2008-12-05

To Amsterdam and Back: What didn't go wrong?

The week before Thanksgiving I went on a business trip to Amsterdam. Yes, THE Amsterdam, the one with wooden shoes, windmills, hookers and drugs. What isn't on the brochure is that Amsterdam has the largest connection to the internet in the world. To use the very bad pipe analogy: Amsterdam's internet pipe had to be brought in on a wide-load semi. So the plan was to build servers for a couple of days, debug for one more day and then have two or three days to explore Amsterdam. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Tuesday morning I boarded a plane in Denver and headed to Washington DC ( Dulles ) and a 4 hour lay-over. I dreaded this until a friend of mine gave me the heads up on the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar Hazy Center that is a 15 minute & 50 cent bus ride away from Dulles. I only had an hour to wander around but it was amazing to see the space shuttle Enterprise, the SR-71 Blackbird, the Concord, and countless other aircraft that I had seen in movies or read about. Best lay-over EVER! If you have a long layover there I highly suggest going.

Back at Dulles, I boarded my first ever 777 and got comfortable for my flight over the pond. I instantly fell asleep and was able to stay that way until about an hour before landing at 6am Wednesday morning in Amsterdam. I met up with my boss Mark, rented a car ( a Chevy of all things ), and headed out to find our hotel and then the place where we were installing our servers (CoLo).

One of the first things to strike me while driving around was the abundance of windmills or wind turbines, the kind that generate electricity. I'm am a huge proponent of these here in the US and was excited to see so many of them working to keep that country powered. There was at least 5 within a square mile of where we would be putting our servers and it was like that everyplace except for the heart of the city. There were not piles of dead birds at their base, in fact we saw a large number of birds flying around unhampered by the windmills. Also they made almost no noise. Well they did make noise the one night that it was blizzarding but so did our warehouse and every other thing that was unlucky enough to be struck by the wind. What they did do was generate clean power 24/7 and that was a pretty sweet thing to see.

After getting us slightly lost and then back on track we dropped our gear off at the hotel and headed out to the CoLo. When we arrived we found out that our servers were not there, only our networking and support equipment was there. In order to get our servers we needed to pay a VAT charge but no one knew who to pay or how much. Here is where not having local contacts for our shipping company became a huge issue. Amsterdam is 6 hours ahead of the east coast of the US. We had to wait until that afternoon to contact the shipping company in New York. Meanwhile we set up the gear we had and headed back to the hotel. That night I was pretty tired and after dinner just set up my hotel room and crashed, but not before my good friend John guaranteed that I would wake up at 1:30. Confident that I wouldn't I went to bed.

I woke up at 1:30 and cursed John from half way around the world.

Thursday morning I woke up bright and early ready to make up for the delays of Wednesday. Unfortunately Mark was not able to sleep well and needed a few more hours to get caught up. I headed out onto the streets of Amsterdam to see what was around our hotel. What I found was what I later dubbed America-town, a few blocks of restaurants and bars that looked like what someone who has not been to America might think that it looks like. Only one place was open for breakfast and I wasn't about to brave it's sports bar / pancake house motif. Back at the hotel the in-house breakfast wasn't that bad but I would warn travelers to avoid the breakfast sausage, it was more like breakfast hotdog. Mark had finally gotten enough sleep around 10 and we headed out to the car shortly after only to find that we had forgotten about the parking rules and had gotten a ticket. A quick round of blame-game and we were back on the road to the CoLo. We had gotten the local contact number for the shipping company sometime during the night and were able to get the exact amount of the VAT charge due and the bank account that it needed to be transferred to. This was great except that we had to wait until 2:30pm Amsterdam time for the banks to open on the east coast so that our finance department could wire transfer the money. Even then the money would not show up in the mover's bank account until sometime the next morning. Frustrated, we filled our day with busy work that we were previously going to have the rest of our team do stateside while we were asleep. We left the site that night, another day down and still no servers in sight. The thought that we weren't going to make it back home on time started to enter our minds.

Mark and I decided to see what America-town had to offer and settled on a mexican food place that served all you can eat ribs and margaritas. On the walk back to the hotel I took a few shots of the streets and canal at night. Determined to have a productive day on Friday we headed to bed and made plans to get started early the next day.

Friday got off to an equally slow start. The movers still didn't see the wire transfer in their account and since we didn't have anything productive to do at the CoLo we spent the morning working in our hotel rooms. Late in the morning we got the word from the movers that the wire transfer had shown up in their account. We thought this was the last thing needed but we were informed that there was still some sort of form delaying the shipment and that they weren't sure if the CoLo was supposed to fill it out or we were. Wondering why we hadn't heard of this form and why we couldn't have spent the last 24 hours figuring this out we dialed the CoLo office and started a threeway call. It was determined that we needed to fill out the form but it was in dutch and there was no translation so the CoLo office offered to fill it out on our behalf and then send it to us to sign. At this point we had converted what was the smallest hotel room I'd ever stayed in into a two man office with the hotel staff doing the printing and faxing for us. Once the form was completed and accepted by the moving company we started making plans for delivery. We asked the movers what time we should meet them and we were told that the delivery could be made either late Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. We were speechless, both of our plane tickets were for early Tuesday morning. We were not going to be denied after jumping through all of these hoops. We asked, assuming that the movers were in Amsterdam, could we come and get the servers ourselves. We were told yes and given an address near Rotterdam where they were being stored. Quickly pulling up google maps we found out that Rotterdam was about 2 hours away. The movers closed at 4:30 and it was almost 2. We quickly sent a last batch of maps and forms to the front desk to print, packed up our gear and ran for the car. If we didn't get the servers today one or both of us would probably be staying in Amsterdam over the holiday.

Let's take a minute and talk about driving in Amsterdam and Holland for those who don't know. In the city of Amsterdam the streets are very small due to the constraints of the extensive canal system and existing structures. One thing that every street did have was a proper bike lane with it's own light system and everything. Not only that but it seemed that bikes were used more than cars, at least in the heart of the city where driving was a pain and parking was expensive. Cars and roads are configured the same as in the States, driver on the left and car on the right. It was fairly easy to figure out what the signs meant but nothing was in english so when we needed to make an east bound exit we had no clue which one it was. ( east = oost, west = west, north = noord, south = zuid ) So driving around Holland shouldn't have been much of an adventure. Shouldn't have.

The first 90% of the drive to Rotterdam was easy, all interstates ( I have no clue what they are actually called there. ). When we got onto the secondary roads is where things started to go wrong. One wrong turn sent us into a construction zone and out into the farm land. Because of how the traffic had been rerouted it was impossible for us just to pull a U turn and go back. Eventually we came to a road and turned off in an attempt to get back on going the other direction. Somehow we ended up on the wrong side of the cones and eventually came to a cement road block. We turned around and couldn't find our way back onto the road, not even going the direction we were going before we turned off. We finally found a row of houses where an older lady was unloading her car. We stopped and asked if she understood english. She replied "Yes". We asked her how to get back on the main road and pointed to it. She replied "[insert extremely long explination in dutch here]" and then "right" and then "[insert more dutch here]" We looked at her and then looked where she was pointing, it was a bike path. And, yes, a right turn off of the bike path would put us right back on the road we needed to be on. But it's a bike path, complete with a sign saying no cars. It was 4pm and we were running out of time. We thanked the nice lady and drove right down that bike path. A quick right turn over the grass median and we were back on track going the correct direction. A few minutes later we found the warehouse and were loading the servers into the back of our SUV, the only time we were thankful that the rental car place had upgraded us from a compact.

3.5 hours and a reminder that rush hour traffic is a global fact of life we had the servers at the CoLo and were ready to start installing them and we hit yet another road block. Servers that are in racks rest on what are called rails that work like a kitchen drawer allowing it to glide in and out of the rack. Those rails sit on flanges that have to be set the correct width when the rack is built. Ours were setup too narrow. No problem, we can move them, except they are installed with Torx which is the only style screw driver we didn't bring. A google search of hardware stores in Holland brought about my only luck of the day. A single entry in a forum post about motorboat oil pointed me to the Home Depot equivalent in Amsterdam, only a 5 minute drive from the CoLo. We got the tool, fixed the rack and installed the servers. Around 1am we got the OS on the first few servers, enough to have a build environment, and we headed back to the hotel. That night was the end of me having any sort of regular sleep schedule.

I stayed up until 4am building the servers. The next two days are a blur of working on the servers, cleaning up the rack and very little sleep. But by Sunday night the servers were built and I had a fair chance of being able to explore Amsterdam on Monday.

Explore is exactly what I did. Taking my cue from the rest of Amsterdam I rented a bicycle and headed toward Dam Square, my camera securely fixed to my back. Dam Square consists of the Palace and a very large church that I had hoped to walk through. There is a large open area where I imagine that people perform for tourists on weekends, but this was a Monday and only the Grim Reeper, Darth Vader, and a lone juggler were performing for the small crowds. On trying to enter the church I found out they are closed for the month of November to prepare for the Christmas festivities. So I thought I would give the Palace a try only to find out that it too was closed. It would seem that my visit would be constrained to the outdoors. I took some photos of the WW2 memorial that was also in the square and then made my way toward the Red Light District. I found a quiet back street along one of the canals and took a few more photos before arriving.

It was fairly obvious when I rode up on the first street of the district: hash bars, pornography shops, and signs advertising peep shows were very prevalent. I rode down this street, chuckling to myself and thinking that this was all that there was to the infamous Red Light District. I was wrong. I cut down an alley and headed back down the next street over. It was while riding on this street that I heard knocking on the window next to me. I looked over and saw a woman in a bra and panties knocking on the window and inviting me to come in. It was then that I realized that I had been seeing women in the windows but I had mistaken them for manikins. Now I understood. I continued to ride, making a note to bring Mark back here later.

At this point I was just meandering though the less crowded streets, looking for pictures that I thought would be interesting and fighting with the light that the sun wasn't giving me. Amsterdam is pretty far north and we only got about 6 hours of daylight while we were there and the sun stayed pretty low in the sky. Add to that the fact that the streets are all very narrow and are lined with 4 and 5 story buildings. And finally add to that that Monday was a cloudless and very bright day. What you end up with is huge pools of shadow and a very nice sky or you could see what was on the ground but have a completely blown out sky. An HDR shooter's wet dream maybe, but I was trying to just keep it simple. I did get some images that I like, mostly bicycles because of their abundance and my love for them.

Mark and I had agreed to meet at the hotel that afternoon to regroup. We did and I convinced him to leave the car for one night and rent a bike. We grabbed a late lunch and both of us picked up the obligatory kid's gifts before we rode up to the Red Light District so that I could show him. By this time it had gotten dark and the district had really started hopping. There were easily 10 times the women in the windows (all lit up in red ) and there were tons of people. It really did make Vegas look like a box of kittens in comparison. We wondered around for a bit and gawked and then moved on in search of dinner. After dinner we wondered around a bit more, walked through a hash bar, and decided to call it a night since we both had early flights the next day.

The next day was also my birthday. I would spend it on a plane to Frankfort and then to Denver where I would finally be home and able to sleep in my own bed.

From what I saw of it, Amsterdam is an amazing city and I'm [mostly] not talking about the drugs and hookers. From the abundance of windmills to the acceptance of bicycle traffic I was very impressed. Even their views on pot and prostitution impressed me and at no time did I feel unsafe around either one. The people we met were very friendly and at no time did I feel any hostility for towards me for being an American. I wasn't a huge fan of the weather, the short days combined with more clouds than sun were really difficult to deal with. I would love to go back, especially with Heather but not so much with the kids.


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