“We are going to be late.”
Truman grumbled to himself as we walked towards Temple Meads station. His eyes were trying to focus on his phone as they tried to blink away the darkness of sleep. This was the first trip we had ever taken together despite our meeting back in Brisbane all those months ago.
“According to Google,” he started while rubbing his unshaven face. “We are going to miss our flight.”
I looked at him perplexed. If there was one part of trips that I excelled at, it was planning. There was plenty of time allocated to be at the airport before our plane departed. What was this Welsh man talking about? We kept a steady pace walking through the streets of Bristol and I adjusted the straps on my backpack.
“We should get a taxi,” Truman persisted. “We are going to be late. We will miss our flight…no you will miss your flight. I don’t have a bag to check in. I will run through customs and you will have to wait in the queue and buy a new ticket. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you behind. What am I going to do in Amsterdam by myself? I will wait with you and then we will have to get two new tickets. We should get a taxi.”
“Dude, chill out,” I said. “We will get the bus in about fifteen minutes and all will be well.”
“Google doesn’t lie.”
Two hours before our flight, our bus rolled past the security barrier of the airport. I hopped off the bus, swinging my backpack over my shoulder. The airport brought back happy memories of being on the road. The colourful departure boards, the families with ten suitcases, the weary travellers with neck pillows waiting patiently, there was something majestic about – –
“We are two minutes late,” Truman interrupted my train of thought while looking at his watch. “Told you we would be late.”
“You know what Truman,” I said exasperated . “This story is now about you.”
One of the best things about living in Europe is that you are on the doorstep of so many different cultures and cities. As soon as the passengers hit cruising altitude they were already descending into the lowlands of The Netherlands. The adventurers were like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.
Truman took the final puff from his e-cigarette, exhaling the smoke into the icy, Amsterdam air. He slid it back into his jacket’s pocket and re-entered the airport terminal. His charming and really, really, really, ridiculously good looking travel companion was waiting for him.
“C’mon,” said Ryan. “The guys are waiting for us.”
The French trio of Steph, El and John waited patiently near their gate. Truman inspected his new friends for the weekend. It did not matter. He was going to have fun no matter what.
“The last time I was in Amsterdam, I had my first coffee within twenty minutes of landing. It must be some kind of world record,” boasted Truman.
Ryan rolled his eyes as they walked through the streets in search of their hostel. After disputing the location, Steph got out her smartphone and guided everyone to the destination.
After all the checking into the room and checking out the hostel, the merry band of travellers made their way to the eight bed shared dorm. They had booked seven of the eight spaces so it was a lottery of who the random room mate for the next two nights would be.
In the middle of the room stood a half-naked, European man covered in tattoos.
“Hi bruv,” Truman greeted in his stereotypical, Welsh manner.
The man muttered an inaudible noise and went back to rummaging through his backpack that took up most of the area between the beds. The room was a narrow rectangle with bunk beds running down each side with a small en-suite on the corner. Prints of Van Gogh gave the group a nudge reminding them where they were.
Truman rushed towards the bed in the corner with enthusiasm. “This one is mine and I get top bunk. Come on Ryan let’s take this one”. It was good to be out on the road with his travel buddy again. The sociopath.
Once everyone had freshened up they rendezvoused outside with another Brisbane favourite, Bastiaan and his girlfriend Evelien. It was feeling more like the YHA back in Australia. They ventured into the city.
“Well, we are finally in Amsterdam guys,” Steph said with a Nutella waffle in hand. “What are we going to do?”
“Besides stuffing your face with Nutella?” chimed in Bastiaan.
“Woah dudes! Stop all this arguing,” intervened the diplomatic Truman. “There is only one thing to do in the Dam. We need to go to a coffee shop.” Ryan and Steph are innocent and awesome people so it was up to Truman, king of the cocoa beans, to save the day.
Truman led the troops around the beautiful canals and local cyclists to find a cafe. Prior to arriving in the city, there were a wave of stories going around but the concerns did not apply to the coffee shops that were seen as friendly places, with helpful staff. Coca-Cola was another matter. In the news there were accounts of people selling fake concoctions of Coke. Probably Pepsi.
“Wait, I know the perfect place around here,” said Truman. “It is a bit mainstream but I’m sure you guys will like it.”
They arrived outside the Amsterdam Starbucks, where new party goers Laura, Elisa and Annie were waiting. It had a rustic theme with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and a swing in the corner. Rather peculiar for a large corporation. There was a small group of locals having a lethargic yet philosophical conversation. Behind the counter was a chalkboard of all the different types of coffee. A heavy set man with a stern expression stood in front, crossing his arms.
Truman moved away from his inexperienced friends as they debated which flavour they should try. He was feeling adventurous and ordered the Mocha Light Frappuccino.
“That sounds great,” said one of the new girls. “I will have the same.”
Standing across from him was Annie. She was a Brisbane native who had once been a house mate of Steph. For the last few months she had been backpacking across Europe. She is beautiful thought Truman.
The gang found a table and started to sample the local cuisine in the obvious way that screams tourist. Truman and Annie found themselves sitting together, taking long slow sips from their mugs.
“…she totally blanked me and started talking to Branden,” Ryan was telling one of his stories again, “…that was my first impression of Steph.”
The rest of the table erupted in laughter. I wish I was funny like Ryan, Truman thought. He built up his courage and struck up a conversation with Annie. It turned out they had plenty in common and shared travel anecdotes through the night. Truman was high on life.
The following night was Ryan and Steph’s birthday celebrations. They got all cleaned up and on their partying threads. Apart from Truman who looked like his normal, scruffy self. I don’t wear shirts!
They took a short-cut through a park where Truman and Annie shared a Roasted Hazelnut Latte from Costa.
“Are you allowed to drink coffee in the park?”
“As long as no one catches us.”
They met up with Amsterdam local. Willeke. Ryan had become friends with her after backpacking in Cairns, Australia. She had bright blue eyes and surfer blonde hair though her proper clothes suggested she was a city girl at heart.
“Where are we eating?” she asked.
“I didn’t know this place existed and I live so close.”
“It is the best. Chicken Katsu needs to be one of your five a day.”
After their delicious meals, Willeke took them to a local bar. Unlike tourist traps this place had a stylish community. The décor was a chic, goth theme with dark mythology, whiskey and ravens on the walls. The atmosphere, music and conversation melted into a mood that made everyone feel like a Bohemian.
After everyone was a bit merry on drinks they left the warmth of the pub and ventured into the winter night air. A few of the group had never seen the Red Light District before so it would be the next stop. The beautiful houses by the canals turned into something a bit more sinsiter. The dark red light glowed from a single two meter window. Behind the glass a lone woman stood in a box room. She had big full hair, obvious implants and furry lingerie.
The deeper the group ventured in, the seedier things became. Lines of populated windows ran down claustrophobic alley ways. Ladies of the night smiled and waved enticingly at passers by. There was a gang of English stags that were grouped by one of the windows.
“Aw mate, look at this one,” one of them slurred.
“She’s a bit of alright. Where is George?”
Truman shuddered at the sight. Not that he disagreed with the trade, just the filth that it attracted. He peered at the girls of the group and saw their comfortableness beginning to break.
“Let’s make like a tree and split,” he said.
The group navigated out of the maze until they made it back to main street full of the bars.
“I think we had enough of that place. Anyway, who wants to go to the banana show?”
The group walked solemnly back to the hostel. Truman caught up to Annie and started talking to her. He was going to miss his new buddy when she went back to Australia. He asked her what her exit plans were.
“Funny story,” she began. “I was supposed to go back to Brisbane half a year ago. I was in Spain and my flight was the next morning. Against my better judgement I decided to go out for a few drinks with my mates. A few turned into a lot. I don’t know what happened next. I was outside having a chat with a police officer and the next thing I know I’m being stuffed into the back of a police car. Apparently, I was acting aggressive towards him but hey I was just talking normally! There I was, stuck in a jail cell and my flight was in a few hours. My Mom was going to kill me! I started to cry, it was really embarrassing.”
She laughed and continued, “the next morning they released me with a slap on the wrists. I was on probation and not allowed to re-enter Spain for so many years. Great, I went to collect my luggage and thought about how I was going to get home. I had missed my connecting flight to Amsterdam to catch another flight to connect me to Kuala Lumpur. It was only later on that I found out it was the Malaysian MH17 flight. You know the one that was shot down over the Ukraine? Going to jail saved my life.”
There was a stunned silence by everyone was now listening to Annie’s story. Truman stared at her in disbelief as she smiled back nonchalantly as it had not diminished her love of life.
I sat next to a snoring Truman on the plane back to Bristol. The trip gave me a lot to think about. I contemplated Annie’s story as the plane taxied along the runway. Amsterdam represented everything to experience in life. Culture and the arts with the many museums darted around the city. The history of our tragedies in the mature writings of Anne Frank. The rebellious nature of coffee shops. The achievements of innovation found in the architecture and canals. Also the harsh reality of the Red Light district, the symbol of humanity’s vices. Overall, it was the happiness of the Dutch people that shown through.
The message is that life is a finite gift that needs to be embraced without reservation.
I stared out the window at the sea wall of The Netherlands knowing that it was a sign of what I was feeling. I said out loud, “Truman, where we going next?”