Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Netherlands, Part Four

I stepped outside of Central Station and made my way through the crowd looking for the place I’d been told I could get information about the tram. But all I found was a map that made no sense and anyway, there was no place to buy a ticket.

I saw a line of waiting cabs, thought about it, then decided against it, decided to err on the side of the caution, because, you see, my only experience with cabs in a foreign country was Mexico where a cabbie might take you someplace you don’t want to go and there might be a difference of opinion about the fare, to say nothing of the tip.

No, I wasn’t going to risk it. And I wasn’t going to take the tram either. It would take too long to figure it out and find a place to buy a ticket. No, I could get to my hotel faster on foot. Amsterdam is a small city, everyone said. You can get anywhere on foot.

I crossed the street and stepped inside a souvenir shop. Bought a map. Then went some place to study it, in private—that is, not standing in the middle of the sidewalk with my rolling suitcase and my shoulder bag with laptop, passport, and a five-thousand Euros inside, in other words with a sign on me that said, “I’m a tourist. Rob me.”

I found a McDonalds, went inside, bought a bottled water (“yeah, that’s all I want”) and sat down in a booth. Yeah, I can do it, I thought. Then, memorizing the street names and canals, and a few landmarks—Madame Tussauds, Heineken brewery, etc.—went back out onto the street and started my walk, passing the Sex Museum, Madame Tussauds, the Grasshopper coffee shop, crossed a street or two and right away forgot every street name I had memorized. I pulled out the map, put on my glasses, and two seconds later a grizzled guy walked up and said in heavily accented English, “Can I help you? Are you lost? Do you want me to take you to the Arbus Hotel?”

“What street am I on?” I asked him.

“Do you want me to take you to the Arbus Hotel?”

“I don’t know about any Arbus Hotel,” I said, holding out the map. “Show me where I am.”

He pointed out my location on the map. I thanked him. He said, “I’m homeless. I could use your help.”

I gave him a few Euro centavos, he thanked me, and I proceeded south through the city. Marijuana scenting the air outside the coffee shops. Bicyclists speeding past in their red-brick lanes. The crowds thinning out as I got farther from the tourist district. I crossed a canal, maybe two canals, maybe three, four—I don’t know. I’d been warned it was a disorienting city with all the canals, and it was. Disorienting.

After awhile I saw the Heineken brewery and knew I was on the right track. I walked some more. Then came to a street I believed to be near my hotel, a quiet neighborhood, mostly residential, very respectable looking, but couldn’t be sure it was the right place. Street signs so few, names so strange, and the signs not placed in a prominent location. I unfolded my map, put on my glasses.

Just then, a young woman pulled up on her bicycle and asked if I was lost. I said I didn’t think so. She said was I sure and I said, “Is the Best Western Delphi down that a’way?” She said yes. I said, “Then I’m not lost. Thanks!” And she smiled and rode away.

I crossed the street and sure enough, there it was, my hotel. I checked in. The room was small, but inviting. I fell onto the bed, dead tired, and looked at the clock. Too early to call home, everyone would still be asleep in Texas. I felt sleepy myself, sleepy and homesick. And tired of traveling, the luster having worn off. And worried …

It was supposed to be an easy job, you see. An easy job and easy money, a blank check made out to the charity of my choice. You know what I mean. Just the kind of job I needed at this time in my life. Easy money, easy money. Yeah, just follow some oil-rich bastard’s third ex-wife to London, and report back on what you see. Just follow, just report, and wait for further instructions. And then, collect more money, more easy money at the end of the rainbow. So easy …

(to be continued)