Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Train Wreck

Reality can be surreal, but favorite people makes even the hardest of waves a smooth sailing. 

That is why to see them heartbroken can easily break mine as well. 

God, I will hold the anguished pieces together, and will be stronger than ever - stronger than them. 

Uphill task it is, I know, for they are strongest lot I know.

God, I love them so much, more than I love myself.

Bless us, please. Bless them, please.

posted by Izham Ismail at 12:35 pm | Permalink | 7 comments
Monday, June 08, 2009
Lonely Planet: Amsterdam & Brussels

Life after exams was so eventful, and still is when I am writing. Filling a huge space I left between days of books and assignments, and days full of doing nothing, I thought a good way of doing it is set my injured knee to some place I haven't been to. 

Thanks to Ah Thong and Ammar, I raised enough money and didn't eat enough proper meals to fly the three of us to Amsterdam and Brussels last week. Having finished his exams a million year ago and unexpectedly flew his way to Britain (I thought it was one of his infamous practical joke), both of them said why not to the thing that 10 years ago was one of my not keen to do, traveling.

Ah Thong and Ammar? Random people I met some years ago in Kuala Kangsar who turned out to be good friends.

Life on the road is so much easier if you know what you need and at least a little about where are you going, what are doing, how you will get there, where you can stay and most importantly, how you will get the moolah to get you a plane, a bus, a ship or whatever. So I guess the hardest part of it was planning.

Ah Thong lives 3 hours away from my place by train and 6 by bus. He came to my place on a weekend to plan and few minutes telling Ammar it was done. It was the time when he was given an exclusive tour to the real British adventure, after being a Londoner for two years. I don't think he fancied it - after a cup of frappucino and few more intimidating demeanor, he started to miss London back again. Typical city boy.

Anyway, we did the planning over The Usual Suspects and Starsky and Hutch, and the plan looked pretty on paper as we sent the itinerary to Ammar few thousands miles away in Minnesota. 

Minnesota Timberwolves, the only Minnesotan thing I know, apart from knowing a friend lives and studies there. Many thanks to NBA Live. 

It was a usual morning full of anxiety when Ammar texted me few hours before I sat for my final paper. He thought he was stranded, only to know Ah Thong was on the tube to Heathrow to fetch him up. 

The first thing I did after exams was to pack my stuff and head for London for a pound. Yes, one fucking pound, thanks to National Express ridiculous summer deal. But life is not a fairy tale, as one pound equals to six hours of back pain and maddening inability to recline your seat. 

We watched the Champions League final at a kebab shop in London. Ah Thong, an ex-atheist, converted himself to a Gunner, Ammar is a so-called hardcore Blue and I am not a Devil. So basically, we were Barca fans.

I thought Londoners are either Arsenal or Chelsea fans, but when Samuel Eto'o ran past Vidic to nudge an opener for Barca, we were the only three in the shop to celebrate. Let me remind you, football is more than life and death here, so we better behave ourself if Barca scored again (which they did in the second half).

Barca were clearly the better team and United looked like a kid joshed before going home crying. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were the tallest men on the pitch that night. 

We needed to get a good rest, so we let the Devils cry as we were heading east tomorrow. As for Ah Thong, he needed to do some packing.

Have I told you I enjoy packing? Some people find packing a hassle, a huge drag, and almost the reason to spoil the fun of going places. That is when you felt like you have lots of stuff to bring with you, and started to feel guilty for making some stuff unimportant. 

Without trying to be wise, here is packing tips from the packing master. Remember to choose, stuff in, and carry. 

Choose; like picking a life partner, pick things that you can't live without, not things that you can live with. 

Stuff in; like in a relationship, pack them in gently as not to break it, and leave some space just in case you are getting something from the place you are going.   

Carry; if you think it is too heaving, do some ditching, and start choosing all over again. Be light, take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.

The sky was a clear cobalt blue and the temperature was warmly welcoming when we finally flew for Amsterdam from London Stansted, an airport located an hour away from central London. London is as big as its people's self-respect.

We stayed at a 3-star hotel located 15 minutes from central Amsterdam. We succumbed to promiscuous Dutch lifestyle very quickly as soon as we arrived, and in the words of the packing master above, we strictly chose women to ask for directions.

Random fact, Holland and Netherlands are not the same. Go figure, if it's a news to you. It was to me.

As part of its notable lifestyle, we chose to go around and cover Amsterdam ground by bike. Ah Thong cycles everyday through busy London, and it was his time to shine. Amsterdam is very, very bike friendly and you can literally go anywhere with a bike. Multistory parking spaces akin to those built for cars are so easy to find. 

But a drink for energy is needed before doing a Lance Armstrong, even for proffesionals.

A typical way of sightseeing, we went to [sic] Amsterdams Historich Musuem over so many museums there are in Amsterdam. I don't know why, maybe because that is the only museum we happened to stumble upon. We were so much zeroing in on how to get to the big Amsterdam sign. When map fails you, the best thing is to ask around, another opportunity to become a Hugh Grant looking for a Julia Roberts. English is widely spoken, so to communicate with the locals is not so much a headache. 

So we knew where the big sign was, and the quickest way to get there is by water. So we had to either swim or rent a boat to Museumplein, Museum Square in English. We are sensible and pragmatic people, so we chose to canal-bike instead. 

Nicknamed himself as John Rackham few years ago, Ammar is useless on the steering wheel. So Izham Sparrow had to come for a rescue.

We took a while cruising through Amsterdam canals before returning the small boat back in return for our deposit.

Van Gogh and Diamond Museum are few other museums located at Museumplein, but we chose to hang around the big 'I amsterdam' sign and took a nap on the green after a long day of cycling, walking and canal-biking. 

We needed energy and H-two-O, and after stuffing up, we wandered through for free live music and street performances. 

As the night approaches, we finished up our dinner and headed to the area between Raadhuistraat and Centraal Station, where the most of the journey is all about.

Red Light District, the place where suddenly hot European babes will actually turn their heads and talk to typical Malay guys. Well, few travel guidebooks suggested that Amsterdam is not just about RLDs so as to broaden our horizon to explore for more other unique places in Amsterdam. Thanks but no thanks. This is unique enough for us.

As for the others, let the story stays there. Disclaimer: Sorry for disappointing you with only a paragraph of what you might actually looking for.

The next day, we sampled a cup of Amsterdam public transportation and travelled more parts of Amsterdam by bus and tram. I thought it was cheap and reliable, a mark for that. Another good way of diving into seas of people to mix around.

We went to Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA, the home of AFC Ajax, home of the legendary Johan Cruyff. Just a point to brag, only five teams in Europe have the honour of keeping the real Champions League trophy after winning it; AFC Ajax, Real Madrid, FC Bayern, AC Milan and yes, Liverpool. The one you see in stadium tours are just replicas, only that five have kept the real ones for a while. If your team is not one of them, pray more.

We called Amsterdam a day with free complimentary green apple from Amsterdam Public Library and dozed off for tomorrow's journey to the capital of European Union.

If you want to take a break from reading, go have a little stretch and make yourself a cup of tea now. I am carrying on in a while. So, few pictures before I'm getting there.

You don't have to fly to Brussels from Amsterdam, and a more cheaper option is to travel by bus, which took us about 3 hours. We got off at Gare du Nord-Noordstation, and with a few minutes talking to the guy on the information counter, we figured out that it actually stands for North Station.

Communicating was a bit tricky in Brussels as the people hardly speaks English (so much for it being the capital of EU, it tells so much that not being able to speak English is not a bad thing). Brussels is a bi-lingual city, its people either speaks Dutch or French, which explained why signs are written in two languages.

I picked up few Dutch when I was in Amsterdam, dank u wel (spelled danke je wel) for thank you and nekhe (spelled negen) for number nine. Number nine? A number for escort services I saw on Dutch TV.

Our hotel is just 10 minutes away from the station and city centre is another 10. Basically, we don't have to use much public transportation and just have to make sure we are fit enough to walk.

Brussels is a bit more mellow than the lively Amsterdam, hence a good place for traveling couples looking for some alone schmaltzy time. It is popular for homemade chocolates and perfumes and we had great time going in and out chocolate shops for free sampling. Making the seriously-I-am-interested-to-buy face will earn you more piece.

I think a day is enough if you want to skim through Brussels unique architectural eminence, but we were told by the soft spoken perfumer Ah Thong bought his perfume from, if you want to experience something Belgian and different, get on a train to Bokrijk, 4 hours away from Brussels. After some googling, I have promised to myself to go next time.

Anyway, the perfume shop (or a booth) was a small shop at Vlooienmarkt where we also bought strawberries for snacks. Then we headed for the world's first shopping mall (yes, the world's first, opened in 1800s), Sint Hubertusgalerijen and I think we were not the first human being to not to buy anything upon going there.

I thought Manneken Pis is a big statue. Maybe because I don't know French to figure out that it actually means little man urinating. There are so many legends behind the story of the little man, ranging from it being the son of former Belgian master and the kid who was responsible to win a war for Belgium by urinating. 

One thing about Europeans is that they love to carve and make statues that make their buildings and monuments so pleasant to see. I just love to see the efforts and time needed to make very little detail that make even a gift shop so artistic.

We were lucky that Brussels Jazz Festival was held when we were there, so another free live music for the ears. It was held in the middle of Grand Place-Grote Markt, surrounded by city tower and so many old buildings (many more carvings to see).

Brussels is home for nice buildings and more museums and galleries, hence more pictures.

We had BBC and CNN in both our room in Amsterdam and Brussels, and we were updated on GM bankruptcy and Air France flight crash. The latter was so daunting to think about as we had to fly back to London. But thanks to fit flight attendants, I didn't spend a minute thinking of plane crash.

We touched down at London and rushed for dinner with Hamid, another guy from Kuala Kangsar. He bought us a massive dinner at Tinseltown, an American-like halal diner at Farringdon and then we met Ali, our senior, again from Kuala Kangsar. Having just spending two years in Kuala Kangsar, I can only judge him from legends and tragedies about him, which I think far from true when I met him. 

Ammar had to fly back to Malaysia the next day and we slept only at 5am. We stayed at Hamid's and I had the longest sleep in my life to miss sending Ammar off to Malaysia. When I woke up, Hamid has gone for some meeting and that left only me and Ah Thong, who was still sleeping. I woke him up, had dinner and I watched Terminator for the first time at Fulham Broadway. I thought it was just allright, since I am not much a science-fiction movie fan.

I headed off home a day later, which was three days ago on the same bus that made my back hurts, and as you can tell, it takes me three days to recover, unpack, and sort myself out from the crazy adventure I had. Well, okay lah, not so crazy adventure I had.

I'll meet the two again in few weeks. See you guys in Kuala Kangsar!

It was a great week. No, with friends it was a helluva week.

Now back to fund-raising and the paperwork. 

posted by Izham Ismail at 2:19 am | Permalink | 15 comments