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There and back again

by Shunita Gerritsen

With a loud, blunt clonk the ferry arrives. The gate slowly comes down while the flashing lights and loud beeping alert the impatiently waiting passengers. Almost before the way is cleared, people already pour out, while some traffic controllers in neon vests try in vain to guide the controlled chaos.

Ever since I first started high school, I use the central station ferry almost every day. As a connection between the bustling city center and Amsterdam ‘Noord’, it’s the only way for bikers and pedestrians to pass the sometimes calm, sometimes rowdy waters of the IJ. With the busy sea traffic that has been part of the Amsterdam infrastructure for the last few centuries, bridges are impractical and so the ferries go to and from every few minutes. Many times I wondered if it must not be boring for the boat drivers, to just go back and forth the same route every day. But even though the ride is short, the experience is never the same.

In winter, when it is 8:00 AM, mostly commuters are present, the majority of them regulars. Buried within thick winter coats and scarves. Some are busy on the phone, trying to fill their time. The glaring led lights in the dark keep other tired passengers awake. Students are maybe trying to hastily study their textbooks one last time before their school day starts. And of course, there is always at least one morning person, happily chatting away over the rumbling of the motors and the otherwise silence.

When it storms the sound of raindrops, wind, and crinkling raincoats are added to the soundscape. Passengers will huddle together to squeeze in under the roof that protects the middle of the boat from the harsh weather and waves that might crash over the edge when the weather is particularly bad.

In summer, when the weather is pleasant and it is still vacation for a lot of people, the experience is quite different. The ride to the other side almost feels like a pleasant boat trip instead of just public transport. I guess for a lot of people it is. Many tourists use the ferry to get to ‘Noord’ –where it’s cheaper to stay– after they arrive at Central Station with their heavy luggage. More than once have I been asked by overwhelmed tourists which ferry they should take and if I was sure that the ride was free. I wonder in how much footage I am of excited tourists that wanted to capture this experience that is so normal for me. Sometimes I even see people go back and forth without getting off, just wanting to experience a free boat ride. With the summer also the festivals come. Party-goers decked out in color and glitter will stand out between the commuters, if not for their appearance, then for their loudness.

Because so many people use this crossway every day, it also seems to be a great place for sharing information. During the elections, there are often representatives giving out flyers for their political party, different parties standing literally opposite each other. Or religious stands, waiting for travelers that are willing to listen, flyers available in multiple languages. Passionate people that share the same jackets stand out as they are trying to collect signatures for a certain charity. And when the weather is more pleasant, and tourists more present, beggars also come, hoping for a bit of compassion in a place where people cannot walk or look away.

Whether it be for commuting, fun, or work, no matter the conditions, no matter the weather, the ferry will always come. And as boring or exciting as the passage might be for the passengers, it will keep following the same route, there and back again.

Shunita Gerritsen is a third-year bachelor’s student cultural anthropology


  1. Marina de Regt Marina de Regt

    Very nice blog, Shunita! Great that you wrote about the ferry, which is sometimes so much taken for granted. I myself also enjoy each and every time I take it. It always feels a bit as if I am on holidays.

  2. Ton Salman Ton Salman

    I also liked this text. It has this great anthropological quality of NOTICING the thing that usually goes UNNOTICED. In turbulent and confusing times, we need people who PAY ATTENTION to the things we forget to pay attention to.
    Ton Salman

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