Friday, 4 November 2011

Fabulous things about the Dutch #5

They have a public transport system.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say they have a good public transport system, but coming from a country where public transport is a national outrage, any public transport system is better than none at all. (That said, South Africa is trying: the Rapid Bus Transport system in Cape Town is apparently making a big difference to traffic flow between the west-coast suburbs and the CBD, and we now have the Gautrain, which whisks people between the airport, Sandton and Pretoria. But it’s nowhere near enough.)

Required early one morning to negotiate, to a tight deadline and carrying baggage, a tram to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, and then a train out to the suburb of Naarden (only about 20km away, which is practically walking distance for South Africans, but requires packing padkos for the Dutch), we abandoned the idea of trying to find the right tram. We were told we could get the number 18 tram, or the 7 or maybe the 9, but I (as chief transport organiser and map reader) deemed the chances of getting hopelessly lost too high. So we took a taxi and were charged directly through the nose at R180 for a 10-minute ride.

We’d also been told that the automatic ticket machines at the stations are so easy they could be operated by a 2-year-old (presuming the child carries a chair around to stand on so he/she can reach them). Well, either Dutch 2-year-olds are a lot brighter than me, or I’m a lot stupider than I thought – or, wait, here’s an idea, maybe the Dutch automatic ticket machines, which take only cards (ie, no cash), don’t accept money cards inserted by non-Dutch people? No, not even Euro MasterCards of the type I had specially acquired before leaving South Africa and whose emblem is proudly displayed on the screens of the automatic ticket machines. The ticket machine I tried to use took such exception to me that it blocked my card, managing, in a few quick seconds, to create a serious cash-flow problem for me that I spent irritating time and energy trying to sort out for the rest of the trip.

Anyway, long story short, we finally found a human being dispensing tickets at a ticket office and paid cash for them. (We should simply have been directed to the ticket office in the first place, which highlights the notion that Dutch people who don’t actually use the public transport system should probably not give advice about the public transport system to visitors.) We’d wasted quite a bit of time by then, which necessitated a mad dash down the platform and then some very lucky guesswork about which way to go (right or left) to get the correct train, which we flew onto as the doors closed. Phew!

On another day, we decided to catch the train from Naarden to Den Hague. On this occasion, we weren’t on anyone’s time but our own, which made the whole experience a lot less fraught – but not without its problems. When we arrived at the Naarden-Bussum station, it was to find the ticket office closed (and the automatic ticket machine wasn’t an option because, oh yes, the one in Amsterdam had blocked my damned card). So we just got on the next available train, assuming we could buy our tickets en route. Well, we couldn’t, and the fine for not having a valid ticket was 35 Euros each (that’s about R700!). Fortunately, the conductor was a lovely Dutchman who realised we weren’t trying to scam a free ride but were simply clueless tourists, and instructed us to get off at the next station, where the ticket office was open, and buy tickets.

Which we did, and then waited for the next available train. I was super-excited to see that it was a double-decker one, and we got on and rushed up the stairs. Safely seated, we chatted for a while before I began realising that there was a strange stillness in the carriage. While my sister continued nattering away, I looked around: all our fellow passengers were sitting in preternatural silence, and I began worrying that we’d somehow slipped through a wormhole and were on our way to Zombieland. ‘Don’t you think it’s weirdly quiet?’ I whispered to my sister, whose mouth snapped closed like a Dutchman’s wallet. ‘Gosh, yes,’ she whispered back after a moment, and we craned our heads and stared around, fearful of what we might see. What we did see was ‘STILTE’ (‘SILENCE’) printed on all the windows of the carriage – we’d somehow ended up on the ‘silent’ carriage, where music and children and tourists talking loudly aren’t welcome. Once we’d got over our embarrassment, we both appreciated this very civilised innovation and sat in contented quiet for the next hour, being lulled into semi-consciousness by the infinite sameness of the passing landscape.

We caught trams in Den Hague (and were laughed at good-naturedly by a driver who informed us we were going in entirely the wrong direction) and Rotterdam (where you don’t buy your ticket from the driver, as is the way in Den Hague, and who gets annoyed when you try to; rather, you buy it from the conductor). And we took the ferry to Ameland (a fabulous hour-long trip across water that is actually shallow enough to walk, if you don’t mind tramping through freezing seas for about 20 km; in the pic above, me, Bev, Catherine and Tuti the dog wait for the ferry; and, below, the companion ferry to the one we're travelling on passes us at the midpoint), and a water-taxi back from Ameland (noisy – but then, I’m not a fan of high-powered water machines).

We also did private transport, which I found stressful as the only person in our party with a valid driver’s licence. There’s something about driving a strange car on unfamiliar routes in the dark in the pouring rain on the wrong side of the road in morning peak-hour traffic after too little sleep that can make your heart go pitter-patter. And my sister’s vocal chords went squeak-squeak from the back seat when I suddenly found myself on a highway onramp with a very large articulated lorry bearing down on us and realised at the very last second that it had no intention of giving way (in fact, it probably didn’t even see us in our miniature car). My Road Angels must have been with me, because I can honestly say that it’s a miracle we’re alive. (The speed limit on all Dutch highways is 100kph. I was the only person, probably in the whole of Holland, who kept to it.)

One other notable thing about the people who use public transport, and in fact just Dutch people out and about in general: there isn’t the obsession with cellphones we see in South Africa. With a few exceptions, nobody used a phone at a restaurant table or whittered into their phone, ‘I’m on the train to Amsterdam!’ or conducted a loud phone conversation on a street corner or blocked your way into a café because they were telling their friend, by phone, about their date last night. It was very refreshing.


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1 comment:

Anatswanashe said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u.

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