Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum

Amsterdam owes its wealth to the sea. In the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch sailed around the world looking for rare products to bring back to Europe. They were one of the great maritime powers and are still important in shipping today.

Amsterdam is a city made for the sea. Its canals are laid out like a spider’s web, where every family that could afford it built a narrow house on one of the canals, complete with a private warehouse and crane on the upper floor. This maximization of seafront property allowed a large section of society to share in the nation’s wealth.

To really understand Amsterdam and The Netherlands, you need to visit the National Maritime Museum, called Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Dutch. This museum, reopened earlier this year after a major remodel, offers a history of Holland’s maritime adventures from the past 500 years.

Just a short walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the museum is housed in a large 17th century arsenal. Inside are modern interactive displays explaining how early mariners found their way by the stars, how ships were built, and where and for what they traded.

One of my favorite displays is a set of reproductions of sailors’ photo albums from the past century. You sit in an easy chair flipping through the pages while listening to an audio commentary explaining the photos. It was like sitting with some old Jack Tar as he spun tales of the sea. There’s also a large collection of ship’s ornaments, nautical equipment, and an art gallery of maritime paintings.

%Gallery-139729%Another big draw is the Amsterdam, a beautiful full-sized replica of an East Indiaman from the Age of Sail. This is a big hit with Dutch kids, if the squealing school groups crawling all over it were anything to judge by.

Some locals have complained that the remodeled museum has been “dumbed down”, and while I applaud the many exhibitions specifically directed at children, I have to agree the museum lacks a certain something. There’s a large amount of wasted space and as I finished every floor I was left with the feeling “that’s it?” Yes, the displays are artistically lit and well labeled, and the whole execution is well conceived, yet I was left feeling I’d missed out on something.

Another problem is the price–a tooth-grinding 15 euros ($20.23) for adults and 7.50 ($10.12) for kids and seniors. Thankfully I had the I amsterdam City Card, which got me in for free. If you don’t have the card, I’m sad to say that unless you’re a serious history or nautical buff, the price simply isn’t worth it. It’s a shame the high entrance fee will drive people away, because there are some really beautiful artifacts and works of art here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Bartering in Africa – bring socks, and other tips

I’m pretty good at bargaining.

From a young age, my mother schooled me in the art of pretending I didn’t really want something, walking away, and knowing when to give in and pay up. I even developed my own trick:

1. Pick your item and lowball it, haggling it down. (Let’s say you get it down to 20 for example.)
2. Pretend you’re also interested in something of similar value.
3. Ask for a deal on purchasing both items. (Let’s say you get two for 30 instead of 40.)
4. Get rid of the second item.
5. Demand the lower price for your first item. (You already know they can let go of it for 15.)
6. Don’t budge, and walk away if they don’t give it to you.

It’s more than a badge of honor to get a great deal; haggling is a truly primitive survival skill — one that you’d be able to use in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s like being able to start a fire or make a compass out of scrap materials (all you need is a sewing needle, a piece of cork, a small magnet and a cup of water). Furthermore, we use it in the business world all the time, whether we’re bargaining for a raise or a house.

Bargaining with guys like the above gentleman outside of Victoria Falls in Zambia is a whole different ball game. The reason for this is that currency isn’t limited to cash. Currency can be the rubber band around your wrist.In this market, and in many others like it all over Africa, the men working in the shops come from villages with few sources of income. Their land is unsuitable for crops, so they can’t farm. What they can do is weave, carve and make all kinds of beautiful objects you’d never find at home (at least not without a thousand-percent markup — minimum).

For men like these, who work all day in the shop, access to basic essentials like pens, shoes, socks and even rubber hair ties is extremely limited. Even if they make enough cash to buy them at full price, going and buying them can be a long, inconvenient trip — and you, the tourist, are likely to have access to nicer stuff than they can get. That’s where the bartering super-skill comes in: a well prepared traveler like you should know that your best bargaining chip may be a bag of socks to trade.

If you’re going to Africa, you may already have considered bringing school supplies and other basics to donate, but also consider hitting up your dollar store for some essentials you can use in place of currency to buy gifts and souvenirs. To you, it may seem like an unfair trade, but everyone benefits: the goods you have access to are more valuable than currency to some markets, so the shopkeepers are happy to trade with you, and you get to save money. All you have to do is make a little room in your suitcase, and you can be an amateur importer-exporter.

Just don’t get too carried away, and play within the “commercial goods” laws.

Here are some ideas for things you can bring to barter with in Africa:

  • Socks
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Hair ties and clips
  • Underwear
  • Shoes
  • T-shirts
  • Toothbrushes
  • Razors
  • Hand mirrors
  • Bandages

The list goes on and on. Places where it’s appropriate to whip out bags of trading goods are pretty obvious; often, store owners will ask you for things of this nature outright. If you’re in a market or shop where all the goods from multiple stands are rung up at one register, it might not be kosher, but almost any situation where you’re dealing one-on-one with a merchant is fair game for trading.

Just remember: what you don’t end up trading, donate to a local school, or at least leave it with your hotel and ask them to give it to someone in need. You can buy another bag of socks when you get home.

[Photo by Annie Scott.]

My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.

Swap old travel guides for cds, dvds and games with

Even the most amateur traveler will probably have a shelf full of unused travel guides sitting at home. Instead of letting them collect dust, you can easily trade them for something else. is an online service that matches owners of books, music, movies and games – and helps them trade it for something that won’t go unused.

The service is extremely easy to use, and their database of swappable items is massive. Chances are you’ll be trading your unused Paris city guide for a Bob The Builder DVD in a matter of minutes.

Once you’ve signed up for the site, you tell it about all the products you’d like to offload, by using the ISBN number or bar code from your item – and Swap adds them to their database. Then, you can start searching for things you’d like to trade.

This obviously also works the other way around – someone with a whole stack of unused DVD’s may be looking for a Parisian City Guide – making you two the perfect match.

To complete the trade, Swap charges a very small fee (under a Dollar) and helps with printing a shipping label. The entire process is done by Swap, and you print the label off their site, so no need to mess around with stamps. Then, pop your item your mailbox and wait for your Swap to arrive.

Swaps are protected by “SafeSwap” – which guarantees your trading partner will complete their end of the deal – if they don’t, Swap will send you a replacement copy of the item you wanted. All labels include delivery confirmation, making the transaction safe for all parties involved.

Trade souvenirs when traveling – International travel tip

That White Sox hat you’re wearing above your “I hiked the Grand Canyon” t-shirt may be a hot commodity in some countries. Many items we take for granted are both unique and highly sought-after in many foreign nations.

If you find something at a vendor’s stall you like, offer that vendor something of yours in exchange for that good. Maybe he’d like your hat, or that extra shirt in your bag. While you’re not allowed to bring a cache of items into a foreign country to sell, trading items you would normally have in your luggage is perfectly acceptable. No extra luggage room is needed — and you don’t need extra cash on hand, since you’re swapping goods.

It’s not icky to give someone the hat off your head! Trading souvenirs is fun; you get to interact with the locals; and you go home with souvenirs and a great story on how you acquired them.

[Photo: Flickr | Courtneysue75]