6 June 2012. After “setting foot” in France, the real long drive of the day had begun. The plan was to drive right through Belgium, stop over for lunch, and then head into Amsterdam.
Steve went through the bus, starting from the front and working his way through to the back, chatting to everyone and asking them where they’re from and what they do, as well as who they came with. I didn’t really turn to look at the people behind me but I tried eavesdropping a little so I could also familiarize myself with those around me. I got to know that there were 2 married couples on the bus, both from Australia. I heard that one of the girls was a nurse, but I didn’t quite catch the profession of the others. Both couples were thrilled to not be the only married ones on the tour. I also heard that the girl behind me was the sister of the nurse, and that the guy next to her was not her boyfriend. She made it clear that they were not a couple and that they just traveled together. That made me curse my best friend, Rowan, cos he would have been the perfect company on this tour. Damn him for making me go alone!
While waiting for Steve, I was admiring the lush, flat, green Belgian countryside. It was exactly like all the stories I heard about it. I know a 76 year old man who comes from Belgium, and as we were driving through it, I remember thinking that I envied him for being from such a beautiful country. I loved their windmills too. They seemed to be right on the side of the road.
After what seemed like an hour, Steve was done chatting to everyone and then decided that he wanted us to get to know each other, so he said that we were gonna do a form of Speed Dating, where the people sitting on the aisle side of the bus would move one seat forward, and speak to whoever sat by the window. Yay, so I didn’t have to move, people would instead come to chat to me. I thought it would be a nice ice breaker, but I was a little nervous because what on earth do you say to a complete stranger who comes and plonks themselves next to you and who you actually have to make a conversation with.
I knew who was going to come chat to me first, although I didn’t catch his name, but I knew he was the one sitting next to the sister of the nurse. He came by and I found out that his name was Adam. He had a slightly mischievous look on his face, even though it was hidden by his slightly messy dark hair and facial hair, and he was rather quiet. I think we both didn’t really know what to say except ask where the other was from and what we do. I remember him saying something about working with cars and in a workshop (I think). He had a heavy, typical Australian accent that we all know, so it was stupid of me to bother asking where he was from because I picked it up the second he said hello.
I don’t remember in what order the others came after him, but I met a sweet Canadian girl named Serena, who reminded me of Paige from Charmed. She was also a red head so that added to it, but her hair was tied back and it was very curly, unlike Paige’s. She was from a place I’ve never heard of in Canada, so there’s no chance I’ll remember it now. I also met Sam, who had the cutest face I’ve ever seen in person. She had that babyish look like Jessica Alba, and was noticeably more tan than Serena, but about the same as Adam. She was from Melbourne, Australia, but there was something about her that made me think that her blood wasn’t Australian. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I think I met at least 2 other people before Steve said that time was up. I was rather disappointed because none of us had met even half of the bus yet.
By around 4pm we reached our first service stop. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised when I walked in. It was like a mini supermarket, with a deli, fruit bar, and cake counter. And the best part was that it had free WiFi. Yes! I could check in on Facebook at the Belgian/Netherlands border! Ha! How often do you get to do that?!
After we had a bite to eat and drew some money from the ATM, it was time for the final stretch before we got in to Amsterdam. The excitement had now really grown exponentially, and it was evident on the bus. There was a definite buzz as the clock approached 6pm and saw our first canal.
Steve had shocked us all with the news that we were going to be taken to a live sex show. I think I can safely say that at least 75% of the bus was speechless and in shock, and refused to believe him. I remember some of us at the front of the bus kept asking him if he was kidding or what, but he wasn’t. It was obvious why this wasn’t mentioned on the itinerary – no one’s parents would have let them come on the tour! This was definitely going to be an interesting tour, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for it. But then I thought come on, don’t be an idiot, God knows when I’ll ever come to Amsterdam again, I couldn’t miss this. As awkward as it would be. The thing that a lot of people don’t know is that it is actually an optional activity, meaning we had to pay extra money if we wanted to go see it. Every single person on the bus said yes, they’re gonna go. So my tour group was anything but boring!!
But more of that later (well, not really).
Our hotel was a little bit out of the centre of town, and we were pleasantly surprised at the location of it – it was called the Lakeside Hotel and was situated right next to where a whole lot of yachts parked. Too bad I didn’t get a decent picture of that scenery because we were all so exhausted from the long drive that all we wanted to do was just get our bags off the bus, dump them in our rooms, and head to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was then that we found out who our room mates were – mine was Alexandra (Alex) from Savannah, Georgia in the USA. She was a little taller than me and very friendly. I was glad to have someone like her as a room mate. After we freshened up, we headed to the dining area. I can’t remember a thing that was on that dining table, except some chicken and the ice cream.
When we were done, we just had a few minutes to spare before we had to get back on the bus for the walking tour into town and the Red Light District. Steve explained to us where to get off the bus should we decide to stay out late – “as soon as you see the Texaco, press the button”.
After Steve dropped us off, Steve started the walking tour. We were told the difference between a Coffee Shop and a Cafe (very important to know the difference, especially if all you want is a genuine cup of coffee) and shown some of the popular places to go like The Grasshopper. I was not expecting to see the Red Light District when I did, because everything looked so normal. I just remember finding the city as a whole so charming, but at the same time finding myself paranoid at the number of cyclists all over the place. Being hooted at by a cyclist that many times was extremely foreign to me, and it took a while getting used to the bicycle lanes, and knowing which way to look first when crossing the road, since it is on the opposite side to what we have in SA (we’re still running things the British way, I say).
Our first real encounter and eye opening moment of the Red Light District was when Steve took us through Skinny Lane. I didn’t know what to expect, but it suddenly dawned on me what was there – the rooms with glass doors where the girls would do their “work”. Not all the curtains were closed so some of the girls were posing right behind the door, all of them smiling, wearing the most stunning lingerie you’d ever see. I was so embarrassed to look at any of them because I heard that they get angry if women stare at them, so if I did look up, I gave the quickest smile I could and just scurried along trying to keep up with my group, who were also giggling in disbelief. Once we got out of there, the guys were red faced, and the girls were just giggling uncontrollably. I think it was more shocking for us girls than it was for the guys. They were probably more embarrassed than us though, but God knows what was going through their minds.
After we got over that welcome to Amsterdam, we walked on until we got to a church in the middle of the Red Light District, where Steve told us a little bit about the story behind it. He mentioned, in a much lower voice, that the girls from that particular area weren’t all that great. Glad they didn’t hear that, I wonder what they would have done.
We then made our way to the theatre where the sex show was to be held. No, I will not mention what I saw in there – some things are best kept to oneself! I will say though that it was probably the most awkward experience of my life, sitting in a theatre full of strangers, most of which I hadn’t even met yet, and watching stark naked people performing on stage. It was a good thing that 2 drinks were included in the price, so we had somewhere to look if it got a little too much for the eyes. It doesn’t help when 2 girls are performing and you’re a girl sitting between 2 girls – where else can you look if you need to turn away from the stage, other than the ceiling or those next to you to see if they are equally horrified?
After the show, some of us made our way back to the hotel. Steve took us to the bus station, which was absolutely massive. I think we would have totally been lost if we had to find out way around there ourselves. A lot of people stayed behind to do a pub crawl – I have no idea how they did that after such a long day! Especially the Australians – hello, where’s your jet lag?!
What a first day it was. As I reflected on the day’s events, though small in number, I remembered that Steve had explained to us on the bus where XXX came from and that it actually had nothing to do with what we think it has to do with today, but rather the 3 “hits” on Amsterdam, including the plague.
Only those who travel can get certain information that others can only guess. I can definitely call myself lucky.