Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hotel Scavenger Hunt

Note: This blog post is also here with pictures

[Somewhere between Amsterdam and Heidelberg on a really fast train]

Editor’s note: I don’t care enough to write an entire blog entry about the trip from Shanghai to Amsterdam on Sunday, so here’s a short recap:

Shanghai to London: Business Class still kicks butt, especially after having to ride coach on all of our side-trips in China.
London airport: Four hour layover plus being up 24 hours sucks, even in the first class lounge.
Trip from Amsterdam airport to hotel: We learned that it’s stupid to take a taxi 2 miles, because it costs $40.

Temperature Transformation

A few years ago, I went to Chicago during spring break with my family and then-future sister-in-law. I don’t know if you know that, but spring break falls about mid-March, where in Texas, the temperature will range from about 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It was with this attitude that I packed short sleeved shirts, jeans, and flip flops for the trip. I threw in a sweatshirt just in case it got down to 65 in the evening, but I figured I wouldn’t need it much. Long story short, that was an unpleasant trip without a coat, especially on Navy Pier.

Fast forward to spring break of this year. This time I was off to St. Louis to help throw my best friend, Emily, a bridal shower. I packed short sleeved shirts, jeans, and flip flops for the trip. I threw in a few sweaters just in case it got chilly at night. Again, no jacket. Another unpleasant trip, and my packing self-esteem was getting pretty low.

The good news is that I went back to both cities during the summer and didn’t have a packing problem. Likewise, I didn’t have a packing problem going to Wuhan, China, where the temperature would range from 90 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Tank tops, shorts, capris, and flip-flops didn’t let me down for two and a half weeks.

And then we got to Europe.

My mistaken assumption was that Europe, namely, the Netherlands and Belgium, would be warm in July. This is not the case. As the Renaissance front desk lady in Amsterdam put it, “it’s always autumn here.” Anyone that knows me knows that autumn is not my favorite time of year, falling just below winter on the “seasons that piss me off most” list. Autumn is when you kiss sunshine and warmth goodbye and start needing more layers of clothing (and for me, a LOT more layers of clothing) to remain mildly comfortable.

The good news is that my packing stupidity did break just long enough for me to pack a pair of jeans (in case it cooled down at night in Wuhan – ha!), and a sweatshirt to sleep in when Dad and Darlana kept it FREEZING in the room at night (although I have noticed that I seem to be the only one in the world who doesn’t mind sleeping in an 85-degree bedroom, double-covers pulled up to the neck).

This is all just a long, drawn out way to say that I was ill-equipped for the weather change from 100-degree Wuhan to 60-degree and rainy Amsterdam.

Oh yeah, and did I mention it was pouring rain and really windy?

In my defense, however, I was the smarter-packed member of this traveling pair: Dad’s suitcase is full of only shorts and t-shirts.

“I speak English, and I’m here to help:” the tables have turned

In case you’re just too lazy to read the blog entry describing “I speak English, and I’m here to help,” the game we invented and envisioned playing in China, here’s how it goes: we wear name tags that say “I speak English, and I’m here to help.” When tourists ask us for help, we help as best we can, but the fact that we have absolutely no idea about anything either. Sometimes we embellish, sometimes we’re just plain wrong. The fatal flaw with this game is that we were absolutely the only tourists in Wuhan. Nobody except us needed help.

It occurred to us later, during our hotel scavenger hunt (below) that the tables may have turned on our little game. And seeing as how we got four different directions from four different people in four different places, we’re thinking other people might have caught on to the game.

Hotel Scavenger Hunt

The first thing we needed to do on Monday when we got to Europe was drop off my two ginormous suitcases at our final European destination, Brussels. I had only brought one suitcase with me to China, and then dad bought another one on Silk Street in Beijing which I proceeded to fill completely with pearls, fake designer purses, and silk stuff to bring back home. We figured that the two rolling monstrosities would be a liability as we tried to climb the Eiffel Tower, and therefore decided to make the trip out to Brussels (our final European destination) to drop off the big ones, leaving us with only our backpacks filled with weather-inappropriate clothes.

Here’s how the trip was supposed to go:

Take the train from Amsterdam to Brussels Schumann in the morning. From there, you’re pretty close to the Brussels Renaissance. We drop off our luggage, get on the train back to Amsterdam, and enjoy an afternoon visit to Maduradam followed by an evening of shocked confusion passing window after window of lingerie-clad hookers in the red-light district of Amsterdam on the way to restaurants near the hotel (see “Window shopping for whores,” below) by about 6:30 p.m.

Unfortunately, Dad left all of his meticulously-planned train schedules in his checked baggage at the Renaissance Hotel in Wuhan, China, where he will be returning after the week in Europe.

Therefore, here’s how the trip actually went:

We excitedly hop on a train from Amsterdam to Brussels North. We take our seats near the back after putting our 15 suitcases in the overhead bins. As we excitedly look out the windows at the passing scenery of fields of cows and little cottages with neat gardens, a train worker comes by.

“Tickets please,” he requests.

We proudly hand him our 5-day Eurail pass and our passports, confident that we have all the necessary documentation. He studies it.

“This pass isn’t validated.” He says, and gives it back. We stare at him like a dog stares at a ceiling fan.

“Vali…what?” we ask, confused.

“Read the conditions,” he says, simply, and walks away.

We open the ticket-pamphlet and see something that looks like this:

Conditions of Use:

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. 1. Blah blah blah blah blah. 2. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. 3. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. 4. Blah blah blah blah blah. 5. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. 6. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah. Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Since dad can’t see anything without his glasses (and probably couldn’t see this with his glasses), he takes one look at the paper and hands it over to me, expecting me to read and interpret it. Granted, this time the “blah blah blah” was in English, but that didn’t mean it really made any sense to me.

I try my best to figure out where we went wrong, but the guy came back before my “aha” moment actually happened.

“Did you figure it out?” he asks.

“Um… I don’t understand,” I say, handing him the ticket and giving him my best “I’m a stupid American tourist girl, please don’t punish me for it” look.

He takes it with a sigh and begins to read it. Even for him, it took a few minutes of study before he finds it. He reads aloud:

“Before travel begins, within 6 months of the issuing date, the first and last day of validity of the pass and your passport number must be filled in; before departure by your travel agent or once in Europe by a European rail official, and NOT by yourself.”

Again, we stare at him. The train is moving. We are on board. Our pass is not validated.

“So… are you a European rail official?” my dad asks, slowly.

“Yes, I am, in fact a European rail official,” the rail official says, proudly.

“So… can you validate it now?” my dad asks.

“Well, I charge 50 Euros to validate it on board,” he says, and my Dad and I both look at each other, grimacing, then back at the rail official with puppy-dog eyes.

“But, I could go ahead and not charge that,” he says.

“That’s a great idea! Let’s do that one!” I say.

He begins to write on the ticket.

“I’m only doing this for one reason,” he says, as he takes our passports and begins transferring the numbers on to the rail pass. “I would charge a big fee if you had been traveling around for a month without it validated, but obviously, this is your first trip.”

Dad and I look at each other. Yes, it was our first trip, but how could he be so sure? Was it the “dog staring at a ceiling fan look” we gave him when he used the word “validated?” Could he just tell that we were good Christians who wouldn’t lie?

“You see,” he continues, “this is a first-class ticket. Nobody would have used a first-class ticket to sit in second-class on a 3-hour trip if they actually knew what they were doing.” He stamps the pass and hands it back, warning us to make sure to write in the dates when we travel again or we really will have to pay a big fine.

As I write this the train is running down the track at around 160 kpm (100 miles an hour). Dad looks out the window, raises one eyebrow and says: “I wonder what it would feel like if we hit a cow at this speed?”

Later in the trip to Brussels North, we ask the same rail official, who we have now befriended as our rescuer, how we can get to “that one Brussels rail station that starts with a ‘sch.’”

“Brussels Schumann?” he asks, and we grin like idiots.

“Yeah! Yeah! Brussels Schumann!! How do we get to Brussels Schumann?” we reply.

He progresses to give us detailed instructions for getting to the Brussels Schumann station, which include taking the Louvain La Neuve at 11:30, which Dad writes down “Luvan Nauvern.”

We hop out of the train at Brussels North at 11:11, look at the schedule and find something that looks like “Luvan Nauvern,” which is departing at 11:32 from platform 6. We hurry over to platform 6, and a few minutes later, hop on the train, utterly impressed with our seasoned-traveling selves.

The next stop is Schreevex, or something like it. It definitely started with an “sch.” We proudly declare “this is it!” and hop off.

As we unload our 38 bags from the train, a lone tumbleweed rolls by as we hear our steps echo off the empty platform. We glance around, wondering if we just made a big mistake, seeing as how we can see for miles and there’s no Marriott, or building for that matter, in sight.

Fortunately, the train hadn’t left yet, and the conductor was outside the train, looking at us quizzically and wondering why in the world anyone would get off here.

We show her the address of the hotel and ask her if this is where we need to be. She looks at it and suppresses a laugh.

“My goodness, no. You need to take the train back to Brussels North and catch the train to either Luxemburg or Louvain La Neuve. She writes the names in my dad’s book, then looks at the train schedule.

“It looks like there’s a train going to Brussels North at 11:42 from platform 9,” she tells us, then gets back into her train and takes off again, leaving us to chat on our isolated platform.

After complaining all morning about not having eaten breakfast (“Dad! I’m hungry! I’m hungry Dad! Daddy! Feed me!! I’m hungry!”), Dad finally decides to try shutting me up by going down into the tunnel between platforms to see if there’s a snack somewhere. There isn’t. In fact, the tunnel is just as deserted as the rest of the “station” is. Accepting our failure, we head back up to the platform.

Unfortunately, walking around in the tunnel for a while will disorient you to which direction the train came from, and therefore, which direction you’re supposed to go to get back to where you came from.

In addition, 11:42 has come and gone without a trace of a train going either direction. Ut oh. We're sure that this is where the “I speak English, and I’m here to help” joke has targeted us.

We stand there for another 15 minutes and see a train coming on another platform.

“Is that train going back to Brussels North?” Dad asks.

“DUhhhhhhhhhh…” I answer.

We watch it leave. Another 10 minutes pass. Another train, another platform. Then 5 minutes. Then another. Then nothing.

As Dad and I stare at each other, cross-eyed and drooling, a man walks up and sits on a bench, followed by a train (which does not actually sit on the bench, or walk for that matter, in case you were wondering). As he is about to board, we ask him “Are you going to Brussels North?” He says yes, and we excitedly grab our 62 bags and get ready to board the train.

Unfortunately, the door doesn’t open all the way, and neither he nor I can fully open it. He gets through, and I hand one of my suitcases through to him, my super-mondo backpack hanging off my shoulders. I try to squeeze through, but I’m just too wide, either from the backpack or the Chinese-food-relief Pizza Hut meals from previous weeks.

Now he has my suitcase, I can’t get through, and I have no idea when the train is going to take off with my bag. At least it’s the one with all my clothes and not the one with the Coach purses, I think.

Fortunately, the conductor comes over to survey the problem, therefore eliminating the threat of the bag taking off to Brussels North without me.

She can’t get the door open either, and asks Dad to kick it closed to see if she can re-open it. Dad happily obliges with a #3 side kick (and gee, he was proud to get to use that again sans attacker), and she tries to re-open it with her fancy little button, getting it stuck halfway again.

We take the hint and move to the next car, whose door actually opens. As we load our 81 bags into the car, the conductor approaches us once again and asks Dad to re-kick the door closed. He obliges once again, and soon the train is moving back to Brussels North, and we’re feeling confident once again in our traveling abilities.

Note to self: invest in Dramamine. Traveling at 150 mph in a window seat and trying to type/read will make me sick. You, the readers, are lucky I’m so committed/stupid to finish this story even though I’m on the verge of throwing up.

So we’re back at Brussels North, getting quite familiar with the scenery here. What have been catching my eye are the seemingly endless food-stands, restaurants, and vending machines.

“I’m hungry Dad! Dad! I’m hungry!! Daddy! I’m hungry! Feed me Dad! I’m hungry!” I whine.

He tells me that we’ll go check with the information desk about the right train to get on this time, then we’ll grab something to eat before we go. This sounds good to me, so we head to the Information kiosk.

It’s empty. We try looking at the map and figuring it out. We’re too dumb for that.

As we look at each other, cross-eyed and drooling, wondering what to do next, a Brussels angel comes out of nowhere and asks “do you need help?”

We pointed at the address of the hotel once again and asked her if she knew what train we needed to get on. She looks at her watch.

“I’m not sure,” she says, “but I have 5 minutes until my train leaves so let’s go to the information desk in the metro station and see if they know.”

She walks with us to the metro information desk and says lots of words in something that sounds like French and German mixed together. (When you’re in China, you can’t figure out what anybody’s saying but you know they’re speaking Chinese. When you’re in Europe, you can’t figure out what language anyone’s speaking.)

She writes down detailed directions, step by step, for us to get to the hotel.

We take the written instructions and thank her as she hurries off to her probably-long-gone train. Now that we have written directions, we decide that eating is in order. I have earned it with my incessant whining. We settle down after ordering delightful club sandwiches on baguettes.

After we’re finished eating, we ask the metro information desk guy to point us in the direction of the metro. He tells us to go downstairs and get on any tram, which will take us to the metro we need.

We do as we are told, and make it to the right metro on a tram so full of people I could barely fit myself and my 108 bags. Next, we take the metro to Luxemburg Street, where we are supposed to “walk to the train station.”

This is where it goes wrong for us. You see, Luxemburg Street goes two directions, as most streets do. Dad and I decide to just pick a direction and hope it works out for us. At the same time, Dad and I point in different directions and say “let’s go that way then.” I had opted for the direction that is toward the really big building that looks like a train station, and my direction won out. We start walking.

Let’s not forget that weather discussion we had earlier here. Did I mention it was raining, and we were hauling 173 bags?

At some point, we ask some business people who look like they might speak English if they knew the Rue de Parblahblah, and they all point in a direction diagonally from where they were standing on Luxemburg St. And so we walk.

At some point, Dad decides to see what’s behind the buildings we’re walking toward before wasting any more time, and says “you stay here” and walks away. I awkwardly try to gather up the 214 bags a little closer as I watch another tumbleweed blow by.

Dad doesn’t come back.

Oh man, wouldn’t that be horrible? Mom would have killed him.

Okay, he does come back, but it takes a long time. When he finally comes back, he doesn’t know much more than I do, but we decide that we’re probably close.

“If we see a taxi, let’s take it,” I say, and Dad agrees.

You know how in the pilot episode of “Friends,” Ross says “I just want to be married again!” And Rachel walks through the door in her wedding dress? Then Chandler says “And I just want a million dollars!” (Yeah, I probably watch too much “Friends” but don’t lie, you totally know what I’m talking about.)

As soon as we said it, we looked up the street and a taxi turned the corner. I flagged him down like a good city-girl and he rolled down the window.

“Can you take us to the Renaissance hotel?” we ask.

He laughs. “Um… walk a half a block and turn left,” he says.

Number 2 nice person in Belgium. As Dad said, “he could have taken us to the airport and back – we would have never known.”

It’s really really light outside for 9:45 p.m. It looks like dusk. That’s weird.

Those raindrops must look HUGE to them!

Our next stop on the way back to Amsterdam was in The Hague at Maduradam, which is a huge model city they built to amuse themselves. It had a tiny soccer stadium, a tiny Amsterdam, a tiny wedding chapel with little wedding people, a tiny working train, tiny boats, tiny airport with tiny airplanes…you name it, it was tiny. Cassandra, my sister-in-law with an appreciation of all things tiny (being tiny herself), would have loved it.

Aside from the fact that it was still raining, Dad and I were optimistic about our visit to Maduradam. We hopped off the train and went to buy tram tickets.

“Hello,” Dad said to the ticket salesman. “We need to buy two tickets to Maduradam and two tickets back.”

“Here in The Hague, we call that ‘round-trip,’” the salesman teases, and gives us our tickets and change. My dad makes sure he remembers correctly that we need to take tram 9, and upon confirmation, we’re off to tiny-ville.

Or so we think.

Just like streets, trams tend to go two ways, mostly because they run on streets. Otherwise they really couldn’t re-use the tram. It would just make one trip one-way and that would be it. They might as well throw it away. It’s genius really; once the tram goes one way to the end of the line, it then goes the other way.

We didn’t exactly consider this when we hopped on tram 9, and it wasn’t until about 20 stops later that we thought “that’s weird; we don’t seem to be getting to Maduradam and it’s not listed on the screen as one of our upcoming stops.” We ask the people in front of us if we’re going the right direction to get to Maduradam, and get a resounding “you need to go the opposite direction, duh” from them. We get back off the train, just happy we’re not hauling 349 bags anymore, and wait for the tram going the other direction.

Darlana, you’ll be happy to know that the weather isn’t working out for us here in Europe either. A 3-hour trip for Dad last time around Maduradam in the sun was a 1-hour trip for us in the rain. Rain is wet. Air is cold. Mandy is grumpy.

Window-shopping for whores

Getting to the Amsterdam Renaissance was much easier than getting to Brussels Renaissance, mostly because Dad had been there before. The only problem was that instead of the light rain we had in Brussels, it was pouring rain here, and still really cold outside. Because we only had the one tiny umbrella and Dad was the one in shorts and a t-shirt, I opted to just get wet. We showed up at the hotel soaking wet, but glad to have actually found the hotel in less than 4 hours.

As Dad and I walked around trying to find a place to get a dinner snack at 10 p.m., I walked by a few shops. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement and looked over.

I was astonished to be face-to-face with a lingerie clad woman, who was standing in the window. I looked down the street. There were more of them. Standing in windows, mostly naked, soliciting their services. That’s new…

That wouldn’t be the first abnormal scene I would see in Amsterdam, however. Among the others were a drug café, where patrons were inside smoking (what I assume was) dope, sex shops, gay sex shops, and my personal favorite, the drunk biking bar. This bar was placed on wheels, and the barstools had pedals. As the men on the stools got drunker and drunker, they pedaled down the street and made a lot of noise. It was quite a sight.

I think I’m ready for Germany now…

“Ooh look,” Mandy says, and points out the window at a big river with pretty bridges.

“Is that the Rhine?” Dad asks, assuming that Mandy’s $30,000 education has taught her something.

“You’re funny,” Mandy says.