This hostel doesn’t feel like a hostel. It feels like a bus station. Maybe even an airport.
I sit in the corner of this enormous foyer, the size of a school assembly hall, watching people check in. It’s like a factory line, boom, boom, boom, one after the other. They hand over a passport, she fiddles with the computer, she hands them some sheets, and a key. Then they grab their bags and walk over to the elevator.
This is why I struggle to love big cities. They remind me of factory lines. I dislike seeing travel become a factory line.
I flick through my phone again. Still no vacant rooms. I don’t even know why I’m still checking. This big festival in Amsterdam has the city in shock. I saw a dorm bed yesterday for 90 euros a night, and that actually seems like a good – maybe even great – deal right now.
“Even David Guetta is coming,” a German guy had said to me in the morning.
Well if David Guetta is worth 90 euros for a dorm bed, I guess David Guetta must be a pretty awesome guy.
3 p.m now. It’s obvious I’ll need to leave Amsterdam today, but to where? If there’s one thing that’s plagued my travels, it’s my indecision. I can never decide where to go. Staring at the computer screen for six hour stretches.
“Barcelona or Madrid…Barcelona…or Madrid. Barcelona is cheaper. Oh but they don’t really speak Spanish there. Maybe Madrid. Oh but it’s more expensive. Ok Barcelona. Ah but they don’t speak Spanish there. Ok Madrid. Oh but…”
First you want total freedom, then you have it, and it almost feels like a bad thing.
8 p.m now. I’ve been sitting here staring at the same screen on my phone, flicking through the same bus tickets, staring at the same check-in line, for the whole day. Haven’t eaten. Maybe food will help.
I walk down to the station nearby. I can smell the Chinese food. I stare at the menu for five minutes. Maybe ten minutes. 13 euros for rice noodles? Really?
I go inside and pay 13 euros for rice noodles. Then I sit there and stare at my phone again. Okay, this is getting silly. Let’s see. Where do you want to go, Brendan?
And then it hits me. I don’t really want to go anywhere. And I don’t want to stay here either. I just want a nice big bed by the beach with a blender and lots of fresh fruits and a boxing gym. Is that too much to ask?
After sitting there for too long, I say thanks to the noodle guy and go on my way. I start walking. Where to? No idea. I just walk. The nights are not warm here. I dig my hands into my pockets and shrink into my jacket. I think about my last two days in Amsterdam. First, wandering around the red light district late at night staring at hookers like every other tourist in town. Second, sitting in a coffee shop getting high like every other tourist in town. Then sitting alone and freezing at a bus stop at 4 a.m. Tonight, homeless. Smelling like noodles, walking in circles.
There was a time when this would have felt invigorating, romantic even. But after this many years, it felt stale, maybe even sad. There was nothing new about this, nothing mysterious about this anymore.
There is something beautiful about young travel, and something equally beautiful about old travel. But it’s not really the same for in between travel. The 19 year old wanderer and the 75 year old wanderer are on the adventures of their lives. Wow, amazing. The 30 or 40 year old wanderer…well…he’s kind of just a wanderer, isn’t he? Maybe wandered too long, got lost, couldn’t find his way back.
It’s approaching midnight. I find myself sitting on the lone bench in the metro station, watching people walk by. A group of drunk teenagers run up the escalator. A kid in a pram drops his Pringles. Two beautiful girls hug and laugh like they haven’t seen each other since last Friday. Everyone walks with purpose, somewhere to be, somewhere to go.
Except me of course. I’ve been everywhere and yet I’ve got nowhere to go. Maybe I’ll just sit here. This isn’t so bad. In six hours it will be morning. I can handle sitting here for six hours. It’s warm enough, there’s a kiosk right there, I’ll buy a smoothie and a donut. In six hours I would’ve saved 90 euros. That’s like getting paid 15 euros an hour just to sit here on this bench. Better than minimum wage. Just think of it as working the night shift. Glass half full, all that shit. Any way you slice it, it’s still twice as a fun as an accounting job. And nearly pays the same.
My phone burps. It’s a message on Instagram. It’s Eka.
“Bren, you’re in Amsterdam! Come to Breda!”
Breda? Where the feck is Breda?
A little adrenaline runs through my fingers. I scroll through the map on my phone.
Breda…where is Breda…
There. It’s two hours away.
I text her back and ask if I can come right now. She says of course.
I manage a grin. Power walking back to my hostel, the wind ices my face. I grab my bags out of the storage room. Power walk back to the station. Where’s the ticket machine? There. Is this the right ticket? Don’t think so. Try again. This must be the right ticket. Twenty euros. Buy it. Blip blip through the gate. Wrong platform. Ask a pretty girl. She shows me the right platform. On the train. One hour gone. Swap trains. Which one? This one says Breda. Get on. Get off. Two hours gone. No wifi at Breda station. Middle of the night. Ask a guy. He shows me the map on his phone. Walk through the park. Took a wrong turn. Turn around. Found her house. Ring the bell. Climb the stairs. Door’s open.
I laugh and give her a hug.
Eka is an old friend from the road, from Bulgaria. We met a few years ago. Now we meet again. Her roommates are still awake, smoking something. I meet them both. They’re both cool. Eka brings me sheets and a pillow. This is where the night brought me. To this orange couch in Breda.
It’s morning. I like waking up on a couch. It feels…adventurous. Eka’s friend Maria is also crashing in the lounge, since apparently there’s nowhere to sleep in Breda, either. So we wake, and spend the morning chatting about what things I could do around town.
I feel refreshed stepping out on the street. Walking around Breda is soothing. The sun’s out, the air is cool. The first place on my list is a small teahouse in the main park. I go and order pancakes. Apple and bacon pancakes. Something new.
The owner comes by after and takes my plate.
“Did they taste well?” she smiles.
I nod and thank her.
After gazing out the window for an hour, I go to pay. My card declines.
“Do you have another card?” the waitress asks.
I shake my head.
I shake my head again.
She smiles nervously.
“I can go get some cash and come back…”
She nods and calls the owner out of the kitchen, who pulls off her apron, and smiles at me.
“We sometimes have problems with foreign debit cards,” she starts explaining.
“Are you staying in Breda today?”
“So not to worry! Just go and enjoy your day. Whenever you have time, today, tomorrow, just whenever you are free, you can come back and pay.”
I don’t know if she saw it on my face, but I walked out of there floating. Every now and then on the road, you experience kindness, trust, or generosity, often it’s the tiniest act or gesture, but it leaves a mark on you. It’s times like these when you think, this is why I’m here, this is why I came all this way, this is what I was hoping to find. Amsterdam was fascinating, but it wasn’t the place I needed. Breda might be.
Next on my list of Breda sights, there’s a secret garden. I walk across town to go find it. As I enter through the arch, I notice a young guy, maybe 25, sitting there on a bench, among the plants, talking to himself. British accent. He sees me looking at him and his voice fades.
“What’s going on man,” he says to me.
“Nothing really, how you doing?”
“Not good man.”
“You want to talk about it?”
He looks up at me.
“I do actually.”
I sit down next to him and he starts telling me lots of…interesting things. There’s some kind of device in his brain, people are talking to him, saying terrible things.
“They’re talking about my son, they’re talking about bad things they want to do to me!”
“I don’t know man. It’s because I know all their secrets. That’s why they broke into my house, stole my laptop, stole my iPad. Now I’m homeless. I’m an author, I was going to write books about them mate, you understanding that? They’re afraid of me.”
He has a nice bike beside him, a pack of cigarettes in his hand, a can of orange soda. Very well spoken. Something seems odd about it all, like he shouldn’t be here.
“It’s this quantum computing they have these days, I’m telling you, it’s so simple. They could be using it for good! But they’re using it to do stuff like this to me. Their time is coming, I’m telling you that.”
After a long conversation, I get up to leave.
“Where are you from anyway, Australia or something?”
“Ahh New Zealand, what’s that like?”
“You know, it’s a place.”
“Yeah I’m sure.”
“Nice to meet you anyway man. I’m Brendan.”
I offer my hand. He shakes it. Doesn’t ask for money, nothing. Just smiles and gives me a nod, as if to say, thanks.
“Wish you all the best brother.”
That night Eka cooks salmon and potatoes for dinner. The cool thing about sleeping on couches is, people always seem to feed you well.
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“So I met this homeless guy today. He said there’s this device in his brain and people are tormenting him.”
Maria sighs, sadly.
“Sounds like he might be schizophrenic, or something.”
“That’s a bit sad,” Eka says. She gets up to walk into the kitchen. Then she walks out again.
“What if he’s part of a government experiment and it’s true and none of us believe him?”
I look up at her, thinking about it.
Later that night, after plans for one of Netherlands’ infamous underground raves fall through, the four of us lounge around and watch random videos on Youtube. I’m so tired from wandering that I fall asleep on the couch, in the same clothes I left the house in, jacket and everything.
When I wake up, it’s morning.
I knock on Eka’s bedroom door.
“I think I’m gonna take off. I’m heading to Zeeland.”
“Like right now?”
“Oh shit. Let me get dressed.”
We snap some selfies, swap hugs, say goodbye. As I walk to the station, I’m reminded; this is why I love the road. It’s a feeling you get, of adding a new experience, one that teaches you something, shows you the good in people, gives you something to remember. Amsterdam didn’t have it, but Breda did. Everything made sense again.
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Let me set this next chapter up for you. In the west of the Netherlands, there’s a place, known as Zeeland. When the Dutch discovered my home country – Aotearoa – they needed a Dutch name for it. They had already found and named a New Holland (Australia), so their next namesake was the country’s next largest province, Zeeland. Which gave the world Nieuw Zeeland, later anglicised by the British to New Zealand.
When I saw how close it was on the map, I had to go. After all, that is why we’re out here, isn’t it? To set foot in the places we always hear about but never see. I didn’t even Google it, didn’t want to know what was there. I just knew I had to go.
Two hours later, I arrive in Vlissingen, one of Zeeland’s seaside cities, in the mid-afternoon.
Sometimes, when you visit a new place, you can sense its vibe instantly, its energy, its mood. As I exit the station, I feel it. To the left, boats on the water, big ones, to the right, a road leading to somewhere. For a moment, I feel like that guy in the movies, getting off the docks at that little town to start a new life. It’s peaceful, this place, nonchalant, faraway. Like nobody even knows it’s here.
The hostel is a 36 minute walk away. I start moving.
Vlissingen in a word? Quiet. The streets are immaculate, empty, save for a few walkers and the odd bicycle. It’s a Sunday, the shops are all closed. As I get to the hostel, even the owner looks like the classic small town guy, straight out of the movies – scraggly grey hair, running his little guesthouse, still using a pen and a pad.
In my dorm there is only one other guy. The first thing I notice about him is he’s chosen a top bunk, even though every bed in the room is empty. Very odd. I even ask him about it, and he just shrugs.
I can’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Marc.
Marc is a bicycle guy, from Paris, who’s riding his mountain bike around Europe. We shake hands, do the usual chit chat. Then I head out for a walk.
Vlissingen might be isolated, but it’s not forgotten. A few steps from my hostel is a plaza, filled with pricey looking restaurants, sided by ample outdoor seating. Everything is very tidy, very clean, very modern. I figure, maybe this is where the Dutch come in the summer, to spend all their money.
As I wander the streets, I tell myself, something feels good about this place. Like things were bad for a moment a few days ago, but here, they’ll be good. I can feel it. Sometimes the ocean does that. In the distance, I hear the water. I start to head that way, through a few side alleys, up some stairs, down some stairs.
When I finally get there, I’m not prepared for what I see.
Laid out in front of me, an endless beach, basking in a pink sunset. It stretches farther than I can see. The sand is soft, and golden. It’s empty. Spotless. And it’s confusing. How is it that the most beautiful beaches are always hidden, never talked about, even though they’ve been here for thousands of years, free for everybody to see?
I hurry down to the water. A few kids scream and play, a few fishermen stand at the shoreline, rods in the sand, a few people walk their dogs. I sit and talk with the ocean for a while. This is what I wanted. I just never thought I’d find it here. I had been trying so hard to stay in Amsterdam. Now I’m wiser. Who needs Amsterdam, when you have Vlissingen?
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The next day, perhaps inspired by Marc and his cool bike shorts, I decide to rent a bike and ride west. Maybe I’ll see something beautiful, I say. I look at the map. Zouteland is 10 kilometres away. Maybe I’ll make it there.
It’s been a while since I rode a bike. I don’t remember it being so tiring during childhood. My legs start to burn quickly.
As I power through the sand dunes, up and down the biking trails, local oldies, fifty, sixty, maybe seventy years old, zoom past me, pedalling like Tour de France champions. I play mind games with myself to keep myself going, trying to battle the fierce ocean breeze, the sun, the fire in my thighs.
Eventually, I get lost. I look at the map. Then I get lost again. Riding in circles. Lost three times. I look at the map again. How am I riding in circles when all I can see are straight lines?
When I finally arrive in Zouteland, I don’t even realise I’ve arrived in Zouteland. It’s just holiday homes, straight out of Pleasantville, sitting in perfect grids, spotless, colourful shutters on their windows, same as all the homes I’ve been riding past for the last hour. It’s only stumbling upon the little tourist zone – a small cluster of ice cream parlours and souvenir shops – that I realise I’ve made it to Zouteland town.
I walk into one of the food joints and see a display cabinet full of fried fast food. I unload questions on the guy behind the counter; what’s this, what’s that?
“First time in the Netherlands?” he laughs.
I laugh back.
Eventually I choose two snacks, and he pops them in the deep fryer.
“And is that thing Dutch?” I ask, pointing to a drink.
“Yeah, Dutch chocolate milk,” he smirks.
“Cool I’ll have that too.”
I eat and recharge for a while. And then I just sit there, kind of bored. I guess it’s true what they say – it really is all about the journey. Time to head back.
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This time, the ride is more pleasant. I’ve figured out the right pace so that my legs hurt just enough that I don’t need to stop. And I’ve figured out how to read the map. Now I just ride.
On either side of me, open yellow fields, forests, farms, stretching into infinity. I breathe deeply, consciously loving the cool air. For such a densely populated country, it feels empty. Maybe more Dutch people should move to Zeeland.
On one particular skinny trail, I pass a field of sheep.
Instinctively, I stop.
I stare at them.
I take a photo.
I stare some more.
This whole picture, it looks so familiar. These sheep really could be from up in Northland, that beach in Zouteland really could’ve been from the West Coast. This place really is a bit like an Old Zeeland.
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The next hour blurs by. As I drift back into Vlissingen, something’s changed. Somehow I feel new again, curious again. One bad night in Amsterdam brought me to here, riding along green fields by the ocean and breathing crispy fresh air, to a place so pleasant but rarely seen. On my lonely night in Amsterdam, I had mused to myself that I might be tired of this, but clearly I wasn’t. It was those people, those places, those moments I didn’t need anymore, the ones I’d already seen too many times. Amsterdam had reminded me of who I once was, and Breda had reminded me of why I was here. But Zeeland had reminded me of who I wanted to be.
I left Zeeland the next morning, and the Netherlands, first catching a ferry across the channel, then boarding a short four euro bus down to Bruges. A few days on, I said to a fellow traveller that the Netherlands had healed me, laughing, like it was a joke, knowing inside that it wasn’t at all. It was the place I needed at that exact time, the place that I guess every traveller has, where you have that moment, that moves you to the next chapter. I guess the Netherlands was where I had mine.