So, on the tenth of October 1973, with heads full of Kerouac and carrying little more than a change of clothes and a cheap, rolled-up sleeping bag each, we boarded the 7:30am steam ferry from Ryde Pier Head to Portsmouth Harbour. Under the pale-gold morning sun and accompanied by seagulls, dipping and gliding, we watched the shrinking shoreline with that leaving-home, don’t know when we’re coming back, lump-in-the-throat, feeling. Hitching in grey drizzle, commuters flashed past with fixed stares, racing to the nine-to-five. We walked a mile out of the city and suddenly, a screech of brakes and we are bundling our bodies and baggage into a huge saloon taxi where an ex-merchant seaman played, ‘A Hard Rains a ‘Gonna Fall’, at full throbbing volume as we overtook camouflaged tanks and army trucks. Dropped off outside Heathrow Airport we caught the bus into London and then the Tube out to suburban christknowswhere of thundering lorries and lunchtime shoppers. After a short walk back to the open road, we were picked up by a long-haired student and then a silent, bearded carpenter in a beaten-up pickup truck loaded with long, bouncing planks. Following an hour or two of walking along an endless, neat-mowed grass verge cum dog-toilet, we were eventually picked up by a trucker in a huge articulated with wheels as tall as Janette. High in the cab we overtook everything, barrelling along, driver grinning and smoking. He dropped us off at the freight depot in Harwich Docks. A mile or two more and we were on the overnight ferry to the Hoek of Holland. Arriving around 6.00am, we breezed through the Dutch Customs and jumped on the train to Amsterdam where we hoped to find the famed ‘Magic Bus’ that would whisk us off to Istanbul or Athens. This turned out to be not as easy as we had, somewhat naively, expected.
That first day we hung around in the biting wind outside the American Express office on Damrak. From checking out the people standing on the pavement it was obvious that this was the place to hang out and pick up information. We had hoped to meet a representative of the bus company but after three, feet-freezing hours we gave up and headed for the Students Travel Agency. No luck there. But they pointed us in the direction of the Mendes, a busy student café, and here, in a smokey, upstairs office, we were told that a bus should be running to Istanbul next Tuesday (five days away) or possibly to Athens the following day. Istanbul was where we wanted to get to but at least Athens would be somewhat warmer and probably cheaper than staying in Amsterdam. We found ourselves miserably walking the streets in the rain, wondering where we were going to stay that night.
A creepy Canadian guy told us about a cheap hotel. We found it and checked in, 30Guilders for a room (about £3:25) and we soon realised why it was so inexpensive. It was a filthy, junky shit-hole. There was dried blood splattered across the walls, the radiator was fixed on full-blast, the window wouldn’t close and there was a disco downstairs that kept us awake for most of the night. We felt desolate. Janette sat down and sobbed, this didn’t fit with the romantic idea we had of foreign travel. But at least we were out of the rain, had somewhere to dry our clothes and had each other.
We dragged ourselves off the stained, greasy mattress at about eight o’clock, still tired after a restless night and carried our bags to the Am Ex office to see if the bus to Athens was there. It was. But there were already a lot of people hanging around. Luggage was being loaded and I asked the American guy who appeared to be organising everything if there was room for two more. He said that unfortunately the bus was full but could obviously see how desperate we were. Thinking about it for a minute, he said that once everyone had boarded he would ask them all what they thought about squeezing us in somewhere. It would only have been for one day because five people were disembarking in Germany and then there would be seats free. The morning had that Amsterdam damp autumn chill. We smoked roll-ups, drank take-away coffee in cardboard cups and waited. By nine o’clock all the passengers were seated and the driver was gunning the engine. The American came over to us and said that he was really sorry but he couldn’t risk it. If he was caught at the border with more people than seats he’d almost certainly be turned back. Our hearts sunk as we watched the bus drive away. What a drag! We were so close.
This was no time to be feeling sorry for ourselves. We knew that we had to get out of Europe as quickly as possible, it was too cold to be on the streets and everything was too expensive. Finding a piece of card in a pile of rubbish I scribbled on it, ’Ride Wanted to Greece’ with a biro and we stood on the pavement with the other would be travellers, bums, buyers and sellers, stamping our feet to keep them warm and smoking too many cigarettes. The sign actually helped to make our predicament bearable. It attracted lots of friendly people to come up and talk to us, mainly Canadians and Americans, so we began to feel less like two isolated, lost souls in an alien land and more a part of that international city of freaks. Apart from lots of conversation the sign wasn’t really bringing any practical response until a tall, dark, bearded guy with a turquoise stud in his left ear approached us and said that he and his friend were planning to drive to northern Greece the following day. They would be happy to take us along if we would be prepared to share petrol expenses. He wrote down his phone number and said to call in the morning.
By mid-afternoon our thoughts began to turn to where we were going to stay that night, we definitely wouldn’t be going back to the last place. A ragged English guy gave us the address of a hostel, The Happy Hours, on Binnen Wieringenstraat, that would cost us only 5Guilders a night each. We went to check it out. It turned out to be really nice, warm and very homely. In fact it looked like a large apartment that the owner had simply filled with bunk beds, which no doubt, it was. The three freaks that greeted us were very welcoming and said that we could leave our bags there but that we would have to return in an hour to book in. We were a little reluctant to leave everything we owned with strangers but neither of us felt like humping those bags around the streets for another hour. Sometimes you have just got to trust people.
We returned to be greeted by Billy, a very eccentric grey-haired Dutchman of about 60. He was cool, made us tea and treated us like guests in his home, which I think we were. He said that unfortunately all the beds were taken but if we didn’t mind sleeping on a mattress on the floor then we were more than welcome to stay. The one and only house rule was that we had to be out of the place between 8pm and 11pm. Who knows what he did in those three hours? We didn’t care. We had somewhere to stay. In the small room where we would be sleeping were already three Japanese guys, two American dudes and a girl and a couple of Australians who were rebuilding an old camper van. A pipe was passed around and around and around until it was time for us to vacate the premises and we all stumbled out into the night.
Not wishing to spend any money we stoned-wandered around old Amsterdam. Past coffee shops and rowdy bars, glass-fronted restaurants with well-scrubbed tourists eating dinner, shabby neon cinemas and sex-shops. As if in some surreal movie we drifted like homeless ghosts through the streets and squares until we realised that we were completely lost. Floating along a tree-lined avenue we found ourselves in front of what appeared to be an art gallery, it turned out to be the Stedelijk, (not that we’d heard of it at that time). The lights were on and there was no sign of any people but we thought that at least it would be warm in there. Entering through the glass doors and turning to the right took us into the most amazing exhibition of kinetic sculptures by Swiss artist Jean Tingley. Constructed of rusted scrap steel, bicycle wheels and machine parts they each moved at the push of a button and were fascinating to watch and play with. One scraped metal against metal with a painful screeching sound, another fired footballs out of steel pipes. Some were small and intricate while others towered above us like corroding dinosaurs. What a find, a stoners playground. And the really strange and kinda spooky thing was that we didn’t see anyone else the whole time we were there.
Outside in the cold a charming elderly gentleman gave us directions back to The Happy Hours hostel. Once inside we shared a welcome spliff with our roommates, crawled into our sleeping bags and crashed out. It had been a long and eventful day.
Our third morning in Amsterdam began with coffee and a bread roll served by Billy. We queued to wash at the one hand-basin (for fifteen people) and left the hostel at about ten o’clock. I attempted to call the guy who was driving to Greece. The first two public phones I tried were out of order and when we finally came across one that worked there was no answer. We returned to our pitch outside the Am Ex office and, while Janette stood with our sign, I went off to search out another phone box. When I did get through I was told that I had a wrong number. Somehow this wasn’t such a great disappointment; we had already begun to develop a certain fatalistic attitude to life, something that would become necessary for our psychological survival in the coming months. Later we would discover that Muslims have a phrase for this state of mind, ‘Insh’Allah’, meaning, ‘God willing’. Would we get out of Amsterdam today? Insh’Allah!
Like the couple of bums we had quickly become we hung around on bustling Damrak watching the well-dressed shoppers and camera-toting tourists go by, talking to other bums and freezing our asses off. Our only bite that day was a real long shot. A Brazilian guy who had been hanging around for two days trying to sell a load of photographic gear said that if he was successful he was going to buy a van and that he would take us to the Austrian/ Yugoslav border for 80Guilders. He did sell his gear and he did buy a van but then he vanished and we never saw him again. That night, desperate to keep a tight hold on our finances, we crept into Vondelpark after dark and hid ourselves under a laurel bush on a layer of newspapers collected from a litterbin. It was fucking freezing and we barely slept a wink.
It was a damp autumn, Sunday morning and we awoke to the sound of ducks squabbling on the nearby lake. Chilled to our bones we rolled up our sleeping bags and joined the dog-walkers and cyclists in the park. On the streets everything was closed, nowhere to buy coffee, nowhere to get warm. Even the student café, Mendes, was shut up and empty, the tubular steel chairs stacked on the tables. We hiked back to Centrum and had a quick wash in the toilets at Central Station. Then it was back to the Am Ex, cardboard sign, people-watching, cold, cigarettes, coffee, nothing happening. Some Canadians offered us a lift for $50US. It was too expensive and they weren’t exactly friendly so we declined their offer. We spent the night in a ‘sleep-in’; a large, squatted house on Kaizergracht alongside the canal. There was a dormitory with toilet and washroom and upstairs was a TV room and bar. It only cost 3.50Guilders each. No way were we going to endure another frozen night in the park.
Another day arrived and we had our first decent wash since leaving home. Janette was ecstatic at being able to shampoo her hair, albeit in cold water. We meandered along the canals and, of course returned once more to our regular spot. We were becoming quite well known there. The Brazilian turned up and asked us if we still wanted a lift. I told him that as he was only going as far as Yugoslavia we were only willing to pay 50Guilders. He agreed to this but only if he could find two others to fill up the van. So he found his own piece of cardboard and put up a sign. One Canadian showed interest but the guy wasn’t going to leave with less than four passengers. I was starting to find him very irritating, perhaps it was just the cold or our inability to escape the city, or perhaps he really was just an annoying wanker. It began to rain heavily at around 5:30 so we left to shelter in Central Station. There was supposed to be a bus going in the morning, if it materialised, we would be on it. We returned to the sleep-in and prayed that tomorrow we would finally leave Amsterdam.
The bus was due to leave from behind the Rijksmuseum at midday. We got up early and, with some trepidation, (would we really make our escape from Amsterdam? ) walked out into a fine Dutch drizzle. I changed some traveler’s cheques and we arrived at the museum an hour early. There were already a few people sheltering from the, now pouring, rain but the bus, (an old thirty-four seat Mercedes) didn’t show up for another hour and a half. Then there was a great deal of typical hippie confusion over bookings and payment, followed by the loading of all the bags, but eventually the engine came to life and we were moving out into the traffic, out of the city, out of Europe. What a wonderful feeling! Finally we were on our way and for the first time in days we could allow ourselves to relax. We stopped twice on the outskirts of the city, so that Neil, the English driver, could pick up his passport and papers from home and then to fill the tank with gas, before heading south towards the German border.