The thing nobody really talks about when it comes to travel is death by vehicular misadventure.
In planes, those gravity-defying tubes gliding across the sky, thoughts of death are the price of admission. But on the ground, the spectre of the Grim Reaper tends to recede into the deceptive distance until you’re standing on a corner in Amsterdam, being cussed out by a cyclist who’s missed your flustered ass by a hair.
As a Windhoeker, the inclination is to be equally annoyed but the parade of cyclists who continue to whizz by force me to remember where I am. Amsterdam (Bikesterdam?) is not Namibia where bike lanes belong to myth and someday municipal plans and cyclists are viewed as amusing eccentrics if not intense environmentalists powered by Greta Thunberg.
Instead, the capital of The Netherlands is home to more bicycles than people. Over 500kms of bike lanes leave you in no doubt as to who’s boss and everyone and their mother seems to use a bicycle as an utterly serious and primary mode of transportation.
When I’m not looking left instead of right or scrambling out of the bike lane to the sound of “Ja, hallo!” and bells, the effect is charming as hell.
Men in suits pedal down gorgeous streets where Amsterdam’s canals and iconic dancing houses are as quaint as can be. Women of all ages seemingly plucked from offbeat indie films ride their bikes over bridges with bread, books and sundry in their baskets and parents transport their toddlers in covered carriages as my sister and I explore the lures of the Jordaan.
On a grey October day, we take photographs beside a beautiful bicycle with a pink basket parked perfectly by a canal, but neither of us take the plunge and actually ride or rent one. While the endless stop and ride, halt and go of the passing two-wheelers seems to make some teachable sense, my sister and I choose life and to take the tram.
Our decision stands firmer when our friend, who has biked through Amsterdam for years, tells us about the time she was hit by a car and came to metres away and limping. The cherry on that particular stroopwafel is that bicycles aren’t generally allowed on trams so she had to get back on her bike – bloodied, ego aggrieved and wincing – and pedal miserably home.
I repeat, my sister and I use the tram.
When we’re in them, Amsterdam comes to life like the best brochure minus the brightly coloured tulips, which are out of season.
When we’re not in them, the city’s trams are almost as charming as its bicycles as they trundle along lines that go right through highly populated centres and squares, depositing tourists and locals headed to the Rijksmuseum, the Red Light District (De Wallen), Leidesplein or the floating Bloemenmarkt at a nearby stop.
For me, the existence and prevalence of both modes of transportation require constant vigilance, an increased reliance on my peripheral vision and an active will to live. The latter kicks in when I’m in the centre of the city, a stealthy little tram seems to come out of nowhere and I find myself yelping in alarm before bolting towards the sidewalk.
Between the bikes and the trams, Amsterdam (Tramsterdam?) is not a place where I can channel that sense of cool that cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin have and ultimately inspire. All the vehicle-dodging and the resultant screams of terror, arm flailing and reaching for my sister just won’t allow it so instead I simply appreciate how cool everything else is.
The street style which I think is a tad underrated, the abundance of art in the city’s scores of museums, the bars named for Brecht and Bukowski, pancake places as elegant as your favourite fancy restaurant and, yes, the cyclists.
The sweethearts who slow down to let me pass with a smile and the speed racers who gift me a lesson in mortality.
– firstname.lastname@example.org; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram; marthamukaiwa.com
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