Back Into the West

It was our own game of Jumangi, with me as Robin Williams and the rest of the family perfectly fitting their respective movie roles. Wild animals, including psychotic monkeys, giant mosquitoes, trumpeting elephants, as well as jungle vines catching on our legs and monsoon rains threatening to float us away--all of it had been there for each roll of our dice as we crossed Asia. And just as in the movie, our game pieces were moving around the board of the world on their own volition and we couldn't end the game until we played it all the way through--which in our case required us to get reserved seats on a KLM flight out of Mumbai, India.

And that final roll of the dice that released us from the madness of India and the strangeness of Asia washed us up on the safe, clean, familiar shores of Amsterdam, more than half way around the world from where we'd started.

Brauresgraut canal is in downtown Amsterdam. We found a two-hundred year old etching of this same view that showed little has changed since then.

Our flight from Mumbai was packed, and long. Winging along seven miles above the earth, what we knew most was the toilets now worked and the food and water was safe. When we landed in the Netherlands we all felt relief, like we'd made it home to the farm for a family Thanksgiving dinner after our freshman semester in 1964 Berkeley.

I was the first to get off the plane, nearly leaping through the open plane door and jauntily strolling up the long ramp way, my daypack and computer bag slung over my shoulders. Half way along the sloping tube there was a large black dog looking at me, sitting dutifully next to his owner. My first thought about Holland, this gentle lowland of tulips and lazy windmills, was how easy going and natural the Dutch must be to allow dogs to roam free in airports. I said a greeting to this handsome Belgian Shepherd and reached out to pet him, but apparently it didn't speak English because it only growled and turned its attention to the passengers behind me. As I walked past his owner, a serious looking chap in an equally serious looking uniform, I told him that it was a good looking dog. But apparently he didn't speak English either since he also growled and scrutinized the line of people following me.

I took about three steps before I thought that maybe I missed the whole point of that scene. I think it was when I realized that even in Holland you probably didn't need to carry an Uzi machine gun when walking your dog and greeting passengers from Asia.

But heh! We'd made it, we were in the Sane Zone.

Within minutes the four of us stepped into one of the world's most modern and zoomiest airports. Moving sidewalks carried us past chic shops filled with every conceivable commodity, electricity that worked and lights that didn't flicker with epileptic white neon, modern telephones, bathrooms as clean as Aunt Betsy's cupboard, and people who not only spoke English but seemed genuinely interested in helping us.

We caught a train into Amsterdam, making the mistake of getting on the first class section with second class tickets. But the kindly conductor took one look at us and said to make ourselves at home. It must have been Salli's habit of stopping every few minutes and bowing down to kiss the earth with elated tears in her eyes, or Cassidy's insistence on repeating "Namaste" to everyone she met.

Indeed, we were all happy. We had made it this far, and in no time at all we were getting off in downtown Amsterdam at 7 in the morning. It was cold, the canals were frozen and our Asian clothing thin. But no matter, it was the Sane Zone.

We trotted through the train station with our packs and bags, not sure where we were going but happy to be going when out of the corner of my eye I saw a tout making his slovenly way towards us. I reached in my pocket to grip my knife, prepared to fight through if needed. He neared and began his pathetic pitch.

"Excuse me sir, are you looking for a hotel?"

I reeled on him ready to fend him off. He was smiling, respectful, keeping the proper body distance, and I was caught off guard. Instead I stood there stammering. He asked if I was OK and all I could do was give him the Indian head bobble, the Asian subcontinent sign for anything you want it to say. He read it to mean we already had a place to stay.

"Excellent," was his response. "Please enjoy your stay in Holland." And he turned to look at other travelers heading down the way. I reached out and grabbed his arm.

"I've got to thank you," I babbled to him. "Incredible. You're... you're just so nice compared to the touts we've been dealing with." I was about to deliver a lengthy lecture on comparing his techniques with the mobs in Indian rail stations when my family grabbed my hand and led me off, further into the Sane Zone. He stood there, probably considering a career move.

The streets and canals of Amsterdam are like the spokes of a wheel, radiating out from their central hub of the train station. We randomly chose one and began walking along the quaint cobble stones of this remarkable Sane Zone. No cows, no beggars sleeping in piles, no mountains of garbage or screeches of "chai, chai!"

And most of all, even at this time of the morning, there was the unmistakable air of Sanity. Of people who were happy and healthy, not filled with religious angst, greed, hunger. One block from the station as we plodded along we passed a pretty house with a large picture window in which stood a beautiful woman. She was smiling, waving at me, dressed in nothing but her sexy black undies and some tall black stilletto boots. Clearly she was just getting ready for work, and I waved back. These Dutch are so friendly.

A little further up the street there were more women standing in their windows getting ready for work, and interestingly all were also not yet dressed. I waved to each of them, happy to be among such industrious and friendly people. Salli used the occasion here in the Sane Zone to practice her left jab on my waving arm.

And then we saw it. Like an oasis on a desert horizon, the focus of all our dreams, our fantasies fulfilled, there it was like the sunlit gold of a treasure trove. A sparkling, glistening, radiant cheese shop. In our game of Jumanji there had been no cheese, and this shop was open!

We rushed forward, dropping our packs and bags along the way. We clamored through the open door, each of us fighting the other as to who would be first inside. And once inside we just stood there, gawking, panting, drooling on the clean tile floor. The aroma of the cheeses was intoxicating, the choices overwhelming.

The cheese meister said something in Dutch, but we just stood, Cassidy crushing her nose on the glass, me looming over the top of the counter like an old oak, Samantha's eyes rapidly darting from one end of the shop to the other as if she were watching a championship match of ping pong.

Then the owner repeated himself, this time in German, then French, then finally English: "Can I help you?" But we weren't concentrating on words, and he proceeded to try out other languages. I think he was on the Masai click language when finally Salli blurted out, "CHEESE!" and pointed first to the right, then the left, then all around.

"Yes, cheese," was his bemused answer.

"Want cheese...." Salli stuttered. "Now...." She was pointing to her mouth and stomach as if he might not understand what the cheese was meant for.

The rest of the customers began to grow nervous and carefully retreat from the store, having to step over our many bags and baggage littered around the front of his shop.

"What kind of cheese do you want?" His patience, even here in the Sane Zone, was clearly wearing thin.

"All of it," Salli answered, smiling, her eyes unable to focus on the many succulent choices. She randomly pointed, "... that one."

He began to cut up hunks of the solid ambrosia, and as quickly as he cut we would shovel it in our mouths. It was a feeding frenzy, a cheese whiz bang feast. And when we were sated we ordered more to take with us, and headed off, back into the Sane Zone, our nervous systems buzzing with cheese power.

Yes, we had made it around the game board and were now in the Sane Zone. We were the survivors of the Jumungi game of world travel.

We had reached Amsterdam.

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