Monthly Archives: April 2016

Early Days in Haarlem

HAARLEM

Wednesday, April 20

Leaving mid-morning we continued cruising down the river to Haarlem, once the most important port after Amsterdam. From here we planned on using public transportation for some day tripping to towns further south. Like in Norway we had notes from our cruising friends, Ginger & Dick of s/v ALCHEMY and Helen & Gus, s/v WINGS; and, all of them had spoken highly of the charms of this historic city.

Just so you get an idea of how the Dutch have adapted to living on the water, check out these condos. Looks like their sailboats serve as their cars :)

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Reaching the harbor master office located alongside a double bridge we paid for a week’s mooring and once again were kindly provided a city map with the locations of boating necessities (public showers, a laundromat, grocery store).

While waiting for the first bridge to open, the lady who had helped us in the office came down to the pontoon to tell us one of the bridges was broken; but, as she said we weren’t in any hurry since we were on holiday, which couldn’t have been truer. With the sun shining, a bright blue sky, and the promise of a berth in the midst of this old city, we felt lucky just to be on a boat gazing at a windmill in the distance.

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Within an hour the bridge was repaired

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and we continued down to a spot on the east bank of the river wall. Although located on the more residential side it was reputed to be quieter and still within easy walking distance of all the major attractions.

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Once JUANONA was secured we hopped off and strolled along the canal dodging cyclists. I have to say we thought it was a bit harrowing in SE Asia when crossing lanes; yet, there at least there seemed to be a constant flow in one or two directions. Here, traffic resembled a whirlpool of two-wheeled cyclists, four-wheeled vehicles, and two-legged pedestrians. Consequently our heads swiveled like owls’ every time we started to cross a pathway. We sigh with relief when we’ve reached the other side without a potential near-swipe of a passing vessel, be it mechanical or human.

In spite of every-which-way traffic historic Haarlem is easy to navigate as the Grote Markt or main square hosts one of the city’s oldest churches, Grote Kerk van St Bravo . We headed in that direction with the church’s towering wooden spire (a replica of its initial stone one, which was replaced due to the weight of the sandstone ) as our beacon.

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The architecture is stunning with facades featuring elaborate gables, which I found out served as an identification prior to the introduction of street numbers by the French. The building below looks like something that’d cause the sky to yell ‘Ouch’. We see these stepped lines a lot around here although this is the most elaborate so far.

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Landing in the plaza we found ourselves with the surround-sound of amusement park rides including a ferris wheel.

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And bordering this modern funtime was the 14th-century town hall,

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the statue of Laurens Coster whom they claim invented movable type along with Gutenberg,

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the 17th-century beef market and fish house all within a cobblestone throw from the church.  

For some reason I had thought of The Netherlands not as a cruising ground but as a transiting point. I believe this arose from (a) knowing it was fairly early to begin our summer voyaging and (b) thinking ahead to a trip home for our nephew Thomas’ and Renee’s wedding. In any event it meant we had left Ipswich without a handy guide book; so, off we went to the local tourist office who directed us to a book store. 

Once there the enthusiastic owner offered us free coffee, wifi access, and proudly showed us the largest book I’ve ever seen and the most expensive for sale (over 6,000 euros) I’ve gazed upon.

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His store had one of only 15 located in the country and he’d already sold five out of limited press run. Gorgeous prints of paintings covered the pages, sized in various percentages to show exquisite details. 

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 We told him one couldn’t fit it aboard JUANONA, which is when he mentioned a nice little table stand came with your purchase. Did I say he was also a salesmen?

 With all of this history flooding around us seems like a good time to do my usual history jaunt through time. There’s no straight line through this country’s history, so bear with me if you’d like…

Who else but the Romans in 59 BC began documenting the Netherlands people. Caesar basically just followed the Rhine to its mouth, which empties into what’s now known as the North Sea. Following the Romans, Franks from the east began their conquering of the Low Lands bringing with them Christianity and the start of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) under Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Adding to the mix Vikings attacked from the west constructing fortified towns and ruling became localized. As individual rulers’ power grew they squabbled among each other while bartering various freedoms in exchange for support from their townsfolk. 

By the 12th century seaport trade led to Dutch towns with sea access joining to from a powerful trading organization, the Hanseatic League, [define]. Meanwhile the first attempt to prevent the sea overrunning the land occurred when dams were built between Haarlem and the Zuiderzee, although disastrous floods still occurred.

Also during this time the powerful Dukes of Burgundy, French princes, took control of the area culminating with Philip the Good in the 15th century.

In spite of losing some of their freedoms towns switched into prosperity mode now that the local rulers stopped their spats under the domination of this Duke. Shipbuilding and trading of tapestries, paintings, chic clothing, beer, and salted herring flourished.

But all good things seem to come to pass, and such was the case of the Low Lands when Charles V, a Burgundian Duke, Head of the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Emperor, granted his son Philip II the Low Lands in 1555. The age-old ugliness of religious intolerance reared its head under this staunch Catholic. Prior to his rule Protestantism had taken hold with an array of sects allowed to practice. Eventually the largest group were the Calvinists. Believing all non-Catholics were heretics, Philip introduced his subjects to the Inquisition. In 1566 the Calvinists went on a rampage destroying Catholic churches symbols of idolatry. To combat this form of rebellion, Philip sent the Duke of Alba who took revenge of these unruly subjects by destroying towns and executing the inhabitants. Haarlem was one of the unfortunate victims when it surrendered after a seven-month siege in 1572, whereupon most of its inhabitants were executed.

This led to the War of Independence and the recognition of the country’s founder:  Willem van Oranje (count in the House of Nassau, later becoming a Prince of Orange in 1544).  

As a prince raised in the Hapsburg court as Philip II, Willem, too, was Catholic, but unlike Philip II, Willem believed in tolerance. Philip’s brutality caused Willem to revolt, and so began 80 years of war beginning in 1566.

In spite of the strife and ongoing battles the 15th and 16th centuries created a lot of wealth for the area thanks to the merchant cities. Once the war ended businesses really prospered and so, too, religious freedom. The northern Union of Utrecht, formed in the late 1500s by Protestants, offered religious tolerance unheard of in most European countries. It’s where the Pilgrims came and organized a sailing trip to the New World. In 1648 the War ended with the independence of the country called the United Provinces.

Trading continued to expand with the forming of the Dutch East Indies Company and Dutch West Indies Company in the 17th century. Colonizing of some of the Caribbean Islands and Indonesia occurred and the residents of theses United Provinces just got wealthier and wealthier. 

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Then wars with France in the 18th century interrupted lucrative trade, dykes fell into disrepair, and the country floundered. A civil war in 1785 between the House of Orange and its democratic opponents eventually led to Napoleon’s rule; but his Russian mistake created an opening for Prince Willem VI who in 1813 took over and sired a monarchy whose descendants still reign. He also formed the Kingdom of the Netherlands between the Netherlands in the North and Belgium. But, it was a bumpy ride with the country truly not becoming a unit until 1848 under Willem II’s more liberal constitution.

FYI: Inhabitants of The Netherlands refer to themselves as Nederlanders, not Dutch. The latter comes from Old English for ‘people or nation’ and was used to refer to people from the Holy Roman Empire way back when. “High Dutch” meant those living in the mountainous regions (Germany) while “Low Dutch” was used for those living in the flat lands (Netherlands). However, like Holland, which is really just two of the 12 country’s provinces but were the two most foreigners knew due to trading, Dutch is the word used by non-Nederlanders when talking about this country’s folk. Habits die hard!

The country avoided WWI and tried to stay neutral during WWII but Hitler’s invasion in 1940 created a Dutch resistance, which is where I take you back to Haarlem and to our wanderings on the following day.  

Thursday, April 21

I remember hearing about Corrie ten Boom but had forgotten the specifics of her heroism. She didn’t want to be called a heroine but the title fits; and, her selfless acts began right here in Haarlem at her home on Barteljorisstraat number 19. 

We arrived mid-morning thinking we’d just stroll right in and walk through not realizing reservations were taken online. Fortunately, the tour guide kindly let us join the group of 20, which increased by 24 by the time we all squeezed through the door and up the narrow staircase.

Corrie grew up in a very Christian household and one that truly lived by the code “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Theirs was an ‘open house’, which eventually became an underground railroad when the war broke out. To indicate it was safe to knock and enter, the ten Booms would place a wooden sign advertising a Swiss watch brand in the dining room window (her father was a watchmaker, and, interestingly, Carrie became the first female licensed watchmaker in Holland).

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Corrie, her sister, and her father saved over 800 people, many of them Jewish including up to 100 orphans, from the Germans’ clutches. The majority were fed and provided with temporary shelter during their escape route. Six, however, stayed in the house with Corrie’s family.

After a thirty-minute talk our guide took us upstairs to Corrie’s bedroom where the hiding place was located. 

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An architect had the foresight to use brick instead of wood to create a phony wall. Thus, it sounded solid when hunting Nazis thumped on it during their house searches. The two men, two women, and two boys who lived with Ten Booms were able to get themselves into this hiding place within 70 seconds of a warning by one of the family members (a system of buzzers had been installed in strategic areas around he house) There, with some bread, a little water and a bucket, they remained hardly breathing until an all-clear signal was given. 

On February 28, 1944, the Ten Booms were betrayed. Corrie, her sister and father were taken prisoner. Her 84-year-old father died in custody while his two daughters were shipped to concentration camps. The six in hiding weren’t found by the Germans; and, after two days of not daring to exit, two Dutch policemen who were part of the resistance found them and helped them all escape. Our guide said they knew what had happened to all of six them, except for one of the young boys. However, they found out in the mid-80s when a visitor on one of their tours quietly announced he was that young boy when the group was being shown the hiding place. Can you imagine?! 

Our guide also pointed out where extra food ration stamps were hidden under a riser in the staircase. Discovery of this  was the proof the Germans used to charge the family, since they had been unable to find anyone in hiding. 

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Corrie was the sole survivor of her family, and she continued to share her faith with others by preaching love of others around the world. Eventually she moved to California where she died in 1983 on her birtthday, April 15, at age 91. Pretty powerful story.

I can’t leave this house without saying how absolutely wonderful our tour guide was. She was very efficient (and fast-talking) in relating Corrie’s life. She mentioned at the very end when we were all saying good-bye she had been a child during the war and remembered eating tulip bulbs but not hyacinths because the latter were poisonous. But, what was more memorable was her aura of gentleness and kindness. When I come into contact with such a spirit all I want to do is bask in their warmth. 

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Later that afternoon we headed back to our boat and ended up at another Dutch symbol, the windmill.

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Our host was just as eager as the morning one. He threaded us up to the top where outside he showed us the blades holding the sails and how they stop the sails with a brake.

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He also pointed out a large dome, which he said had been a jail and was now housing a recent group of immigrants.

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Then, indoors he explained how this particular windmill was used to grind grains and nuts,

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including cocoa beans for the local chocolate company, Droste. I recognized the packaging but had no idea it featured a nurse because chocolate was touted to be good for you. Smart messaging :)

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The impressive structure was pinned together with pegs, and numbered, so that the windmill could be moved to another location if necessary. Giant wooden cogs converted wind into power.

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A brake allowed the operator to stop the grinding and another lever adjusted how fine one ground the raw ingredients by raising or lowering the stones. (We did stop by the next day to see how noisy it was, and surprisingly it was extremely quiet with the blades turning, although no grinding was being done.)

The next floor down displayed several models of the different types of windmills and a map depicting all of the Netherland’s reclaimed land (light blue).

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Originally created to pump water out of the low-lying lands, these mills were used for sawing wood, supplying clay for pottery, even grinding pigments for artists. By mid-19th century there were more than 100,000 windmills; yet, they fell into disuse with the invention of the steam engine – only 1,000 are in operation today.

Fortunately, the government recognizes the windmill as a Dutch heritage and have created a three-year training program for someone to obtain a license to operate these windblown mills. 

During our tour we met two British cyclists who had taken the ferry from Harwich (just south of Ipswich) and were riding to Prague! Yes, they were fit; and, yes, they could probably eat all the cheese they desired and drink all the beer they wanted and still be fitter than when they started. It’s almost enough to make me want to take up cycling; and, I have several friends, such as Kathryn Y., Andrea, Cindy, and Jane G., who could mentor me.

We invited Paul and John back to JUANONA for some wine and cheese and had a wonderful late afternoon discussing a range of topics with the inevitable one of Trump arising.

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In addition to this cycling trip (which would take roughly 3-1/2 weeks), they were also traveling to France in the Fall to tour some WWI sites. One of their field hockey teammates is an expert on WWI history and provides an amazing experience, such as researching John’s ancestor who died on the battlefields. Paul mentioned he was asked to recite a poem during this trip, and he kindly obliged us by reading John McCrae’s haunting “In Flanders Fields”.

Tomorrow more explorations of Haarlem’s offerings…

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Canaling It

Tuesday, April 19

Ready to start our canal journeys we left IJmuiden after laundry and some minor provisioning the day before. We had kept a keen eye on the wind as our experience going through tight locks and bridges was fairly limited. But, as many cruising friends had told us The Netherlands are made for newbies. Bridge tenders and lock keepers were ready to hold our hands as we inched into a variety of locks and sluices and through bridges of various configurations.

With this busy port’s four locks manhandling the abundant commercial and leisure traffic we were directed to one of the smallest ones, still huge and industrial in scope.

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(FYI:  the lights are self-explanatory with Red = stop; Red + Green = prepare to go; Green = go, and they do mean ‘go!’.)

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With our first lock under our belt we started to get the gist of how things work here, and relief and confidence set in as we slowly motored down the Noordzeekanaal  (North Sea canal).

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One-fifth of The Netherlands is built on reclaimed land so it wasn’t surprising to see sand-laden barges and bulldozers.

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If 20% is reclaimed, another 20% of The Netherlands is water. In 1953 a flood in the southwest (Zeeland, the country’s most vulnerable region) led to the largest public works effort, the Delta Project. Today numerous dykes, dunes and pumping stations (the latter now replacing windmills) keep the liquid threat at bay. In the north and west you’re below sea level (!). With this type of terrain it’s a wonder the Dutch haven’t sprouted duck feet.

[Just an aside, The Netherlands and Holland aren’t interchangeable like I originally thought. Actually, this came up a few years ago in my Book Group. Holland is the name for two of the 12 provinces that comprise The Netherlands: the North or Noord and South or Zuid; yet, I find myself wanting to use Holland more than the sterner sounding Netherlands. Probably because it sounds warmer and more in tune with wooden shoes, windmills, Gouda and Edam cheese and tulips. So, if I mistakenly slip and use ‘Holland’ in future blob blogs, I do mean the entire country. Just put it down to sipping too much of their delicious beer.]

To reach our first destination, Spaarndam we took a right turn and positioned ourselves in front of the camera for the remotely operated bridge. It worked like a charm, and we entered a much more tranquil and rural landscape.

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Our next bridge had set opening times to accommodate the major road crossing it; so, we tied up alongside a pontoon. All of our docking was great practice for the new method we had heard about and Max researched: using the aft spring line (generally tied towards the stern (back end) of the boat allowing JUANONA to pivot evenly, i.e., neither the bow nor stern would be pulled in more than the other). With hardly any tide or wind our canaling offered gentle opportunities to perfect this technique. I really appreciated this method for it meant I wasn’t teetering on the side of JUANONA with the bowline in one hand while clutching the life rail in the other as I gauged a gaping distance to jump from the boat to a dock as Max positioned us as close to land as possible.

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We relaxed and peered about as we enjoyed our first true ‘sitting in the cockpit lit by warm sun reading’ of the season. Cyclists, tractors, and a horse-drawn cart trotted by on the road bordering our tie-up; and, overhead a KLM jet began its journey and left us wondering if our friend Koen, an EU air traffic controller, had sent it on its way.

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Our last lock of the day was in Spaarndam (logically named as it’s a dam on the River Spaarne) where we joined a small motorboat and a large barge. The latter hosted a group of American, Canadian and European passengers who hopped off with bikes to enjoy a tulip tour. Friends had done one of these cruises and they certainly looked appealing, not the least being the flower be-decked tables I espied in the dining area. Talk about luxury.

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Reaching a small marina we docked on the outer pontoon (JUANONA’s on the right at the end),

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which felt like a small neighborhood as we walked out of the gate

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and entered the associated office/shop where a woman gave us the lay of the land. Not only was she versed in her town’s landmarks but also an expert on our Reflex diesel stove. We have to say these Dutch folk have been some of the friendliest hosts we’ve been around in all of our travels. Once you take the initial step of approaching them, the Dutch respond typically in excellent English while encouraging any questions with a smile. Practicality, forthrightedness, and helpfulness seem to be universal personality traits in this small European country.

With the marina women as proof of the above, off we went to explore:

the 13th century lock that protected a picturesque water plaza…

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laza…the Hans Brinker finger-in-the-dike statue (which is just a story tale)…

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the eel dock where an eel smokehouse has operated since the 1860s…

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and, some sights we’re becoming to expect… such as cyclists waiting for a bridge to open,

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a train of kindegardners being wheeled down the road…

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planters of flowering grape hyacinths,

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and the occasional gnome.

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During our stroll back to the boat we looked for an ATM (many businesses don’t accept VISA credit cards and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of banks, unlike in England). Espying what we mistakenly thought was an ATM Max noted it was actually a 24-hour drug dispenser. A pretty clever way to get your prescription.

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Our last stop was the grocery store where we added a bouquet of tulips to our provisioning list, something I think will be a regular item during our canaling in this friendly and laid-back country. 

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So, with our own floral centerpiece :) we head next to Haarlem, a city whose origins date from the 10th century thanks to some enterprising Counts. Spotting an opportunity to take advantage of a growing trade they set up a toll booth on the River Spaarne. Didn’t I say they were practical? :)

Crossing the North Sea… Again

But, this time it was only 24 hours from our winter berth in Ipswich to a transient one in Ijmuiden, Netherlands.

We said our good-byes the night before and rose early to catch free-flow out of Ipswich lock (meaning we didn’t have to stop, tie up, wait for water to rise/fall, then exit). Aboard we had a third crew member, Dolly Doughnut, given to us by our seven-year-old friend Gracie (she’s the daughter of Angie and James who, along with Anne and Peter, we were fortunate to have as wonderful neighbors and friends during our stay in Ipswich).

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Although it was gray and chilly it still felt wonderful to be starting our summer cruising mid-April.

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Along the route we passed friends Sandra and Barry from Vancouver Island. Their boat s/v PASSAT was moored off of Royal Harwich Yacht Club while awaiting weather to head down towards Portugal.

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Soon, we were passing Felixstowe’s huge container operation and heading out of the mouth of Orwell.

All of a sudden we saw an official-looking zodiac bombing our way. Our first hopeful thought was they couldn’t be interested in us; yet, the second thought soon followed that yes, they were interested in us.

Last spring on our way to Lowestoft we’d been stopped by the Border Force. We knew the drill:  grant permission to come aboard; be polite; answer questions succinctly; be thankful we had nothing to hide; be even more thankful to wave them off and continue on our way.

Their powerful zodiac carried four persons with two requesting permission to board JUANONA. Just a few questions were asked:  how many aboard… what was our destination… where and how long did we stay in England…. We showed them our passports and mentioned how many times we’d travelled out of the British Isles in the past six months.

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FYI:  Unlike Schengen countries (Scandinavia and the rest of Europe) only allowing foreigners three months out of six, currently we’re allowed six months in the British Isles. Then we need to reset our time, which can be done by simply exiting the British Isles for 24+ hours, getting our passports stamped elsewhere, and returning for another six months. Adding to this complication for cruising is ensuring we don’t have to pay a hefty Value-Added-Tax (VAT) on our non-EU registered boat. We accomplish that feat by simply taking JUANONA to a non-EU country (such as Norway) for a day or two once every 18 months.

The Border Force visit lasted a mere ten minutes at most before leaving us to continue our passage across the southern North Sea.

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We’d been waiting for the right wind direction for two weeks. Just recently we experienced a storm giving us lightening, thunder and hail, which pebbled the water ferociously

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and left the marina and JUANONA covered in ice balls.

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Now, though, we had our chance to sail across a notorious nasty sea with 10 to 20 knots of wind and fairly decent weather. In spite of not appearing too inviting, it was still a good day to finally have a weather window to cross.

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With the North Sea’s shallow seabed and high winds JUANONA became a washing machine with us being the washed clothes:  It was bouncy, something our crew, Dick Stevens and later Steve Palmer, had experienced during our 2014 passages when crossing to Azores then England. This time, though, I made sure to keep the hatch closed so no unwanted salt water would splash its way down to the main cabin; and, our nephew Rudy, who got spanked by a large wave last summer, would appreciate that both Max and I tried to stay under the dodger (a canvas cover over the hatchway) as much as possible.

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Mid-April was still early in the season for starting our summer cruising, and the temperatures reflected that as the day got a bit chillier and the night loomed ahead. Before too long Max was lighting our diesel heater. We had tested it just a week ago and it worked wonderfully, just like it had last summer when cruising in Norway.

But, this time it turned fickle, which meant after lighting and relighting it four times we realized we’d be without heat. A fallback position was a small heating system generated only when using the engine. We ran the engine for about 30 minutes then turned it off and said to each other it wouldn’t be too bad. I lied…. Night passage with tons of ships to watch out for along with oil rigs and no heat…  Oh joy.

Yet, we were so bundled up (long johns, shirts, sweaters, down jackets all covered by foul weather gear and black beanie hats) the below-deck temp of 51º wasn’t too bad. When off watch and lying in the main cabin, two down comforters provided us a cocoon of self-generating warmth.

And, then the wind kicked up even more (forecasted to possibly hit 25 knots). At one point with the wind and tide we were moving at 8+ knots, so by about 10 PM we had totally furled in the jib (reducing sail, which always slows the boat down) leaving only the mainsail up, which we generally have reefed (shortened). Even then we were sailing at a decent cruising speed of 5-6 knots.

And, boy, were there ships. This is when our Automatic identification System (AIS) really proves its worth as a crew member. We knew we wanted to cross the Deep Water Route (DWR as noted on the chart and used by ships) as close to right angles as possible thus shortening our exposure to the heavy commercial traffic running up and down this area; plus, we had to steer clear of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS, also noted on the chart) to avoid getting too close to the shipping lanes into Rotterdam.

Our watches were flexible, and I didn’t hesitate to rouse the captain to assist in fending off a multitude of ships. Their speed through the water is deceptive. Before you know it you’re looking at some bright lights less than .3M away. Not a good sight.

To provide as much buffer zone as possible we’d hail the ships when they were about 20 minutes away from our path. We’d ask if they could see us on their AIS, which was really our way of saying ‘we’re just a little bitty boat, big guy, and we don’t want to get squished’.

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(definitions in the screen above refer to the bracketed ship approaching us:  RNG = Range, CPA = Closest Point of Approach, SOG = Speed Over Ground, TCPA = Time to Closest Point of Approach. Each triangle represents a ship, and a black triangle represents a ship that may be coming dangerously close. The four black ships approaching from the upper left and the one immediately ahead of us pointing our way were especially worrisome.)

The ships all responded to our radio call, and in many instances adjusted their course to ensure our paths would not cross. One even seemed chatty leaving us with the kind message of have a nice watch.

Interestingly, we weren’t the only boat calling another to avoid a collision. One poor cable-laying ship was constantly asking other ships to stay out of his path. Most did, yet there was a bit of a discussion between the cable guy and another ship when the latter said the cable guy’s requested course adjustment was too extreme. They worked it out, but it did provide a welcome distraction from our navigating.

Rotating watches with two-three hours on, two-three hours off, we each managed to get some sleep. However, sleep for me means a nice cozy berth and no-wakee in the late night hours or wee hours of the morning. Add in my husband bringing me coffee in bed and I’m in heaven. This, not so much. BUT, it was only 24 hours and we were safe, fed by canned chili on carne for dinner (it warmed us up), and we knew some wonderful cruising lay ahead.

The wind died way down by 4am and we slowed down to 4 knots as we closed in on our destination of Ijmuiden. As the sun came up we had reached the outer edges of the largest fishing port in the Netherlands. We turned on the engine (heat again :), lowered the main sail, and entered the port and a convenient marina just inside the jetty.

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We smiled at one another and laughed out loud as the joy of finishing a passage and stepping into another adventure spread throughout our minds and limbs.

We had arrived in Dutch land. And, showers,

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sleep, and tulips were in our future :)   Hans Brinker, here we come.

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SE Asia: FINALE

Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday, February 25

Back on the road again, this time to Da Nang for our short flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the ending of our five-week sojourn through SE Asia. In case you’re wondering, we did try to train it to several places but we couldn’t find seats or, at least not the seats everyone told us to reserve (soft sleepers with A/C). Not wanting to discover the joys of traveling in the ‘hard seat’ class coupled with the advice to get a berth as far from the toilets as possible, we decided to fly on the extremely inexpensive and efficient Vietnam Airlines. Plus, the shorter travel time allowed us more hours for exploring.

Similar to Bangkok, Hanoi, and Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was modern and easy to navigate and soon we were on our way to our airbnb.com studio apartment. Recommended by Joe and Kim whom we met on the Living Farm rice tour in Laos, we were eager to try “The Mothership”, the complex’s nickname.

Owned and operated by an entrepreneur who lived in the U.S. as a youngster and studied at Boston College, Thu worked on Wall Street only to return to his home country to take advantage of growing tourism. He and his partner Christina have opened several airbnb accommodations in Vietnam. They promote connectivity with other guests as well as interacting with the hosts, such as Giang (on the right, 1st photo) and Duc (2nd photo) whom we often found working in the greeting lounge equipped with an honesty bar and fridge.

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The modern and airy Mothership was a perfect spot for us to drop our bags. Although, I must admit I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I stepped into this oasis of a New Age salon as I entered the wifi password “joy factory”.

 

Friday, February 26

The War Remnants Museum qualifies as a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon when serving as the capital of the French Protectorate (1862-1954) and South Vietnam (1954-75). This museum provides an in-depth view of of war brutality and atrocities, beginning with the Vietnamese struggle for independence led by Ho Chi Minh in 1946 against the French then bleeding into the American War or what we call the Vietnam War.

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In spite of changing the initial name from ‘The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government’ to the tamer ‘War Remnants Museum’, a visitor understands you’re peering at history through the eyes of the victors. And, the U.S. was definitely not a victor.

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Photographs accompanied by explanatory text and billboard-size charts chronicle the battles between opposing forces as well as the horrific acts against civilians.

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Two exhibits feature photographs which compelled our attention. As much as we wanted to turn away we felt trapped by the same pull that causes one to slow down and stare at gruesome traffic accidents.

The Requiem Exhibit, several rooms filled with both foreign and Vietnamese journalists’ and photographers’ war coverage (a collection published in 1997)

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and an Agent Orange Display, walls telling the history of how this containment not only defoliated the land but killed and maimed those in its path.

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I won’t show the photographs. You can probably find them on line; but, what I hadn’t known was the effects of Agent Orange continues today with children still being born with deformities. We were shocked to discover that Agent Orange is a gene toxin, which affects the DNA of its victims. The mutant DNA is passed on through childbirth and mother’s milk and has been passed down through multiple generations.

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As many foreigners state, yes, it is one-sided and full of propaganda; but, yet crimes committed by US troops did occur including one I wasn’t aware of:

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Yet, I wouldn’t doubt similar acts by the Viet Cong could be considered crimes as well. Individuals who are law-abiding in one situation can be brainwashed and indoctrinated with hate in another.

Even with its bias what the War Remnants Museum does invoke with its presence is the universal call to peace, something the world sorely lacks today.

The museum also reminds us that the US doesn’t always support other countries’ own fight for independence as ironically stated by Ho Chi Minh:  In a 1967 meeting with two American editors… ‘At one point Ho reminded Mr. Ashmore and Mr. Baggs that he had once been in the United States. “I think I know the American people,” Ho said, “and I don’t understand how they can support their involvement in this war. Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?”

This was a rhetorical question that Ho also posed to other Americans in an effort to point up what to his mind was an inconsistency: a colonial people who had gained independence in a revolution were fighting to suppress the independence of another colonial people.’ (Sept 4, 1969, Ho Chi Minh NYT obituary)

The museum closed for lunch, so we accomplished our touring of all the exhibits in two parts. In between we enjoyed a great lunch recommended by the every-helpful Duc from Christina’s.

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but we skipped one delicacy…

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then walked to the Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace).  Anyone who saw the footage in 1975 of a communist tank bashing through the main gate on April 30 would recall the desperate fleeing of U.S. diplomats, advisors, and residents and the surrendering of the South to the North.

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HCMC boasts of a new prosperity seen in its gleaming skyscrapers
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and flowery parks free of debris.

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Like Hanoi, leafy boulevards invited lazy strolls as the day became hotter under the noon-day sun, but unlike Hanoi I felt the humming of a city oiled by foreign investments and dressed with high-end stores selling luxury goods found in Paris and London.

On our way back to our room we booked a Saturday tour for the other must-see:  the Cu Chi Tunnel located 70km NW of the city. Having grown-up during the Vietnam War our travels couldn’t help but include sites from that era.

 

Saturday, March 27

Being told to arrive by 8:00 am sharp we ended up at the tour group office ahead of schedule clutching a breakfast bag from the local bakery and keeping liquid intake to a minimum in fear of what lay ahead with regards to facilities. Spotting only three other individuals we thought it would end up being a small group for the day; however, as we were led down Backpackers’ Ghetto on a main street just up from our place, our leader kept stopping at other establishments along the way with the end result being a busload of tourists and a departure time of roughly 9:30am by the time we made it to the bus stop and then patiently waited for our transportation.

 

Glad I hadn’t drunk too much of that coffee, we set off for our drive through the typical maze of scooters (note the little boy’s helmet :)…

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and a stop at a laquer factory, which employs disabled Vietnamese similar to the set-up at the rest stop when heading to and from Halong Bay.

Unfortunately, we were rushed through the manufacturing process to ensure we spent time in the store; but, we did glimpse one of the artists applying pieces of egg shells to one of the items.

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Once at Cu Chi Tunnel we met our guide for the next few hours. In spite of the  crowds and the site’s transformation to a tourist attraction, I still felt the stillness and eeriness of standing where once a small village lived, worked and fought below ground.

The tunnel actually originated in 1948 when the locals used it to hide from the French. The Viet Cong later expanded upon this idea resulting in over 200km of tunnels through six villages and connecting to a river… all dug by hand.

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As the guide demonstrated certain booby traps

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and Max volunteered to squeeze into one of the tunnel’s hiding spots,

IMG_6189I realized this day would fall under what my sister has aptly labeled one of my husband’s “Disaster Tours”.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the clever methods the Viet Cong used to minimize detection or confuse pursuers, such as sandals fashioned out of tires with the soles crafted to leave tracks in reverse

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… fake termite hills used for ventilation (they disguised the openings with American soap and other U.S. products to confuse any sniffing dog patrols used the the U.S.)

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… and disguised mounds, connected by underground chimneys far from the cooking fire, for dispersing cooking fires’ smoke as wisps mingling with morning mists.

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The opportunity to shoot a military-grade weapon (an AK-47) meant Max donned ear muffs to do just that. Having fired a rifle only once before in his life, he was amazed and a bit daunted by the power, range and accuracy of the weapon.

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The tunnels have three levels:  the first is 3 meters (roughly 10 ft); second, 4-6 meters (13-20 ft); and, the third, 8-10 meters (26-33 ft) deep.

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Fortunately, we only went down to the first level. Even that was claustraphobic with quite a few of our group opting out of the experience.

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In addition to the historical significance of these tunnels I also made the discovery of why one never hands one’s camera to one’s husband if said one is bent over and in front of him.

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At least you get an idea of the size and how these people lived for many years – people who happened to be a heck of a lot smaller than I am.

There was an exit point that some used, which I might have done had I known part of the crouching was through darkness. And, yes, it was a relief to see light at the end of the tunnel (couldn’t resist).

At the end of our tour a film was shown that portrayed the victors as celebrated heroes (no surprise).

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As we travel I’m constantly reminded of the joys of meeting new folk, and this tour didn’t disappoint. One of our fellow travelers was studying at Boston College with a year abroad in Singapore. Hailing from Italy (but with absolutely no accent) he also was on the school’s water polo team. We mentioned our Kiwi friends’ daughters who once played that game and commented on how we’d heard how brutal it was (they’d exit the pool covered in bruises and pinches from the opposing team). He laughed and agreed. Voyagers such as this are fascinating to me. I’m curious about their lives no matter where they’re from or where they live. I mean to be discussing Boston College water polo while touring the Cu Chi Tunnel in Vietnam. Who would have thought it? Got to love it.

 

Sunday, February 28

With tourism booming many Vietnamese are eager to participate. In addition to lodging, Christina’s also offers tours, one being a free city tour. The reason it’s free is so university students wanting to become guides can practice their English.

Our guide for the morning was Linh, a junior at the local university. We really wanted to just share a meal and conversation with her; but, because guiding visitors, as well as using English, was more helpful to her we selected some sites we hadn’t seen and headed off to the heart of HCMC government quarter.

Both buildings had been built under the French colonial rule. Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, was the first stop.

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The next site was its neighbor, the Central Post Office, constructed 1886-91. At first I was thinking why visit a post office? But, then I read it had been designed by Gustave Eiffel. With its innovative skylight, ceiling vents, and maps of Vietnam and Saigon, I found this building much more interesting.

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Our formal walking tour ended in front of the People’s Committee Building (built 1902-08) and HCMC’s first pedestrian mall. This vehicle-free plaza opened a year earlier in time for Reunification Day April 30. We posed amidst the playful spouting water for a portrait until chased out by a chastising guard.

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At a coffee shop along the plaza Linh provided an impromptu lesson in chopsticks

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then we headed back stopping at one of the exercise stations where all three of us practiced our swinging prowess.

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Occasional conversations with locals we’ve met along our walks provided interesting perspectives on North vs. South Vietnam, such as the the man pictured below with Max and Linh. He served as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army.

IMG_6278After speaking with him he agreed to pose with this napping truck driver while promising not to wake him.

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Returning to the Mothership we asked to take photos of Linh, our lovely young guide, and Huong, a beautiful staffer at Christina’s. With gracious hosts such as these it seems a no-brainer to travel in this country.

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For dinner we had arranged to meet up with some friends, Sharon and Dave White, who happened to be in HCMC. It’s always wonderful seeing familiar faces from home, and the four of us walked, talked, ate, and walked some more.

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Monday, Leap Day February 29

Our last full day we simply took in more of HCMC on foot. We did end up taking a photo of our alleyway and its outdoor cafes.

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Earlier in our strolls we had noticed some grilling. Looking closely I saw the tail wasn’t curly, which I had expected thinking it was pig.

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We subsequently discovered our street was one of the few in HCMC that served grilled dog since it had lost some of its popularity in recent years. No, this, along with chicken feet, was another delicacy we weren’t tempted to try.

 

Homeward-Bound (March 1-2)

We left early the next morning for Ipswich.

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Thinking back on our five weeks in SE Asia I realize, once again, how fortunate Max and I are to travel to a country, mingle with its people, see its sites, and savor their culture. To then read about that region in various publications immediately places it in a richer context. Case in point, a recent article referenced upcoming Vietnamese elections with more independents applying for candidacy:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/asia/vietnam-election-mai-khoi.html?_r=0

And, a lengthy interview with Obama included a specific mention of Vietnam: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

We can’t take our traveling for granted. It’s too much of a privilege, and we’d be spoiled brats to do so. So, here’s to curiosity about the world and satisfying it however one can… whether by reading, viewing film and TV programs, conversing with others, or traveling. Interesting folk surround us wherever we are–at home or far away. Just by asking a question of a fellow human being it’s amazing what one can learn.

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