Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Day 11: Bruges to Brussels

Travel Log


June 21, 2013

I woke to the sound of a short, fat, and agitated Dutch lady shooing out everyone that was supposed to be checking out that day. I had not really unpacked, so I collected my things and went downstairs to wait. We would spend the day in Bruges and take the train to Brussels later in the day since they ran every half hour until ten at night.

Pato had gotten mildly sick over the course of the night because “stupid Julio opened the window and I died,” he repeated throughout the morning. Julio denied all allegations. It was obviously Julio’s fault. After everyone gathered in the bar/lobby, there was a disagreement as to whether we would rest bicycles, or not. Pato —being sick— got upset that the bikers would do everything faster and then have to wait for the walkers to catch up, and they would get bored, and the walkers would feel rushed, and “you guys ruin everything,” he concluded–exasperated and out of breath. I pointed out how silly he was being and he gave me to most unamused look I had seen in awhile. His mucous clogged head had a hard time understanding that people on bikes could later rendezvous with the walkers when everyone was ready. We decided to meet in front of the hostel at 6:30 and went off to find a place for breakfast. During breakfast, the walkers (totaling four people) and the bikers (making up the remaining six) intermingled and decided that the feud would continue after we had our bellies filled with eggs, bread, and coffee.

When I met up with all of the bikers after breakfast, Ariel, Mau, and Johnny shot off. Jaime and I followed in hasty pursuit, not wanting to be left behind. We must have taken a wrong turn because we were lost and saw none of our comrades. After waiting a few minutes, we decided “to hell with it all,” and started off towards the small town of Damme by ourselves.

As it turns out, before Al Gore started the greatest mainstream hippie ultimatum of the 20th century, Damme used to be on the sea side and served as a port for Bruges. Today, the sea has receded and Damme is nothing more than a town with an old windmill, eight bookstores (which is quite a lot for a town you can walk across in ten minutes), and a good bunch of sheep. During WWI, Damme served as an ammo depot for the wars being fought in the trenches dug into the now lush green fields that surrounded the town for miles and miles.

It was five kilometers riding between the outsides of Bruges and Damme. The bike path followed a canal that cut through the countryside. Alongside the canal, there was a two lane road and beyond that, two rows of trees, and beyond that, an infinite of farmland disrupted only by a church steeple far off in the horizon. Occasionally, we saw ducks paddling about on the canal doing things that concern ducks and spreading ripples on the surface of the slowly flowing water. The bicycle ride was easy along the flat terrain and Jaime and I went at a quick pace while looking out into the country as much as possible. It was in these moments that I really fell in love with the bicycle. Riding next to the canal in the countryside with the wind and your back, one could put out their arms and stop pedaling, and feel the how the tires of the city bike rolled smoothly on the asphalt. Every minute bump, dip, and pebble that the front wheel passed over resonated through your body and echoed down your spine, raising the hairs on your neck as the back wheel passed over the same bump, dip, and pebble. When we reached the old mill, we stopped and drank water from my glass “Club-Mate” bottle. We parked the bikes behind a cafe next to the road, locked them up, and walked towards the town square. I admired the gothic style town hall (that conveniently had and empty cash machine in the basement) and saw the tower of the church off to the side, on the edge of town. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, so we made our way towards the tower.

By the time we got there —no less than 10 minutes later— it was still only around one in the afternoon and the tower did not open to visitors until two. We saw the gate to the local cemetery was open, so Jaime and I wandered in for a peek. As I walked through the place where people preemptively decided to preserve their earthly remains, I realized that it felt very different from when I walked through them as a child. I remember being afraid of spirits, the anger of the dead, the wrath god, and so on... Now, I walk and marvel at the efforts to hold on to what has already slipped from our fingers. The most ironic part is that the dead get no use of it. The tombstones stand and rot, purely for the use of the living. Cemeteries were far more fun in my younger and more enchanted days.

As we left the cemetery, we ran into Ariel, Johnny, and Mau, who had found their way to Damme despite their lack of a map. We talked about the countryside for a short while until Johnny made us all quiet and looked around. “So... we rented six bikes, and I’m no mathematician, but I count one... two... three—”

“Oh shit, Mancera...”

We all looked at each other sheepishly until Mau broke the stunned silence.

“Oh fuck.... fuck, fuck, fuck fuck.”

After phoning the walkers and doing some backtracking, we decided that Mancera was —in fact— completely lost. With this in mind, we decided that it was high time we went to visit the abandoned ammo depots on the outskirts of Damme. Damme (as it has been mentioned) is rather small, so even taking the long way around to the ammo depot only took five minutes. The ammo depot was just beyond the road in a fenced off field where there were grazing sheep. The fence was only knee high, but we hadn’t really read up on Belgian trespassing law so we were not entirely sure of crossing over the fence. Deciding that we were exempt from laws (of the state, laws of physics, and laws of mortality) due to the fact that we were on a Euro-Trip, we stepped over. The baby sheep that had wandered up to us quickly ran over to it’s mother. We soon realized two things; firstly, the secret to the beautiful lush green European countryside is plenty of humidity and a lot of sheep shit. Secondly, there was a minefield of said sheep shit between us and the ammo depot.

We weaved through the shit to the front of the depot which, as we could now observe, was being used as a sheep den; ripe with the smell of composting sheep shit and hay. We looked inside and climbed atop it since it was mostly embedded in the hill. We took pictures down into the valley and scared off some more sheep as we explored the ruins. We kept a wary eye out for the angry Belgian farmer with a shotgun whom we expected to show up at any given moment.

After playing around the ruins for a while and deciding a winner for our competition of who could make the best sheep sounds, we decided to go back to the tower and climb it.

The tower was old, the stairs were steep, and the mid levels were brimming with bird shit that seemed as if it caked every surface on the inside of the tower. The climb burned our legs —and was particularly gross for Jaime who grabbed a handful of droppings as he climbed— but the view from the top was absolutely spectacular. We could see all of Damme, which really wasn’t all that much, and three towns (including Bruges) off in the foggy distance. The red tiled roofs and church steeples stood out in the fog.

We climbed down from the tower and decided to return to Bruges for lunch. The bike ride back was difficult due to strong headwinds that made cruising any extended distance impossible. When we did finally get to Bruges and picked a restaurant, I sat down and ordered an exquisite beer from one of the two breweries that are within the limits of the old city wall. As we locked up the bikes, we found Mancera who in our absence had gone to drink plenty of beer in one of the many pubs that offered a wide selection of Belgian brews.

After lunch we rode down to a park which locals claimed to be the “frisbee and nice asses park.” Since it was cloudy and had drizzled some during lunch, the scene in the park was sorely disappointing. The park was also labeled as a “good kissing spot,” but Johnny failed to convince any of us with his imitation persian accent. We raced around the park a couple of times and had competitions over who could make the best skidmark. We grew tired and collapsed onto the cold, moist grass, and relaxed. Johnny stayed on the bike trying to pop a wheelie while Ariel tried to push him off the bike. Ariel got bored and joined our conversation about waffles.

Suddenly, just as we were getting into the intricacies of nutella topping, Johnny speeds towards us and jumps off the bike—launching it towards Ariel. The bike veered off it’s hellacious trajectory to revenge and hit an unsuspecting Mancera in the shin and forearm. The group decided that due to Johnny’s misuse of aggression on uninvolved parties had earned him a single, and unblockable nut-tap, as a consequence. The next ten minutes were spent carrying out Johnny’s “trial” and punishment. Our little display was observed by some girls sitting on a bench across the park. They seemed confused, but ultimately entertained by our small slice of unorthodox behaviour. After punishing Johnny, we rode back to the hostel.

Once more we gathered and the bikers and walkers were reunited. We got our things and went to the train station and off to Brussels. I sat on the train doing my best to catch up with my writing (which has been difficult to keep up with) when we heard one of the ticket checkers ticketing a Spaniard because his ticket was not properly filled out. Assuming we would have the same problem, I went to wake a sleeping Pato to get the ticket. We could not quite figure out how to fill out the ticket since it was never explained to us and the directions were in Flemish, so we got screamed at by the ticket man too. He clearly had a larger than average stick up his ass that day. He gave us ambiguous directions and threatened us with a fine if we did not fill out the ticket. After we cleared everything up, I gave him my kindest “thank you” with a decent smile. I find that a nice smile has been getting me more places than my company’s aggravated confusion when dealing with strangers caught in a bureaucratic job. Also, that fine would have seriously cut into my budget. After he left the car, Johnny walked over and said “that guy was a Grade A Cunt.”

Arriving to the hostel in Brussels, I noticed that it was quite different from the others we had stayed in. This one was not next to a bar, there were no prostitutes standing on the sidewalk outside, in fact, it looked a lot like a home. We entered the foyer and into the living room where the check in was handled at a small wooden table set in a corner of the room across from the grand piano. There was identifiable African and South American wall decorations as well as other knick-knacks from around the world. This man was quite clearly well traveled. He gave us a tour of the hostel —which was, in fact, a modified home— and showed us to our rooms. I chose the room where there would be three of us and a stranger because I was getting desperate for some fresh conversation that wasn’t about coitus, or economics. We settled into our rooms and lounged about for a while. One of the other guests, who introduced himself as Mark (from Germany), was wearing a Dead Can Dance band tshirt. He had come to Brussels for their concert tomorrow night. We had a short chat with him. I was a little put off by his shaved head and the fact that he always seemed to have one pupil far more dilated than the other. He also looked like he was constantly on extasy. He was a strange character, but seemed, for the most part, harmless and good natured.

We went down to the patio for some of the guys to smoke and for a ping pong tournament. The owner’s dog, Cesar, watched us from the back door. We laughed and commented on the games like professional sports casters with scottish accents. “My god! Julio’s eye-hand coordination is so atrocious that it makes you wonder, ‘how does he masturbate?!’”

After a while, we went upstairs and began talking without room mate, Sophie MacKay. The guys were getting ready to go out for dinner, but I wasn’t sp hungry and I wanted to do some writing, so I stayed behind. I ended up talking to Sophie the while time. She was an easy going girl from Australia with a lovely accent and a contagious laugh that could have made the walls smile had they the facilities to do so. We excanged observations about culture and family for a good while. She was born in the UK, but moved to Australia at the age of 14 months due to her father’s job as a scientist. She currently lives in London, taking a semester off to do some work and some relaxation. When the guys came back, they joined in on the conversation and while they entertained her I went to shower. I came back and continued to talk and coax that wonderful giggle out of Sophie until one in the morning when— after a very long day— we were all decidedly tired. I said goodnight to everyone and to our new friend and fell into a deep sleep.

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