Helen Moat's long ride to Istanbul begins with a night on a Couchsurfing sofa in Holland. And a search for Noah's Ark...
“Noah’s Ark is right here in Dordrecht,” Asher said.
I don’t know how we had got onto the subject of Noah’s Ark. Somehow we had been discussing the bible story with my Israeli couch-surfing host, Asher.
“It’s not in Turkey,” he said. “Not on Mount Arafat. Noah’s Ark still exists, you know, and it’s just behind the flats on the river, one minute away. Come I show you.”
Asher jumped up from the garden seat and beckoned. I was in my sock-soles. There was no time to put on shoes. Asher was already halfway down the path. Jean, another couch-surfing newbie from Paris, and I ran down the path after Asher. We turned a corner onto the river. Asher stopped still, looked, and threw his arms up into the air:
“It’s not here! Where have they put Noah’s Ark? It’s always here.”
He looked up and down the river in disbelief: There was no Noah’s Ark.
This was my first experience of Couchsurfing. Back in England I’d contacted Asher and asked him if Jamie (my son) and I could stay for one night.
“Of course,” he’d replied. “But couldn’t you stay longer? I’m working Friday night and part of Saturday. Maybe you can stay the whole weekend?”
“Don’t worry, if no-one is here when you arrive,” he went on to say. “Just go through the back garden and let yourselves in.”
I was amazed that my host held so much trust in complete strangers, but this is how Couchsurfing works – and has to work.
I’d decided to try Couchsurfing when I was planning the trip. It was a way to manage the cost of cycling through Europe to Istanbul over three and a half months. It was still too cold (for me) to camp and I couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation every night. More than that, it would give Jamie and me a chance to experience a ‘slice of real life’ in the countries we were passing through.
Our adventure had started in Hull the night before. We’d gone to bed and woken up in Europort near Rotterdam. We spent the day cycling through the industrial heart of the Netherlands. It was a surreal experience as we passed through a green oasis of geese, ducks, goats and sheep, yet surrounded by factories, chimney stacks, towns and cities. The sun was shining and the paths were smooth and flat as we followed canals and rivers. If the whole way to Istanbul was like this, the 3,000 odd miles would be a piece of cake.
Arriving in Dordrecht, we stood nervously outside Asher’s door. How would we get on – dropping into the lives of complete strangers? We had no need to worry: Asher and Mary his wife were easy-going, open and friendly.
Around the dinner table, Asher was still reeling from the missing ark.
“It’s gone!” he said to Mary. “Where have they put it?”
“Maybe they moved it for the King’s visit,” Mary said. “Or perhaps they’ve built in front of it.”
“Don’t believe him,” Inbar, their son said to us. “There is no Noah’s Ark. He’s making it up.”
“Look I will show you a picture in the newspaper.”
Asher rummaged through a stack of newspapers on the sideboard to no avail. The article was missing. Inbar was shaking his head in amusement. I looked at Jean. Jean looked at me. Neither of us could tell if Asher was persisting in a long, elaborate hoax – all at the expense of the naïve foreigners. As we ate our dinner, Asher seemed to forget about Noah’s Ark. He told us his life story, from leaving Israel to settling in the Netherlands. It was a good yarn, full of adventure. Asher was a natural and witty raconteur.
It was getting late when Asher jumped up.
“Come,” he said. “We go to Noah’s Ark in my car. It’s not far.”
Jean and I rushed out after Asher, still unsure if Asher was spinning out a deceit. He drove us through the back streets to the river – and there indeed was Noah’s Ark: a huge hulk of a ship.
So this was what 300 cubits length, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high looked like in reality. The boat was massive, built entirely of wood. It looked too heavy to float, but there it was towering above us with two giraffes standing guard at each end of the boat. It had a biblical appearance of epic proportions – only the boat’s name ‘Ark van Noach’ looked incongruous as it gleamed in neon lights, like something from a nightclub. Only in the Netherlands.
The boat was built by a local carpenter, Johan Huibers, a millionaire contractor. He started off, building a half-sized model with friends and family, and spurred on by the success of his project, went on to build a full-scale reproduction. Inside, there’s a café, two cinemas and a host of model animals – along with a few live chickens.
Jamie and I didn’t visit the boat, but we cycled past it the next morning on our way out of town. The ark was a strange sight on the contemporary Dutch skyline. As I spun the bike wheels through the countryside, I wondered what the next days, weeks and months would bring. If the first two days were anything to go by, it was going to be an interesting trip.