Harbour Safari

Now there’s a boring shot.

What, you’re asking, are these people doing, milling about an industrial, harbour-like terrain? We’re waiting for an old ferry to pick us up and take us on a tour of the working harbour of Amsterdam.

When you’ve been in Amsterdam long enough that instead of going on a canal tour with visiting friends, you just show them to the ticket booth and say see you in an hour, long enough that you roll your eyes when the ferry across the IJ river on the backside of Centraal Station that’s supposed to take five minutes takes twenty because of all the ships and barges crossing its path, it’s time to embrace the reality that Amsterdam is built on water – an obvious fact – and that it’s the fourth largest port in Europe – a fact which the pretty, cultivated centre of the city belies.

From the centre of town, you’d never know that the working harbour of Amsterdam stretches ten km towards the North Sea, and that the shipbuilding and repair section of it alone is two km long.

There are various subharbours for various goods – petroleum, coal, cocoa, wine, cars, etc. – and the Harbour Safari takes you along all of those places while telling you stories along the way. Now, these are places that aren’t normally open to the public, for saftey and security reasons, but they’re also places that you hardly ever see if you live in the city, because it keeps getting pushed west, away from the centre, and has become a sort of terra incognita for both residents and visitors.

My husband grew up on a barge that travelled the waterways between Holland, northern Germany and Belgium, and I’ve spent countless evenings with his parents, listening to stories about harbours.

They have an unusual (but usual for them, and other bargers) view of the world, and specifically the layout of cities. They have never owned a car, and once, when we were lost in one on the way to an anniversary party, my father-in-law navigated us to the place by getting us off the highway and onto smaller roads where he could see the water, because that was what he knew. “Follow this river until it bends and meets with another river, and the place should be in behind the dike somewhere.” He was right.

For them, the centre of a city is its harbour, because that’s where everything happens. Picture a sun, the kind that a kid draws. From the circle that’s its centre, the goods that are the reason cities exist are distributed outwards, on the sun’s rays, if you will, to the places that need or want them. You couldn’t say the same about the actual centre of a city.

Now, the barge that they had was MUCH smaller than the tankers we saw loading and unloading on the Harbour Safari, but they used the same spaces, often docking up against a tanker to receive their own portion of whatever it was the tanker was off-loading, bringing it to a place the tanker couldn’t get to.

There are fewer and fewer bargers these days, and even though the Amsterdam harbour employs 36 000 people, there weren’t any to be seen while we touring through it. Like most industries, machines have taken on the jobs that people used to do (my father-in-law could bend your ear on that for a whole evening), but as we passed one of the last tankers, a man appeared in one of its doorways. As automated as the ships and terrain seem, when you see a tiny human figure emerge from a mammoth structure,  you realize that my father-in-law was right: harbours and tankers still need people to make things work.

As we passed the man, he did a double-take in surprise, and slowly, cautiously started waving at us, a boatful of gaping common folk, puttering about, obsessively snapping photos, gaping back.

By the time we were nearly out of sight, he was still waving, frantically, and grinning, happy, I can only guess, that he was no longer invisible to the urban population. Some of them, at least.