Traveling could be an Olympic sport; really! The thirty-hour endurance plane ride; points for most creative sleeping positions on multiple day, over-night bus travel; train delayed by a dead cow sitting marathon. You learn a lot when traveling, but you learn the most about patience. You learn to endure long hours of uncomfortable sitting in cramped spaces; sleep deprivation; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches three meals a day; all this to reach your destination. (And it better damn well be worth it!) Fighting the crowds and lines; missing planes, trains, buses and boats; sitting next to screaming babies and people with bad gas – this is definitely a sport where you can be both spectator and player at the same time.
My event would certainly involve traveling overnight on a bus. I do after all, have adequate training, having spent three nights in a row on a bus in a valiant economical effort to get from London to both Amsterdam and Paris all in one weekend. Okay, so it’s probably something I would never attempt again; not the bus riding of course, the trying to see two major cities in one weekend; both lost to a blur of sleep-deprivation and sensory overload. Multiple nights spent on a bus with fifty some-odd strangers is an experience in itself.
In theory it seemed like a good idea. I was in England for three short months with only weekends to spare for traveling, and I wanted to make it over to the continent. The small triangle route connecting London, Amsterdam and Paris on the bus company’s brochure promised to get me there for a very attractive price. Traveling overnight by bus also meant that I wouldn’t have to find and pay for any accommodation as well. This was turning into the most frugal of traveler’s dream.
As I waited in London’s central bus station for my 9:30pm to Amsterdam via Brussels, I observed my fellow passengers. I could quickly tell who traveled this way often and who didn’t. Those who did sat patiently with small parcels and pillows. Those who didn’t alternately glanced at their watch, the bus gate and the television screen that read the departure time, while chugging large cups of coffee or soda. Amateurs will line up early to get the “best” seats. Pros know there is really no such thing on an overnight bus, you would be wise however to choose carefully who you sit near. The obvious is to avoid sitting near babies, squabbling couples or drunk teenagers. You really just have to hope luck is on your side in avoiding the chronic snorers and farters. If you do get stuck next to or within close proximity to one of these, you can find joy in knowing that everyone is trapped in this 60-seater square box, so no one is very far away; everyone benefits. It will be hard to find the humor in this as you shift positions for the trillionth time at three in the morning in your steadily shrinking seat, but try; please try.
The driver is a friendly chap, telling us we will probably arrive ahead of schedule in Amsterdam; six am. In my excitement for the adventure I fail to realize that this will mean a very dark, very cold Amsterdam, where nothing will be open until several hours after I arrive. Let the adventure begin. The bus boards the train in Dover to cross in the Chunnel to Calais. The compartment we are in is very brightly lit and it is hard to tell we are moving at all. Mostly I am too excited to sleep, but I try to find a comfortable position against the window that won’t promise me a sore neck in the morning. Most get off in Brussels for a cigarette break, so they fill the bus with one angry stinking cloud when they get back on; besides this, what is outside the windows is a blur, as I have taken my contacts out.
Before the driver drops us at Amsterdam’s Central Station, he warns us that a man stole a passenger’s bag right as he got off the bus the previous morning. Staying on the bus suddenly had more of an appeal than it had all night. I took a run for it into the station. There were a few people milling about and several curled up in the corners. With grimy fingers I put in my contacts using the mirror of a photo-booth. It was late October and I could see my breath. I heard the rumble of trains and trams above and below. Looking at a map I realized that Central Station was actually in the city; I was at a station just outside. I settled for a ticket from the machine that I doubted was valid, and jumped on a vacant tram that I prayed was going in the right direction.
In Central Station the sign on the Tourist office said they would open at 8:30, so I had about one and a half to kill. A small bookstore was just opening on the lower level so I stood inside reading guides and getting somewhat warmer. After the clerk’s third round of suspicious looks, I left to find somewhere to sit and finally found that there was a Burger King open on the top level. I sat at a table with an abandoned foil ashtray and watched Amsterdam appear outside the window. It was a strange feeling to arrive somewhere for the first time in the dark; to not quite know what would appear as the sun rose. There was something magical and almost mystical about the way I had arrived. In light of Amsterdam, it did not matter that I had gotten no sleep.
Trying to see as much as I could of the city in a day was as tiring as it was exhilarating. I won’t go in to all that I saw here, because this is about the thrill of the ride. Oh joy; back to the bus station for a 10:30pm departure time. I had Paris to look forward to in the morning, how bad could it be? Well, you know that feeling when all you want to do is sleep? Heavy head, heavy eyes; you must sleep. A bus seat becomes a torture seat with a metal back; your ears are heightened to every rustle and throat gurgle; you start thinking crazy thoughts.
It was not quite as early an arrival in Paris, but early enough that it was still dark with a bite in the air. I sat in the bus station dazed, sipping the richest cup of cocoa I had ever tasted and pondering if it was better to wait until dawn to go into the city. Sunday morning and the streets of Paris were nearly empty; who needs sleep when there is so much to see?
My advice: never try and see Paris in a day or you will not see anything. I returned to the bus station that evening, elated that I could add Paris to my traveling resume, yet sadly knowing it was a cheap addition as I had not done the city any justice. A seat reserved on a bus back to London waited however, and I had class the next morning!
My body subjected to the tweedy-carpet covered seat; my mind barely registered ‘bus’. I got on and we went. I was exhausted. The sleep came in stunted bursts with a constant trance-like state in between. I might have farted once, silently, but I know for a fact I do not snore.
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