Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wrong turns

There was this one time when I was in the Netherlands with a good friend, and we thought it would be fun to hire bicycles to get around one afternoon. We'd heard numerous stories about how the flatness of its countryside made it an ideal place for cycling.

We'd been backpacking, and found ourselves in a town called Arnhem, not far from the German border. We caught a bus from the train station to the local youth hostel and after dumping our bags, immediately rented a bike each.

They had no helmets for hire, so I should have realised right then that our mission was somewhat doomed. Having grown up with strict laws regarding helmets and bicycles, I was more than nervous. Courtesy of childhood 1980s campaigns, images of smashed eggs - representing the human skull - flashed before my eyes.

Trying to shake off my paranoia, we set off. The hostel was at the top of a large hill, and we had to ride down a long, steep road to reach the town. Until then, my experience of cars driving on the right hand side was limited to the perspective of a pedestrian. Riding a bike on the 'wrong' side of the road, no helmet, down a very steep hill... let's just say I rode very slowly.

Did I mention I was 23, and hadn't ridden since my mid-teens? I felt deeply embarrassed when an elderly man whizzed past and overtook me down that hill.

We survived our ride, and rewarded ourselves with tasty Dutch treats in the town. After checking out the local shops, and stocking up on food at a small supermarket, we thought we should head back to the hostel, so hopped on our bikes.

Somehow... we got lost. Despite having excellent map skills, we couldn't find our way (from memory, I think the hostel was far enough away from town that it was just off the map). We'd retraced our steps, but taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Followed by another wrong turn.

And another.

We found ourselves cycling on beautiful country roads, but very much lost. Oh, and we'd somehow chosen the one Dutch region that isn't flat, but filled with hills and forest. Clever, right?

Eventually, we saw another elderly man, so we stopped to ask directions. Of course, we'd picked the one Dutch person who didn't speak fluent English. He didn't speak any English, and had a slightly crazy glint in his eyes. We hurried on.

A bit further along, we saw a younger person, and stopped again to ask. It turned out we were only five minutes away from the hostel, and I cannot describe our relief.

The return journey on our bikes - from the town to the hostel - had taken three hours. Three hours of being lost and riding up and down hills, in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

Being so out of practice with cycling, I was in a world of pain for the next few days.

1999 - Somewhere outside Arnhem, and trying not to panic.
The reason why I've been thinking about this 'adventure' is because of all the cyclists I see around LA - with no helmets. It's something I don't understand... especially when I see how crazy some of the motorists are. Who wouldn't want to protect their skulls?

I recently saw a car knock a young man off his bike, throwing him onto the road. It happened right in front of us one day when I walking the Faery home from school. It was awful to witness, but he was lucky to pick himself up with barely a scratch. Of course, he'd been riding with earphones in, and straight in front of a car that was turning right from a side street. It could have been so easily avoided.

I'm guessing that Australia is one of the few countries to have such strict laws regarding helmets, but it's something I agree with and think people are better off erring on the side of caution - especially where children are concerned. Brain damage is tragic.

It's one thing for adults to decide what risks they take, but I can't help feeling angry when I see children riding around the streets without helmets. How can parents be okay with that?

This, in a state which makes it illegal to smoke anywhere in public: "Your children are safe from passive smoking in public places, but their skulls? Meh, not so important...."


  1. At first I thought you meant they didn't have laws but do you mean they do and people just don't follow them? I can't understand it. You are right ... it is too easy for a serious head injury to occur and excuse the bad joke but so far as kids are concerned, helmets are a no brainer.

    As for people wearing ear buds, there has been some serious discussion down here lately about the dangers of that too. I am very careful when out walking with my earphones so that I don't get distracted at the wrong moment. It is too easy to end up in harm's way on foot, let alone while on a bicycle.

    I'm a bit anal with these things I guess having been a pedestrian for so long and seen people who are clearly miles away in their heads while driving, walking, cycling etc. not to mention the blatant disregard of road rules that you see every day.

    Love your Arnhem story though I could feel the fear ... I really could. What a pretty place. And you know I never knew there were any hilly foresty places in the Netherlands!

  2. This brings back memories! I'd forgotten about the old guy..hehe. Still don't know how we managed to choose the *only* hilly part of the Netherlands in which to cycle! So much fun through. I have been thinking about this trip a lot lately due to a quick sojourn in Denmark - I love how the Danish women just jump on a bike and ride, skirt and heels and all...

  3. Mel - apparently kids under 18 are supposed to wear helmets by law, but it's pretty common to see kids riding around without helmets - and by kids, I don't just mean older teenagers, I mean kids around 10 or 11. Terrible. Generally, I only see helmets worn by people who wear the proper cyclist gear and take it very seriously. J cycles to work most days, and he wouldn't dream of not wearing a helmet - he's already had several close calls with idiot drivers. It's scary.

    G - I was so envious when I saw your Danish photos. I remember being impressed when we were in Amsterdam and I saw women dolled up on their bikes. Also, at their ability to text, cycle, and navigate those trams! Of course, it seems like a death wish to me nowadays...

  4. I guess America has a history of finding it tough to pass laws that infringe upon a citizen's 'rights' - in that way, I guess people think our helmet laws, seatbelt laws, gun restrictions etc. make us something of a nanny state. Me? I'm grateful.

    History has shown when left to our own devices, we make some dumb arse choices.

    A three hour bike ride in a foreign country where for most of it you felt 'lost'? - okay, that freaks me out, too! Gorgeous photo though. You have always been a beautiful creature....

  5. I think that's very true. The US health care system is another example, where the people are distrusting and unwilling to let the government have any control. They're under the illusion that privatised health care - completely monopolised by the BIG companies - is still a better way to go than a more democratic health care system. So silly.

    And... thank you. x