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Global Quest For Local LETS
Copyright � James Taris

21. The Miracle Of Getting To Aas
(pronounced "Oz") (OR - The Trials And Tribulations Of Train Travel)

The Mathematician was shocked the Customs Police didn't search his bags.

I'd been on a long train trip before. Zhengzhou (China) to Hong Kong took 27 hours. But I didn't have to change trains. However, my trip from Amsterdam (Holland) to Aas (Norway) was quite a different story. This would take me 26 hours, and I'd need to catch a tram, followed by 8 different trains, through 6 countries. And some connections had only 6 or 7 minutes to spare between arriving into the station and departing on the next train! So it would only take one train running late, to leave me helplessly stranded somewhere, alone and possibly without any local currency. I quickly did the sums in my head and came to the conclusion that I should've paid the extra 200 euros (about 400 Aussie dollars) for a one and a half hour, one-way flight from Amsterdam to Oslo (Norway). Indeed, it would be a miracle if I got to Aas on time.

So let me tell you about the miracle of getting to Aas �

But first of all, let me tell you about my luggage. I was carrying about 50 kg of luggage, but fortunately the larger suitcase (30 kg) had wheels and a long handle, which enabled me to place a large carry bag on it and drag the whole lot around as one. All my papers were stored in a large satchel, making it quite heavy. But it had a long strap, so I put my arm and neck through the loop, and swung the bag around so it sat comfortably behind my back. My small personal bumbag also went around my neck, but I swung it to the front. Now I could walk relatively freely without bags bouncing around all over me.

Monday, October 7, 2002
8:15pm - I left Nico's (my Amsterdam Host's) place earlier than necessary, so I could allow lots of time to mail my postcards and then catch the tram which would take me to my first train connection. Fortunately, the post box was opposite the tram stop, and the tram arrived only 2 minutes later. It took 10 minutes to arrive, literally, into the centre of the Amsterdam Lelylaan Railway Station, where the escalators took me from the tram stop straight up to the above railway platform.

8:30pm - My train wasn't due until 9:08pm. The railway staff warned me to watch my bags carefully because there were thieves around. That's the last thing I wanted to hear. Not only did I have to worry about catching my trains, but now I had to worry about getting my bags stolen too! Anyway, I could catch the earlier train which would give me some breathing space between train connections.

8:50pm - I arrived into Amsterdam Centraal Station, 30 minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to repeat my time-saving exercise again. I don't know about you, but it's bloody hard to understand those train schedules which are displayed in every station. But in this station it was worse. There were 7 different schedules displayed, and I didn't know which one to begin looking at for my Maastricht train listing. As I was struggling with all this, a beggar came over. Could this be one of those thieves I'd been warned about? So I gave him 2 euros (about 4 Aussie dollars) and watched with pleasure as he bounced merrily downstairs clutching his generous donation firmly in his hand. At least I wouldn't have to worry about him, I thought. Back to those bloody train schedules again.

Moments later, a young, scruffy-dressed New Zealander came to my rescue. And within seconds he'd found the listing for my train. But unfortunately there wasn't anything I could catch earlier. So I was back to my scheduled run again, and back to the mercy of fate. Then, just as he was about to leave, he confessed that he'd always intended to ask me for some loose change, but that it really wasn't necessary any more. I was glad to give him 2 euros as well, and didn't even mind when I saw him a little later with a nice, cold bottle of beer in his hand.

9:27pm - I left Amsterdam on my train bound for Maastricht. This would be my first test. The trip would take 2 hours 37 minutes, and my connecting train would leave 6 minutes after my arrival. All I needed was for the train to run on time. But for most of the trip it was running 7-9 minutes late! Already I was thinking about contingency plans. Maybe I could sleep on my bags in the railway station and try again the following morning. I mean, what else can you do when you miss your train, and you're stuck in a foreign place after midnight. But then, what about those thieves!

Tuesday, October 8, 2002
00:06am - I couldn't believe it! We only lost 2 minutes, and I still had 4 minutes to catch my next train. But where the hell was Platform 5a? Luckily I spotted a couple of guys in railway uniforms, and luckily they spoke English. After they confirmed I wanted to go to Liege, they assured me I needed to go to Platform 6. I'd already lost a minute, so I started to run. I even ran up the stairs which took me to the overpass leading across to Platform 6. And then I ran down the next staircase as well. Isn't it amazing, in a time of need, where you find the strength and energy to do the otherwise impossible.

I got to the train at Platform 6. And just to double check, I glanced at the departure screen. Nothing! There's no bloody way I was getting on an anonymous train. I could end up anywhere! So I looked around for some sort of confirmation. On the opposite platform, 3 railway workers sensed my plight and shouted out that the Liege train was on Platform 5a, just as my ticket had indicated. But as I looked around on Platform 5, I couldn't see a train anywhere! It was now 00:10am. I'd used up my 4 minutes! And those freekin' trains are always so fastidious about leaving right on time!

In desperation, I looked at the railway workers again, and they pointed to the top end of the line. So I craned my neck around an advertising billboard, and saw a small 2 carriage train in the distance, and started running frantically again. Surely they'd wait for me. Wouldn't they? I got closer and noticed the train guard was still outside the train. Casually he boarded the train just before I got there. But I did get on!

Seconds later the train set off, and I took the next 5 minutes trying to catch my breath again. But I was a happy soul. This was my tightest connection. And I'd made it. Thirty minutes later I'd be arriving at Liege-Guillemins, and catching the sleeper train to Hamburg (Germany). But I had 14 minutes between connection. Surely they couldn't be delayed more than 14 minutes on such a short trip.

00:40am - I arrived at Liege, and instantly realised that I wasn't in Holland any more. The railway employees were all speaking French. Wow! I'm in France, I thought. It wouldn't be until daylight the following day that I'd be informed I was actually in the French-speaking sector of Belgium. What a bummer! I was in another country and couldn't even enjoy it! Had I known, I'd at least taken a photo of something.

00:54am - The train on the platform was going to Berlin (Germany) and the Hamburg train would arrive after this one left. But then there was a change of plans. All passengers going to Hamburg would have to get onto this one and catch the sleeper train at the next station. Fair enough, I thought. And we were soon off.

00:56am - As I got off the station with the other 3 passengers, I felt a sense of deja-vu. The image I got was something like the image of the jews getting off a train on their way to a Nazi concentration camp. This was the smallest, darkest and most primitive station I'd been to. In fact, the escalator taking us up from the underpass to the opposite platform, seemed totally out of place when compared to the gravel platform and the total lack of buildings or shelters. I'd hate to be stuck out here in the rain, I thought. But as I looked around, I wasn't too happy about being out there in the dark either! I hoped the train would come soon. It didn't!

01:20am - Eventually the train arrived. I'd made a reservation for a couchette (sleeping bunk) and my bunk was on carriage number 120. When the train stopped, I was standing right alongside the front of it. Because of the gravel ground, I couldn't wheel my luggage any more. So I picked up all 50 kg of my luggage and walked up to the first carriage. And I read the carriage number, "90". These had better not be in numerical order, I thought. So I continued looking at the carriage numbers, 91, 92, 93 � by the time I got to 97, I started to panic. A couple of train guards were now returning from the back of the train.

"Where's carriage 120," I asked desperately. One of them turned and indicated that it was just beside the last light pole on the platform. This was the very last carriage on the train! Fortunately, the carriage after 99, was 119. But I was still exhausted once I finally got to number 120. In fact, I couldn't even lift my suitcase into the train until I'd taken a few moments to catch my breath once again! Could this trip get even more challenging? Could this trip get even more exhausting? I'd have to wait and see.

Once I was safely aboard, I started my mental arithmetic again. The train was already about 30 minutes late, and there was only 7 minutes to spare before I caught my connecting train. But this leg of my trip was due to take 6 hours and 27 minutes. Could it make up the lost 30 minutes? These thoughts were still going through my mind as I clumsily attempted to make my bed in the dark sleeper cabin. Five other passengers were already fast asleep when I got there, so I didn't want to wake them. Fortunately I'd booked a bottom bunk (there are 3 levels on each side of the cabin) but my suitcase couldn't fit under my bed. And I needed to get my pyjamas out of my carry bag. And I had to get the fabric bag, with my food in it, off the floor in case someone stood on it. And � Stuff it, I thought, and I switched the light on. Several bodies stirred as I began to put my gear away as best I could. But no-one said a word, except for the lady who'd left her backpack on my bunk. Could I slide it under my bunk, she asked. So I did.

As you can imagine, I didn't sleep very well. The sums kept going through my head. My previous travel experience in sleeper trains had often seen me stuck in the middle of the carriage passageway just before the train was due to arrive at my final destination. Passengers in the other cabins would move their packed bags into the narrow passageway, therefore blocking it, and just wait until they could get off the train. This wasn't normally a problem, but now with my schedule being so tight, I couldn't afford to risk losing a few precious minutes, while the other passengers (without tight connecting schedules) simply ambled about on their way to the exit. I'd get up at 5:45am, I determined. This would give me lots of time to gather my things together, take them to the exit door and freshen up in the bathroom. Then I wouldn't have to worry about the traffic jam when we arrived at Hamburg.

I only got about 2 hours sleep that night, so getting up early wasn't a problem. It is normal practise for the train staff to take your ticket off you when you board sleeper trains. This is so they can wake the passengers 15 minutes before arriving at the destination on their ticket, and nobody has to worry about sleeping in. So once I'd moved my gear to the exit, I collected my ticket from the train staff. With a puzzled look, she said I didn't need to get off at the next station, because we wouldn't be arriving at Hamburg for another 1 hour 20 minutes. So I explained my dilemma to her, and my strategy for trying to save precious minutes at Hamburg Station.

"But the train in Hamburg is expecting you, and will wait for you if we're running late," she enlightened me. After travelling by train for the last 2 months, no-one had ever mentioned that before! I'm sure if I'd known, I would've been able to sleep much better. But it was too late now. I'd just have to wait. A couple of stops later, we were pulling into Hamburg � 5 minutes early! Incredible, I thought. Stressing over something that ended up working to my advantage. And as the train stopped, I read the name of the station. "Hamburg Humberg". Surely this must be the right station. So in a questioning tone, I said, "Hamburg?" to the lady standing behind me.

Then as she tried to pass by me, I said, "Wait a minute. I'm getting off too."

So I grabbed my bags. But just before I could lift them of the floor, she said, "No, this isn't the main Hamburg Station. That's the next stop." And quickly squeezed past me with her 3 young children.

My God, I thought. If she hadn't been there, I would certainly had got off the train, making my next connection impossible.

07:21am - The train arrived at Hamburg Station right on schedule, and I found my next train quite easily.

07:28am - This train was bound for Copenhagen (Denmark). No worries about time on this leg of the trip. It would take 4 and a half hours and I had 1 hour and 37 minutes to spare before my next connection was due to leave. So I settled into my reserved seat opposite a lean and scruffy bearded guy. This ended up being the most interesting passenger I'd ever travelled with. He was a mathematics teacher in a Norway university ("Norway students aren't very smart," he'd keep saying). And he always referred to himself as 'a mathematician'. And I never doubted this for a moment, because the book he was carrying for some light reading was called, "Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Geometry, Trigonometry and Logarithms, But Were Too Afraid To Ask". And he would study it carefully every time there was a lull in our conversation. Which wasn't very often, because he was such a chatty sort of guy. Maybe he felt comfortable talking to me because I was now sporting a fairly significant grey beard of 5 weeks growth. Or maybe it was because I was an Australian, and he wanted to practise his English, which seemed pretty good to me anyway. But whatever it was, this 60 year old guy became my travelling companion, and interpreter, for the rest of the trip, as he was going to Oslo, half an hour further than my final destination.

Now that I knew my connecting trains would always wait for me, and now that I knew I'd be travelling with a Norwegian guy who knew this route very well, I relaxed totally, and enjoyed the balance of my trip. It was daylight again, so now I turned my attention to the sights. And there were many:

1-Windmills - I saw dozens of tall and sleek power-generating windmills in Germany. These modern erections looked like an army procession of Star Wars creatures as their slim propellers spun eerily in the strong north european breeze. Many more of these would be seen on the Denmark side of the sea.

2-Train Boards Ferry - Believe it or not, the train crossed the sea from Germany to Denmark, not over a bridge, but by ferry! The 3 carriage train parked itself in the ferry's parking bay along with a bus, 4 trucks, and a large number of cars. Then 45 minutes later, it rolled off the ferry tracks and back onto the mainland train tracks. Luckily I'd bought a Magnum (ice-cream) on the ferry, because in Denmark they only accept the local currency, Denmark Kroner. This meant I'd be unable to purchase anything else for the rest of the trip.

3-Wild Deer - I saw wild deer (little Bambis) on the grassy plains, on 4 separate occasions, and always in pairs. And a couple of times they were near clusters of houses.

4-Coppenhagen - I took advantage of the long stop in Copenhagen to go out into the city. The mathematician (we never introduced ourselves!) had pointed me in the right direction and told me I should at least photograph the Mayor's House which was only a short walk from the station. So I braved the cold weather (it's bloody freezing out there) and even though I had to take my luggage with me, I chose not to miss out on this opportunity. The Mayor's House looked more like a castle than anything else, so it wasn't as insignificant as I'd initially imagined. But thirty minutes, and 6 photos later, I couldn't bear the cold any longer. So I returned to the station trying to find somewhere warm where I could sit and rest. Boy, was I stuffed!

5-Yellow Houses - Once we were in Sweden, the houses took on an immediate change in appearance. First of all they were almost all wooden, and painted in a large range of colours (one colour per house). But the most favoured colour was a rich yellow. It became quite an enjoyable pastime looking out for the yellow houses in the next cluster of buildings. But my favourite yellow house was the one with the red roof � just like their dog's kennel!

6-Customs Police - Seeing Customs Officers on the train was a new experience for me. It must be a Scandinavian concern, because even though Denmark and Sweden are both in the European Union, they insisted on questioning every passenger on the train. And this also happened in Norway, which was more acceptable because it isn't part of the European Union.

In Denmark, the mathematician was questioned and had his small backpack searched. This didn't seem to bother him at all because he knew he looked like a drug addict. He then related a story to me about an occasion some years before when he was travelling with his long haired son. After half an hour of questioning and searching, he was finally asked what his profession was. And as soon as he said he was a Maths Teacher, he was released without any further incident. In fact, when we boarded the next train going through Sweden, he was so shocked that they didn't search his bags, he complained! But they still wouldn't search him. They were much more interested in the poor young guy, with the Iranian passport, sitting in the seat in front of us. They searched his bag. They went through his wallet. They even frisked him. Boy, was he nervous. And he couldn't speak any English, so he didn't know what they'd do to him. In the end, they were satisfied he was 'clean' and left him alone.

And me? I just told them I was an Australian citizen. Then I showed them all the luggage I was carrying. Maybe it was more than what they wanted to look through. Or maybe drug traffickers and terrorists travel light, so therefore I couldn't be a suspect. But whatever the case, they were gone in an instant. Lucky me.

This article is taken from the ebook,
Global Quest for Local LETS

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