Amsterdam had an extensive network of bike paths and citizens are very environmentally conscious, in addition to being very fit. The best thing for me was that I decided I was going to use the paths for my own benefit. Hey, a wheelchair is sort of like a bicycle, just a few extra wheels more or less. What also caught my eye was the type of bicycles being used. The bikes weren’t 10 speed or modern new ones, instead they looked old and worn out and they all had little bells on them like schoolgirls would use back in Canada. I learned during my time there, that the Dutch take their bike riding very seriously and will use those noisy little bells often, whether you are in a blue chair or not.
As I wheeled toward my hostel, I passed small, well-kept shops adorned with flowers. The Dutch love flowers and use it to brighten their days and their city. I traveled over small, lilting bridges, which rose over the canals that have made the city famous. On the sides of the canals, benches allowed passersby to stop and take a break, or watch as the tour boats and local canal traffic passed by.
I finally found the street that my hostel was on, which was just off the main “Kerk Straat” or church street. It was a simple, white building and there were the usual collection of backpackers outside having their morning smoke, after breakfast. There were a few small steps up to the entrance, but they had also fashioned a ramp, so I was all set. Surprisingly I informed the staff that I would be checking in later on, but they told me the had a bed ready and that I could check in I wanted. It was a great relief to leave my shoes and gym bag behind and know where I would be. They also told me that breakfast was included and they gave me a ticket to exchange in the cafeteria for a meal. I dropped my stuff off on my bed in a four-bed dorm and headed to get something to eat.
The dining room was huge, and had a large number of dining room tables but only a few eaters were left. I handed my ticket to a man who looked like he was Arabic or Middle-Eastern and he told me to go over to a table and he would bring me my breakfast. I don’t know what it was, whether it was the chair, my haggard look after the long plane ride or the fact that I had a Canadian flag on the pack hanging off the back of my chair (many Dutch and Belgians are fond of Canadians since our soldiers liberated them in the second world war) but the man came back to me with food piled up six inches high on the plate. He had at least 8 slices of bread, there was sliced meat, cheese, hot potatoes, stewed vegetables and two hard-boiled eggs. “Make some nice sandwiches and put them in this bag for your lunch” he instructed me sternly. I thanked him, ate as much as I could and ferreted away the rest for later. After the meal I was feeling great.
It was time to do some exploring I decided and, full of the confidence that had abandoned me the day before, I exited the hostel. Sadly, I had forgotten about the ramp and that I had to turn left to use it. I fell head first over the steps, out of my chair and onto my sidewalk and my camcorder, which I had on my lap, got a dent in the audio recorder. Two Japanese chaps who were smoking outside, asked me if I was OK, dusted me off and lifted me back in my chair. My dignity was slightly tarnished but I was none the worse for wear and after checking that I was still in one piece, I headed out.
I would like to say that never happened again, but I would be lying. The next day a friend of mine from Canada was also landing in Amsterdam, on the beginning of his tour around Europe by rail. Prior to departing we had arranged to meet on the day of his arrival at the Dam Square, which is the heart of the city. He said that, like me, after arriving he would want to look around for a place to stay, and that we should meet around 2pm. Anyone who knows my friend Lenny, a tall robust blonde fellow with a pleasant personality and a friendly smile, also knows that he is generally less than punctual. So it was that I waited an extra 40 minutes, but eventually he showed his smiling face and we decided to for a bit of a tour around town. He said that he had found a hostel and had already visited the Ann Frank Museum (this was up a number of stairs and as such, wouldn’t be on my itinerary). We took the opportunity to renew our acquaintance with a pint of Heineken and a meal at an outdoor café.
I convinced my friend that we could take the opportunity to board one of the tour boats that traversed the canals, since I was in dire need of assistance to get down onto the boat. He agreed and we made our way down to the launch, and he struggled to lift me onto the craft. The trip was about an hour long and we traveled through the heart of the city, past the flower markets, the trendy shops, and the rows of small multi-level row houses. Each home had a long protrusion from just below the apex of the roof. The tour guide indicated that they were furniture hooks. The interiors were so cramped, due to lack of space in the small country, that when someone moved in or out, there was no room up the stairs move the furniture. So, when moving, you attached your furniture to a block and tackle on the furniture hook and moved the stuff in and out through the windows! By now, the jet lag was catching up to Lenny and he was falling asleep. I have some great video of him smiling and trying to stay awake, but he was fighting a losing battle. At the conclusion of the tour, it was all I could do to keep him awake long enough to get back on land and into my chair.
We decided he needed to sleep, but he insisted that after a few hours he would meet me and we would head out and spend the evening in Amsterdam’s red light district. Lenny arrived at my hostel around 7:30pm and we decided to eat dinner in the cafeteria there. After a steaming bowl of pasta it was time for a night on the town. This time I remembered to turn left down the ramp exiting the hostel.
As the night fell on Holland, the city seemed to come alive. The two of us strolled through the streets as the trams rolled along the streets and the bicycles rang their incessant bells. Couples walked arm in arm, window shopping and looking out over the canals. We decided to stop into the Marijuana and Hemp museum, which for 6 guilders, turned out to be a bit of a rip off, but at least we could say we went there. Ultimately, we made it to the red light district. I was very clean and not at all what I expected of the area. The sex shows were plentiful and the touts were outside asking you to come inside. As for the prostitutes, they were inside windows and if you were in the market, you could just look at them all and then decide which one appealed to your tastes. Interestingly, not many were Dutch girls, they seemed to be Indonesian or from other former Dutch colony. One of them pointed at me specifically, and then made a lewd gesture of what she would do for me if I had the money. I was a bit sheepish, but Lenny got a huge chuckle out of it. We capped off our time together at an outdoor pub, just hanging around the bar with our pints and taking it all in. That night, I had to kick a fellow out of my bed, when I got home. I think he had sneaked in with one of my roommates to save the fee, and he ended up sleeping on the floor.
The next day Lenny was off on the rest of his adventure and I was going to the countryside. I didn’t want to spend all my time in cities, so when the morning came I boarded a train to visit Alkmaar, a country village known for its cheese-making. I also hoped to see some of Holland’s famous windmills. Like getting to most places in the Netherlands it wasn’t a long trip, so about 40 minutes later, I had arrived. It was quaint, neat, small and more importantly, there was no cheese! This brings up an important point I needed to learn about being a tourist. READ THE INFORMATION BOOKLETS. It turned out that the cheese market only occurs on Saturdays, and this wasn’t that day. I was disappointed but undaunted. I would make the best of it anyway. I started to look around for a windmill. It turned out there was one, but it wasn’t moving much. It swayed a bit with the breeze, but turn? It did not. I’m not sure why, it may have been broken or simply obsolete. I wasn’t having a good day, and it was about to get worse. I decided to try to find some lunch and as I crossed the street – THUD!! Once again I had found a way to fall out of my chair. As I looked up at the sky, lying on my back in the middle of the road, I hoped that no one would run me over. But what I really was wondering was what had happened? I was in the street already, there was no curb, no potholes, what was it? As I slowly sat up, I looked at my chair, noticing that one of the two bolts keeping the left front wheel bolted to the frame had been lost, leaving the bracket holding the tire to rotate on the frame and turn the device into a three-wheeler. I had skinned my elbow, but was otherwise unhurt, and wondered how to get out of the street. Just as I started the problem solving, people started running out of the shops from both sides of the street to help me. The butcher was there, a fellow from the bakery shop and some people from a hair salon. I asked if there was a hardware store near, so that I could get a nut and bolt to stabilize the wheel and get me back on course. They helped me onto a bench and one of the young men rode his bike to fetch the needed parts. I thanked everyone for the help, borrowed a wrench to make the repairs and soon I was again on my way. It had been a bad day, but because of the kindness of strangers, I couldn’t say that the day was a total loss. It left me with a very warm feeling at the start of my European vacation.
This is a guest article by Walt Balenovich. He is North America's Disabled Adventurer, he traveled around the world in his wheelchair and wrote a book about it, called 'Travels in a blue chair'.
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