An Incredibly Unexpected Adventure
This'll Be Funny When It's Finished
Upon dropping out of my Integrated Kinesiology course, I went straight to skyscanner.es and booked three weekend trips, partly to make myself feel better, and partly because more money and time to travel was one of my main reasons for dropping the course in the first place. The first trip I booked was to Brussels, Belgium, and so the last weekend I went.
In the end, my galpal decided to book with me, but since she would be arriving from London in the morning, we planned to meet at our host's house that night when I got in. My flight was scheduled to land at about 23h, and I figured I'd be at the house by half past. Our host (and now friend) had told us that from the airport to the station near the house, it was about 10 minutes, and then just a few minutes on foot to the house. She also informed us that they lived in the Red Light District (RLD), so if we found ourselves in front of a brothel, we were in the right place. Ok, no problem. I've got directions, screen shots of maps, and my friend is going to meet me at the train station when I arrive. Simple, simple, no stress. Wellllll, it wouldn't be my life nor my type of travel if something that seems so simple and straight-forward actually played out to be so.
When I arrived at the airport, I saw signs for the station and followed them, only to discover it was a bus station, not train. Confusion started to set in, and deepened the longer I looked for a train stop without finding one. I had thought my host spoke English well enough not to mix up "bus" and "train," but just couldn't seem to find any train. But I did find a shuttle service that would take me to the city, so I decided to confirm there was no train, and then take the shuttle. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I saw that the shuttle was going to cost 17€ for a one-way ticket! I had been trying to budget 20€/day, because I've got 5 nights in Italy coming up at the end of the month, so to have to use nearly that within the first 10 minutes I'd arrived, simply to get to the city...!? My gosh, I couldn't believe it! But it appeared there really was no other way to get there, so I bit the bullet and bought the ride.
Now, when I arrived, it was -1°C, and the line was so long, I had to wait in line for nearly half-an-hour to take the next shuttle that came. This wouldn't have been sooo bad, because I had plenty of layers, but I was concerned about arriving to the train station on time to catch the last one. Our host had told us the last one ran around midnight, and if we missed it, it'd be a costly cab to get to their place; and after having spent 17€ on the shuttle ride there, I was not in the mood for another expensive mode of transport! Finally, I was on the shuttle leaving the airport around 23:45. Hope of making the last train slowly dwindled, but I was trying to be optimistic.
Now, in the midst of not finding any train station and having to pay so much for a lift, I had started to think that maybe, just maybe, I hadn't flown into the actual Brussels airport. But since it said Brussels on the ticket, I assumed it was at least close to the city. It wasn't until I'd been on the shuttle for 25 minutes, and passed a sign on the highway that said 33km to Brussels, that I thought, "Oh yeah, I definitely didn't fly into the airport that any of us thought/were talking about." Thank you, Ryanair. Their money-saving ways are annoying in a somewhat-comical kind of way.
Note to all: Ryanair almost always uses airports that are a minimum of 40 minutes from the city they actually indicate/make you think you're going to. Check in advance so you can potentially avoid expensive to-the-city costs!
So, I changed my hopes of making the train, to hopes of arriving to the train station I needed to get to in the first place. My phone was at about 8% battery by this time, so I turned it off after sending some messages to my friend saying, "Did you have to pay 17€ for a shuttle to the city?? Holy smokes! Ok, well, I'm waiting in line for it now, see you soon!" Battery percentage is sacred while trying to arrive to a new place, and I somehow always find myself arriving whilst my battery is on it's last breaths.
We made it to the station around 00:30, and I tried asking everyone who got off the shuttle and headed for a taxi if they were going near where I was trying to get. Nope, no one. But not only was no one going to that area (probably because they hadn't booked their hotels in the Red Light District, I don't know, maybe..), but I was informed that it was also "very far" from where we were. Awesome. ("Very far" I would later find out on the trip, equaled a half hour walk, which usually I would be completely game for, but considering the hour, the cold, the backpack, and the lack-of-map/phone battery, it wasn't my best option in the moment.) So I got a cab, by myself. My cab driver, who was an incredibly kind man from Ghana, would later tell me that he was surprised when I told him the address I was going to. That usually, if it was a man, he'd ask what he was looking for -- African, East European, etc (in reference to the nationality/color of the women working in The District, since they all have their own streets), but that since I am a woman, he was a little confused and surprised.
I was actually quite glad to have gotten in his cab, because while I felt a little distressed about my budget deflating so fast upon arrival, he was so nice, and we chatted the whole way. He told me how many of the women working in the RLD had been brought over by someone, and owed them loads of money, so even if they made 1,000-2,000€/month, they might only live off 3 or 4 hundred because they had to pay the person back who'd gotten them into the country. (I would also later learn that the women pay about 1,100€/month to rent their work space, cannot live there and are forced to rent an apartment, too, and earn as low as 20-30€ for 10 minutes.) We talked about how we felt about the RLD's and how I never knew how to react to it as a woman (does looking them in the eye to share a smile come off as kind, or judgemental?), the difference between life in Africa and in the big cities, and I learned about his brother and the town he lives in 40km from Brussels/why he lives there (for the sense of community). And then, I arrived, after having driven through the entire African Area of the RLD at prime time. Another 20€ gone, but worth it to give him a fare and have a nice chat with a nice Being.
My glory moment had arrived! It was nearly 1 in the morning, I'd been in transit for over 6 hours, and was so looking forward to getting in the door and passing out. I turned my phone on to let my friend know I was downstairs, and was nervous to see she hadn't read any of my previous ones, but got off my "I'm here" messages just before my phone died. By this point, I was in the entryway of the building, kind of hiding in the dark behind the closed door because I didn't want the men passing on the street to see/hassle me.
The entryway has two doors in it, one which led to The Lady's workplace on the ground level, and the other, which led up to the house I was meant to stay in. So I'm standing there, and begin to knock fiercely on the door, hoping someone will hear it and come let me in. Well, no one opened the door I was hoping they would, but The Lady did happen to open her door, and there I am, in a dress, tights, boots, and layers, with a backpacker's backpack on, heart sunglasses perched on my head, and a stupid nervous/friendly/surprised smile plastered on my face. She thought I was a client trying to enter her place.
She's looking at me, and I just say, "Hi, sorry! I'm trying to get into the apartment. How do I get in there?" And she points to the door I knew I needed to get through, and says, "You enter through there." "Okay, thank you," I say, in my sweetest voice. She shuts her door, and in the following moment a 20-something guy walks in the entryway, looks at me, realizes that no, I'm not waiting for her, and enters her place. It is then that I begin to bang my head on the door and try to fight back the tears that are being brought on by exhaustion, desperation, and fears of spending the night sleeping in the entryway between a RDL Lady's door and the one I want to enter worse than Alice.
Then I result to buzzing every single button on the doorbell that there is, over, and over, and over, and over again. I figure that someone at least has to hear that, but when there is still no smiling face appearing to open the door, I begin to wonder, "Where the hell is she!?" and "What am I going to do?" And then, I notice there is a bar on the corner. I know this will mean walking down the street, past the slow-rolling cars, small groups of men, and windows lit up with red lighted frames, full of dildos, skyscraper heels, and S&M gear, but really, what other choice do I have at this point? I need to get my phone charged so I can try and contact someone, anyone, and, so I can begin to look for a backup sleeping plan, because it appears this one isn't going to work out.
The two friends of the 20-something who'd entered The Lady's place were waiting outside for him, and I ask them if the bar on the corner is open. Thankfully they speak English, and we chat for a moment, me explaining that I'm supposed to stay in the apartment upstairs, but my phone has died, no one is answering the door, and yes. They kindly ask me if I know the number, holding out their phones as a gesture of offering it to me, but I tell them that the numbers are in my phone, which is dead, so really, I need to charge it. And it is in this moment that the 20-something-year old comes strolling out the door and down the steps, hair frazzled, with a slightly goonish look on his face (the kind people wear after pleasure has been had), and he says hello. I ask him how he is, and he says he's good, to which I want so badly to reply, "Yeah, I bet you're good," in a highly sarcastic tone, but don't. Then I say goodbye and thank you, wish them a goodnight, and walk down the street to what would become the icing, whipped cream, and cherry on the cake...
As I'm approaching the bar, I notice it seems partially closed, but that it's still semi-full of people. There are a few young guys outside it, so I ask them if it's open, and it's about at the moment they are telling me yes and opening the door for me, that I realize that there is not a single woman there, nor is there anyone that isn't swagged out, drunk, high, or cross-faded or black.
A side-note: I am not racist, but I use these race/color adjectives to help paint a picture of my situation at the moment. I'd like to think it wouldn't have made a difference if I was walking into a bar full of white guys, Mexicans, Muslims, or any other color. Either way, I was in the Red Light District of a city I've never been in before, at 1 o'clock in the morning, by myself, with no phone, and carrying all my stuff on my back and in my purse.
So there I am, walking into this bar, backpack on, reggae music is blasting, beers are spilling, spliffs are being passed around, and it is no exaggeration to say that not a single head didn't turn and stare at me as I walked in, giving everyone my "Hello, how are you" smile. No one in the joint spoke highly-communicative English, so I took out my phone charger and held up my phone to signify, "Can I please charge my phone?" The man working invites me to come behind the bar, plugs in my phone, and then asks if I'd like something to drink. So I ask for a beer, thinking it might help me blend in a little more. I try to explain to him what is going on, while he is trying to tell one guy to calm the eff down, because, "Man. Muslim man see woman, go crazy. Get crazy because of woman. Man, see woman, is crazy." And then try to explain to a younger guy that no, no I won't give you my phone number, to which he continues to say, "You, give me phone number." And I continue to reply, "Yes, but why? Why would I give you my number? We don't even speak the same language. It wouldn't make any sense. It doesn't make sense. We can't even communicate. No, no, I'm not going to give you my number." All communication being done in broken English, and a blend of French on their parts, and English and Spanish on mine. I finally just divert my attention, and walk away to check the status of my phone.
By this point, I am ready to get out of the bar. The music is too loud, it's too late, I'm too tired, and it's not where I want to be at 2am. The place was loaded with cameras, so I had some sense of security, but I was also beginning to wonder what time it would close, and where I would go from there. There was plenty of money in my account to take a cab to a hotel or hostel, but I just couldn't come to grips with that plan quite yet. I was still holding out hope of getting into the house. I'd called my host, and she said she was at a party across town, but would try calling my friend, who was supposed to be waiting for me at the house. None of her housemates are home, so it's up to my friend to save the night.
It wasn't so comforting when she said that no one was going to be going home till about 6 am, and she couldn't get hold of my friend either. But I didn't want to worry her, even though I'd sent an SOS prayer request message to my family for optimism and humor to remain with me, and told her I'd figure something out. And, if all else failed, the man who worked at the bar had begun to tell me I could sleep in his apartment.
He kept asking if I had a hotel, I kept responding that I was supposed to stay in the house of a friend next door, and he kept telling me, "You, American, good people. You, you sleep. No problem. You sleeping, I no bother you, no problem. You is sleeping on couch, I is sleeping other room, no problem. Problem, you call politie (police). Apartment here, politie here (gesturing that the police station is next door to the apartment). Politie my friend. Problem, you call them, they come, they save you. You American, nothing happen to you. You no have no problem." I was actually seriously considering his offer, because at first I thought he meant the apartment was above the bar, and I knew there were cameras downstairs, so if anything were to go sour, I could jam downstairs and sit in plain view of one of them, or try to sleep in the smoking room off to the side.
In all honestly, I didn't have any bad intuitive feeling about it, and was incredibly curious to trust God so far as to go sleep on the couch of my new friend, but still a little hesitant, considering he was easily twice my size and I'd known him for less than two hours. We'd also been talking a lot about how he goes walking every morning, because that and smoking weed help his injured leg he got, from what I understood, in a walking accident? So he kept telling me, "You, you sleep. You is sleeping. You sleep on couch, I is sleeping, in the morning, we walk. We is walking. At 9 (shown with fingers and said in French), we is walking. You, me, walking." And I kept telling him, "At 9 (shown with fingers and said in English and then Spanish), me, sleeping." (It often helps in communication situations like this to speak back in the English you're spoken.)
Finally, everyone leaves the bar, with the exception of one Belgian guy who's missing a fair share of teeth (the only other non-dark-skinned person in the place), the man who works at the bar, and another guy (his friend?). He offered me another beer, and then after going through the "you sleeping, I sleeping, then in morning we is walking" conversation again, we started talking politics.
He is a HUGE fan of George Bush, well, both of them, Jr. and Sr.. He loves Republicans, and says, "George Bush, character. Straight man, good man. Yes, I like. Respect. Honest man, good man." As well as some, "America, good people. Good country. I like America. Yes, respect. No hurt each other, no cause problem, good people. You good people." (I didn't have the heart to tell him how many wars we've started or about all the murder records that are set in my hometown.) I just keep telling him that they're all the same, democrats and republicans, that I like neither, and giving him endearing looks of, "Well, if you think so."
Just before this, my host wrote me to tell me one of her housemates would be home in about an hour or so, so could I hang in there that much longer? By this point, it was 2:30, and I figured, well, if the bar will be open for another hour, I've already hung in there an hour and a half, what's another hour? I saw the silver lining, and knew that another hour would be a breeze so long as the bar stayed open. Thank You, God, we've got this!
We ran through the sleeping/walking convo a couple more times, I tried to learn some French, and then before I knew it, she was writing to tell me her housemate would be home sooner than expected, arriving in a few minutes! OH MY GOSH, YES! I have hung in there till the necessary moment, and am going to reap the reward for doing so -- entrance! A bed! Safety!
Of course by this time the conversation was going somewhere, and since I'd been given the gift of hope [entering the house], my mindset changed, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, but I was also really ready to get inside. I told my new mates it was time for me to go, and Kaaba told me to wait, because he was going to walk me. Farewells were bid, and then I was finally on my way to entering! He walked me to the house, which was an incredibly sweet and appreciated thing to do, and as we arrived, I saw my coincidentally-Spanish savior. I said goodbye and thank you so much to Kaaba, and told him I'd go by the bar to have a coffee in the morning to make up for not going on "our walk."
It's 3am. I am inside the house. I receive a tour, and Juan says to me, as we're approaching the door my friend must be behind, "And this, is the guest room..." (Everyone involved in the situation was so curious to know what had come of her.) And as I open the door, there she is, lying on the mattress on the floor, under the covers, lights on, fast asleep.
I die. I can't even handle the look on her face when she shoots up and sees me standing there -- I wish I'd taken a photo. She's so dazed, she's no idea what time it is, nor of the adventure I've just had. She asks what time it is, and I tell her it's about 3am, and I've been hanging out at a bar down the street with what I think are likely the pimps of many of The Ladies on this block for the last two hours. It takes her a little while to figure out what she's just heard, then jumps up, hugs me, apologizes, and the three of us laugh heartily as I retell the story of what I've just lived.
In the moment it was happening, I had sent a message to my family saying, "Pray for me please. I'm currently living one of those, 'this'll be a funny story in the future' moments in Brussels. But I'm so tired, so my humor has been passed out for a long time. I'm not in danger, I'm just in a 'wtf is going on' time. :-P" My poor parents.
It really was one of those moments, and the funny-ness of it didn't take more than a couple minutes to set in. And truly, I think knowing how funny and wild of a story it would be in the end made it easier to accept it in the moment. Though I still wonder what would have happened if I'd taken the offer to sleep on the couch. When my friend and I went for a coffee the next morning, I asked her as we were walking away, "So, do you think I would have been safe?" And she said, "Well, he definitely would have tried something. The thing is, I don't know how forceful he would have been. But he definitely would have tried something." (Perhaps she decided this after he said, "I love you, baby," as we were leaving. Which was a pretty fast jump from him just calling me baby by the end of the previous night.)
Yes, quite the travel experience. And I don't want to say it was all brought on by my bratty attitude going into the trip of "I really don't want to go, I'm so tired, I just want to hang out here and relax in town, but my friend booked a flight, so I can't bail," but I am also quite curious to know how it would have gone had I been all positive and excited about it. However, no harm was done, and I did score a pretty good story out of it, so ;)