After leaving Hockenheim, we soon join the Rhine River and drive alongside it. It is pretty country, with grapevines growing on steepsided hills sloping to the wide, fast-flowing river. We stop in a little town and board a large ferry boat, sitting out on the back deck. When the boat turns 180 degrees, Steve and I move to the front deck, so that we can take photos without the glare of the sun.
We pass a statue of the Lorelie, the legendary maiden who lured boats to their demise on the rocks by her beautiful singing. “What a bitch!” Steve mutters, but for some reason I find the story enchanting.
It is peaceful cruising through beautiful scenery, a castle appearing every so often high on a hill. But it seems everyone is in a photo frenzy. As always, Mayra and Nada are continually taking photos of each other, and Aurora is on a mission to have photos of herself in model poses with everyone on the trip. I click off a few photos, too, catching Steve kissing Mayra on her hair as he snuggles up with her against the gorgeous scenery backdrop.
The cruise is almost finished when Steve says we should get a group shot of everyone on the tour, with the shot taken from the top deck looking down. He’s right, it would make a great photo, but by now we’re getting close to our destination, and I certainly don’t have the inclination to round everyone up, so his suggestion goes unheeded.
The bus picks us up further along the river. It’s a long drive to Amsterdam, and we sit back and doze as the bus leaves the hilly country and continues onto the flat plains of the Netherlands.
We have yet another language to learn – Dutch. The first word is easy: Hello. I make an unsuccessful attempt to learn the word for “Thank you”, but since we’re told the Dutch just about all speak English, I give up. All over the bus I hear people clearing their throats as they try to imitate the gutteral sounds. I’m just thankful they don’t spit out what they dredge up.
We drive past canals and stop next to a token windmill. There are not too many around these days. The spinning bit is not in the ideal position for a photo, turned at an angle, so we troop down the road 50 metres so we can position the windmill as the backdrop. Ashley takes a group photo with us straggled along the road. There are red tulips (or are they poppies?) growing wild in the grass beside us.
We arrive at our hotel, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, near the airport. It’s a huge hotel, with several wings radiating from a central lobby. We have about an hour to relax before going into town for the optional excursion. On the way out to the bus, I see little baby rabbits hopping around the garden.
I’m feeling a little disinterested as we drive into the centre of Amsterdam. It’s yet another glorious day, a Sunday, and people are out in droves, huge masses of them teeming down the streets. But what is really amazing is the number of bicycles. They are everywhere, parked against every rail, wall, canal, building, and flying along cycleways, cutting across footpaths, going crazy.
Our local guide, Leneike, tells us we have to be careful of them. She points out that people don’t have beautiful new bicycles, they have old ones. That way, if they get stolen, they can just steal another one. There is even a 3 level parking station for bicycles, with them crammed in tight against each other.
We board a long open-topped boat for a canal cruise. The canals are lined with 4 or 5 storey buildings, all jammed next to each other. Because Amsterdam is below sea level, the land is not very firm and houses are built on piles driven into mud. Even so, they sink, and we see several buildings higgledy-piggledy leaning against or away from each other. Even more delightful, lining the insides of the canals are houseboats, many and varied, some charming and neat, decorated with flower pots, others charmingly neglected, and old tyres on the waterline filled with sticks and rubbish where waterbirds build their nests. But the thing that really lifts me out of my torpor is the party atmosphere. The boat up ahead is having a party, and they burst into song each time we pass under a bridge, the sound magnified by the echo. On the smaller boats that we pass, people are sipping wine, drinking beer, eating cheeses and having feasts. Hanging over the rails, and sitting on the edges of the canal are more people enjoying the sunshine and many of them wave and cheer. A young guy wearing a funny beanie and lounging in a tinny makes peace signs at us and we make peace signs back. I’m sitting there waving and wishing I was slogging a glass of wine myself.
When we get off the boat, Leneike takes us for a walk through the “Sailor’s Quarters”, the red light district. As you may be aware, prostitution and marijuana are legal here, and they make quite a tourist attraction out of both of these. We pass “coffee shops” that sell dope to smoke and marijuana cookies, the unmistakeable smell emanating from the doorways.
We also pass windows where prostitutes in bikinis strike sexy poses. Leneike tells us that the Dutch have very liberal attitudes. They believe it is a needed profession and that by making it legal and open, they can protect the girls better and prevent rape. The girls are behind a locked door and can choose whether or not to open it for a customer. They also have regular health checks. Their time is sold in 15 minute increments – 50 Euros for 15 minutes. We’re told that the average time that they are with a customer is 6 minutes!
We walk past a church and Leneike shows us a sculpture of an old woman who used to look after the girls. She also shows us a metal sculpture of boobies, with a hand holding one, set into the pavement in front of a church.
The biggest hazard when walking through the area is bicycles. I’m still not used to them coming from the left, and they fly across intersections, regardless of who’s in the way. Aurora nearly gets totalled by one when we’re crossing the road to get back on the bus. The thing I love about Aurora is she doesn’t whinge like some of them. When someone was about to commiserate with her about the crazy riders, she says: “No, it was my fault – I didn’t look.”
Back at the hotel, we have another hour’s break before the included dinner, which is a buffet. I’m a bit confused about where to go for dinner – it’s on the 4th floor – but I see Rafael, and we find a lift and hit button 4. When the door opens, we find we’re in the kitchen, so we go back down again. I ask someone and they direct me to another lift. I look for Rafael to tell him but he has disappeared.
There’s a queue at the buffet, so I wait patiently with Jenny. The food is running out and the waiter directs us to the other side, but it is nearly empty too, and we see he’s started to fill up the side we were originally on. Anyway, I don’t want a big dinner.
I take my tray to sit with Steve, Nada, Mayra, Ros & Merv. I buy myself a glass of wine and buy Steve a beer. They’ve finished eating, but sit and talk. Wish I could remember the conversation. It started off somehow with Merv saying to Ros “Come on fatty, it’s time to go,” and me saying “that’s not a nice thing to say to her” and Ros saying “I don’t want to go, I want to stay and have fun,” and then several other people chipped in until we were all laughing our heads off, tears running from our eyes. This continued, one after another, until we were the last people left in the restaurant, still howling with laughter. I’m sure the waiters thought we were all high as kites. We were, in a way.
While we’re waiting for the lift, Ros says “I want a group hug” and someone else says “let’s wait till we’re in the lift.” So when we all cram in, I spread my arms and call “group hug” and we all huddle together and everyone squeals all the way down until we reach the lobby and the doors open.
We all then head off in different directions to bed.
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