Road trips are always a good idea. Just you, the open road, good company and snacks galore. Multiply this by the excitement of travelling to three different countries in a 17-seater minibus with 16 members of your raucous and extremely enthusiastic Muslim Desi family. Now that’s a recipe for enjoyment.
At 10 AM this morning, we set off on our epic adventure. My uncle is the designated driver for this trip; he has aptly stocked up on energy drinks to sustain him. We have hired an impressive 17-seater minibus for this journey; it comes equipped with plug sockets, a changing compartment at the back, tables and a small refrigerator! To make this trip a proper Desi family trip, my nan and aunts have prepared a large pot of Biryani to take with us, as well as various snacks, such as cookies, samosas and more. Food is, undoubtedly, a crucial component of the South Asian life, and travelling is no exception.
As usual, I packed my bags minimally, being the raving minimalist I am. I am taking a backpack and a small vintage suitcase, as well as a satchel for walks and the like. Inside my satchel, I have stored my Swiss army knife, which I purchased from Saudi, as it usually proves immensely useful.
For the first stage of our road trip, we stopped at a train station in New Romney- the world’s smallest public railway. As the carriages were so minuscule, my cousins bumped their heads as they entered. We took a steam train to Dymchurch, a small village in Kent, and spent some time on the beach, soaking up some sun and frolicking in the sea. The train journey was very serene, and the views were picturesque. I absolutely adore vintage-style trains; they are, by far, my favourite mode of transportation.
It is 3 AM, but I am not yet tired. Yesterday, at roughly 6 PM, we finally reached the Eurotunnel, and took the shuttle to Calais. After an excruciatingly long drive (during which my cousins refused to stop harassing me) we reached Paris. This is my fourth time visiting this city, but this visit has given me a whole new perspective.
After our arrival, the Eiffel Tower hosted a spectacular light show, almost as if to welcome us to the city.
Many claim that Paris is a city of lights and romance, however I would disagree. Though the skyline is undeniably breathtaking, by night Paris appears to be a city of drunken hooligans, Pokemon-Goers and bewildered tourists.
A group of street vendors followed us down the street and (assuming we were Arab) yelled offers at us in Arabic- “Assalamualaikum! Habibi! Wahid! Khamsa!” A drunk man also pursued us, shouting senselessly, desperate for us to respond. He mentioned something about Senegal, then walked away. Despite the numerous drunkards around, we encountered zero actual problems, and we are now at our hotel for the night, in a small Parisian district called Gennevilliers.
This morning, I awoke at roughly 9 AM, after approximately five hours of sleep. We drove to Champ De Mars again for a second glimpse and a spot of souvenir shopping. This time, our experience was unperturbed by intoxicated fools or irritating street vendors.
After that, we visited an idyllic shopping district in the heart of Paris, which is lined with hundreds of chic designer boutiques- after all, the city is renowned for being a global fashion hub. Parisian architecture gives the city a uniquely classic feel. I am especially infatuated with the cafes with outdoor eating areas, as well as the iron-cast railings on the balconies.
The rustic design of some buildings here contrasts with and compliments the more modern architecture, such as the Centre Georges Pompidou- a museum complex with a very eccentric exterior design.
For lunch, we had sandwiches and iced tea at a halal restaurant adjacent to the shopping district.
We are currently in Brussels, Belgium. The general atmosphere here is very calm and considerably less frenetic than that of Paris. The locals are very amicable and respectful. There are many Muslims here, but few Desi Muslims. Everybody is contently coexisting, and it is very difficult to believe that a terrorist attack occurred here just a few months ago.
Our first stop here in Belgium was at the Atomium Museum- a strange monument that is shaped like a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.
As a certified nerd, I thoroughly enjoy visiting museums, especially in different countries. The security measures in place here (understandably) resemble those at the Houses of Parliament! To enter the gift shop, for example, we had to pass through a metal detector and some turnstiles. A soldier with a sniper was guarding the site. Incidentally, the sales assistant at the gift shop asked if we are Saudi Arabian or Maghrebi. People keep mistaking us for Arabs- perhaps this is because Desi Muslims are a rare sight here.
We found a steep hill behind the museum, and I climbed it in my flip-flops. After that, my aunt challenged me to a barefoot race in the car park, and I won!
Our penultimate stop in Brussels was at a small recreational village called ‘Mini Europe’, which houses miniature representations of various European monuments.
Travelling is no excuse to disregard our prayers, so we prayed at the the Grand Mosque of Brussels- the only mosque in the entire city. The interior design there is spectacular. Along with visiting museums, praying at mosques in various different places is another favourite activity of mine.
We are now at our hotel for the night here in Amsterdam. What an awe-inspiring city, famous for its canals, legal drugs, and, of course, its notorious ‘Red Light District’. We still managed to enjoy the city while avoiding the latter two.
We arrived at Dam Square at roughly 11 PM last night. The area was teeming with drunk people and drug users, but everyone was very civil and polite nonetheless.
Standing on a bridge adorned with hundreds of lights, I absorbed the inherent splendour of the scenery: the vintage canoes parked along the river bank, the homely edifices contrasting with the bizarre modern architecture. There were thousands of bikes fastened to poles and bridges, and there were more bikes than cars on the roads.
My cousin Moosa and I are now in the dining area of the hotel, enjoying croissants and freshly brewed cappuccinos.
Last night, we managed to catch a precursory glimpse of the thriving city life in inner Amsterdam. Today, we are exploring the more rural regions of the city. We walked through a cheese factory (where a worker in traditional Dutch attire said ‘Assalamualaikum’ to us) as well as a clog museum. The entire area smells potently of expired milk due to the cheese production.
We took a riverboat to Zaanse Schans, the world’s oldest industrial area, which boasts twenty well-preserved functional windmills, and many historic houses. It also has many museums and workshops. On the boat, my cousins and I waved at the locals (like the pathetic tourists we are) and they waved back enthusiastically.
We entered, and explored, a sawmill, where logs are cut into lumber. There, we learnt more about the history of Amsterdam, including its repatriation and renovation after the Second World War.
Subsequently, we visited another museum- the Amsterdam Science Museum, otherwise known as the NEMO museum. Being a physics enthusiast, I savoured the fascinating exhibits unreservedly- the solar powered pieces in particular. The rooftop of the museum is slanted, and when we walked up (through the fountains) to the highest point, we were able to see a panoramic view of the city.
For lunch, we had fast food, though I added extra salad to my meal in a poor attempt to compensate for my poor nutritional choices throughout this trip.
We are now on our way back to Calais. We have stopped at a service station in order to refresh ourselves and pray- we prayed on the roadside, near another Muslim family.
Sadia Ahmed, 2016
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