I flew from Dublin to Amsterdam on RyanAir, a low cost airline (similar to Kulula.com in South Africa). And when they say low cost, they mean it – my ticket cost just €1.99 plus airport taxes. Not bad, I thought. Unfortunately, to save costs, RyanAir doesn’t actually fly to Amsterdam . Instead they fly to a town named Eindhoven on the opposite side of the country. I had to catch a bus to Amsterdam.
Luckily, The Netherlands is not a big country, so this only took 90 minutes.
I was abandoned at Amsterdam central station by the friendly bus driver who shouted “Meet back here to catch the bus back!” and then drove off.
Standing on the sidewalk with my suitcase, I suddenly realised that I had never been alone in a foreign city before.
Clutched in one hand I had a print-out of my reservation at the “The Art Gallery Hotel”. In the other hand I had a map of Amsterdam. I knew where I was, I vaguely knew where I wanted to be, and I had no idea how to get there.
I wandered into the tourism office.
“Hi, how do I get to the Rijksmuseum?” (Apparently, my hotel looked out onto this museum.)
“Oh you can catch any tram, the number 5, number 6, number 16, number 25… oh but be careful of the number 16, the one in lane three goes to the other side of the city.”
I blinked. With mounting dread I bought a 72-hour ticket, and wandered outside. I saw a number 16 tram, but I couldn’t figure out which lane it was in. After waiting a while, a number 25 tram arrived, which looked safe.
“Does this tram go past the Rijksmuseum?” I asked the driver.
He stared off into the middle distance, and then replied suddenly “Yes, yes, get in!”
I lugged my suitcase in, and unfolded my map, determined to chart our progress through the city. Within seconds I had lost track of where we were, and instead stared out the window as we rushed at break-neck speed through crowds of pedestrians, bicycles and cars, over roads, bridges and canals.
“Is the Rijksmuseum nearby?” I tentatively asked the driver.
“I will tell you when we get there!” he replied.
I sat down.
Eventually the tram driver let me out, with vague pointed directions, and then rushed off.
Almost immediately I nearly got run over by a bicycle.
The Dutch really like their bicycles – they are everywhere. I gather there are 4 bicycles for every 5 inhabitants. The Dutch don’t wear cycling gear either – I saw guys cycling in business suits, and women cycling in mini skirts and high-heeled shoes. Along every street is a wide cycling line, with a continuous flow of bicycles. The cycling lane is separated by a pavement, which means you have to look left and right twice when crossing a street – first for the cars, and then again for the cyclists. This took some getting used to.
I was attracted to the sound of pumping dance music. In the middle of a square, a bunch of beautiful girls clad in jeans and bikini tops were dancing on a temporary stage. I joined the crowd watching them, completely fascinated. Wow, I thought, Amsterdam is really cool – they get hot woman to dance for the enjoyment of the crowd. Eventually I figured out that it was a clothing promotion – the bikini tops were on sale for €6.99.
After an hour of walking and asking for directions, I eventually found my hotel. The receptionist greeted me with a smile and handed me my key.
“Your room is on the third floor, and we have no elevator.”
Why, oh why, did I bring such a heavy bag? I lugged it up the impossibly narrow and steep staircase and collapsed on my bed. I discovered that my room did not have an on-suite bathroom (this was at the end of the hall, no great inconvenience) but it did have a nice view of the Rijksmuseum. After relaxing for a moment, I decide to head out and find a coffee shop. I’d done some internet research beforehand, using the website www.hiptravelguide.com as my primary guide. From the reader comments I gathered “Basjoe” was a good coffee shop to visit first. After wandering around for about half an hour I found the place. I walked inside and greeted the proprietor, a Rasta character with an extremely long pony tail made from dreadlocks.
“Hi, you must be James.”
He chucked. “Yeah. How’d you know that?”
“I read about you on the internet,” I replied, and passed him a print-out.
“Really?” He took a look. “So where are you from?”
“Oh right.” He leaned over the counter and pointed out the window.
“I suppose you think that’s a robot?”
(For non-South Africa readers – we call traffic lights “robots”. No, I don’t know why.)
I chuckled. “Have you been to South Africa?”
“No,” he replied, somewhat mystically, “but I have many friends. So what can I offer you?”
“Have you got any weed?”
“Is this your first time in Amsterdam ?” (Bust, damn.)
James passed me a menu. “Here, take a look at this.”
I’ve never ordered weed off a menu before. I found this about as confusing as a wine list – lots of words you recognise, but nothing to help you make a decision. I put the menu down.
“What do you recommend?” I asked James.
“Well, do you want kind of high do you want? Something strong, something mild, something in between?” I rubbed my forehead. I’ve never faced this many decisions before while trying to get stoned. “I don’t know, something in between?” I ventured. “Ok, well then I recommend the Special Haze.” James pointed to the first item on the list. “Ok, that sounds fine,” I replied. “How much do you want? 1 gram?” How much is a gram of weed? Normally I just buy it by the bank bag. I rubbed my forehead again. “Ok, a gram sounds fine.” “Would you like me to roll it for you?” “Yes!” At last, a question I could answer without thinking. James retrieved a plastic tub from under the shelf and opened it up. Inside was a lot of weed. I leaned over the shelf. There were quite a few plastic tubs behind there. James began hand rolling a joint for me, with a piece of cardboard for a filter. (Frankly, I prefer a smaller joint, carefully rolled in a machine, with a proper filter. But I decided not to be fussy.) I smoked for a while at the counter, and then spied a group British people, about the same age as me. In my typical style, I dumped myself at their table.
“Mind if I join you guys?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” they replied. They introduced themselves and I instantly forgot their names.
The group were ordering teas, so I thought I’d join in. Basjoe offers an impressive array of flavoured teas. Each person in the group ordered a different flavour, and when the teas arrived there was much tasting.
For a while we chatted and smoked, and then as I became increasingly stoned I stopped talking and just listened to their conversation.
“Is it just a rumour, or is knitting suddenly the in thing?” asked one of the guys. I pondered this. Knitting?!? What??
“Oh yeah,” replied one of the other guys, “Apparently Jennifer Lopez was spotted recently knitting.”
“Julia Roberts as well,” another concurred.
“Kate, can you knit?” asked one of the guys to the only girl in the group.
“I can,” admitted Kate with an impish grin. “You know I actually used to quite enjoy knitting in school. Can any of you guys knit?”
“Actually, I can knit a little,” replied one of the guys.
“Well, not very well. I certainly wouldn’t like to try right now.” Which was quite prudent in my opinion. Knitting while stoned could lead to serious injury.
Barring the unusual “knitting” sidetrack, the group’s conversation was very intelligent and interesting. I would have been happy to sit their all evening listening to them chat, but I did have a concert to go to. I bade my farewell and prepared to face the trams once again. Outside I watched the trams cruising backwards and forwards, and decided perhaps it would be safer to walk to the concert venue. Once again, I knew where I was, where I wanted to go, and still managed to get lost numerous times on the way.
To the tourist, I think Amsterdam is an incredibly easy city to get lost in. At every corner one is confronted with an identical scene: A row of gorgeous five story buildings, a canal, a bridge, a side walk café, a tram, a hundred bicycles, and a crowd of people. Although every street is clearly signposted (even the tiniest of alleyways), this just adds to the confusion, because the street names do not exactly roll off the tongue. Examples: “Weteringschans”, “Snoekjesgracht”, “Gravesandeplein”.
The concert I mentioned earlier was in fact the primary reason I was in Amsterdam. I had come to watch a performance by my hero Nitin Sawney at The Paradiso nightclub. I had purchased a ticket online a few weeks earlier. I presented it at the door.
“Membership card?” requested the doorman.
“I don’t have one,” I replied, confused.
“You can get one there.” He pointed at the ticket office.
I asked the impossibly beautiful lady behind the counter if I could get a membership card.
“250,” she replied.
“What 250 Euro?” I exclaimed.
“No. 2 Euro and 50 cents. But you can give me 250 Euro if you like.”
Wow. Pretty with a sense of humour.
I paid the correct amount, and went inside.
The club was packed to capacity and the concert was in full swing. Nitin was on stage with an ensemble of musicians. I stood there, in utter awe, as I watched my most favourite songs performed live. It was a magical experience. At one point the vocalist stopped singing, and said “Come on, you all know the words, I want you to sing it for me”. And when the crowd sang, they could have lifted the roof. I have never in my life witnessed something so beautiful or been so happy.
Behind the musicians was a giant screen displaying the most bizarre images. I saw anti-American propaganda, strange tracer lights, and other things I can’t even describe. When Nitin finally left the stage, the crowd clapped, stamped and screamed continuously for what felt like an eternity.
I screamed so loud that my throat hurt, and I couldn’t even hear my own voice. It felt like my ear drums were going to burst. Eventually the Master returned to the stage and performed two encores. When it was finally over, I felt like crying.
I later found out that The Netherlands is in a different time zone, and because I’d failed to adjust my watch accordingly I’d missed the first half of the show. But that’s ok, because I’m sure I’ll see him again. I stumbled out into the night, electrified, more alive than when I’d walked in an hour earlier. I made my way back to the hotel and curled up in bed, happy as a baby.
The next morning I woke up late, just in time for lunch. This is, without doubt, one of the greatest advantages of travelling alone – you can get up when it pleases you. No irate banging on your door at the ungodly hour of 9am, with instructions to wash, dress, eat and be downstairs in 15 minutes for a visit to the XYZ museum. I rolled over and went back to sleep. At 2pm I woke up and watched a bit of daytime television.
At 2:30pm I was getting particularly hungry, which finally forced me out of my hotel room. I found a cute corner café and ate a pizza. I must say, I really enjoyed every meal I ate in Amsterdam – the restaurants did seem a little run down, and service a bit stroppy, but the food was excellent.
I went to Basjoe’s and smoked another joint. At one point a young guy came in and tried to buy some weed. James asked to see his ID, and when the kid was unable to show any, James told him to get out. I thought this was quite interesting – The Netherlands may be a very liberal place but they do take their laws very seriously. In other countries selling weed is illegal per se; a dealer wouldn’t care if the buyer was underage. I headed off to the Red Light District in search of the Cannabis College, where you can apparently learn a variety of weed growing techniques. I never did find it, possibly because I was so distracted by the other attractions the Red Light District had to offer.
I really didn’t enjoy walking through the Red Light District, although it was certainly an educational experience. When the girls look out at you through their windows they stare directly in your eyes, and it’s hard to imagine that there is a human being inside there. I didn’t watch any live shows, despite the incessant persuading of many vendors. I was afraid to slow my pace even for a second, lest a vendor attempt to drag into their den of inequity.
I happened upon the “Sex museum” and went inside for a tour. This was a most interesting cultural experience. They had a very wide collection of sexual artefacts, from ancient stone phalluses to painted Chinese plates depicting various acts to antique fetish wear. It was actually quite cute in a way – here were ancient archaeological treasures that couldn’t be displayed in normal museums because of their “adult” nature. I bought a pack of karma sutra playing cards that I’m confident will enliven the next poker get together.
I went to the Rijksmuseum for some more traditional fare. I hate to admit it, but I’m not much of a classic art connoisseur. As far as I am concerned, most of the paintings depicted a bunch of lifeless toffs in stupid clothing. But, it actually turned out to be quite an enjoyable experience, for in every room, there were young people with sketch pads and pencils drawing remarkable copies of the pictures on the walls. I found this fascinating – it really brought the art to life, seeing it drawn in front of my eyes. I walked from room to room looking not at the pictures, but at the pads of the artists.
After the museum, I went off in search of a non-American film. This was difficult. The anti-globalisation protestors have got it all wrong – McDonalds isn’t the enemy – more serious is the global addiction to Hollywood.
Eventually I found an art house cinema screening an Indian movie. I arrived during the intermission – everyone was standing in the foyer drinking glasses of wine and discussing the film. I think intermission is a really great idea – it’s an opportunity to socialise (isn’t that half the reason of going out in the first place?), and for those of us with a weak bladder, it’s an opportunity to run to the bathroom without missing anything.
It seemed a bit pointless watching only the second half of the film, but it was the last show for the day, and I was tired from walking.
The film was in Hindi with English subtitles. The characters themselves slipped into and out of English periodically as well, which I always find a bit confusing. The movie was really serious and depressing, covering topics such as corruption, politics, Hindu/Muslim violence, and so on. I didn’t see a single forbidden love affair, dance scene or glamorous wedding – standard ingredients in an Indian film in my experience.
“That’ll serve you right for watching a foreign film,” I hear the peanut gallery muttering. Sure, it might not have been entertaining – but I it forced me to learn something, which is never a bad thing.
I managed to find my way back to my hotel room without getting lost, a significant milestone!
I stepped out my hotel into the morning light and decided to spend the day learning about Dutch culture.
In the Vondelpark, a giant park in the South-West of city, a saw a group of adult men playing a casual game of soccer. I remembered the excitement of playing soccer in the park as a kid, the running, the tackling, the laughter. I realised that I haven’t kicked a ball since I left school. Life accelerated – I was busy, building a career, forever working. I had forgotten the thrill of scoring a goal. As I sat there, watching the game, I felt time slow down. Sunlight shafted through the trees, birds chirped, a goal was saved and then another scored. I thought to myself: This is living.
Later, I spotted two guys who were very casually spray painting graffiti onto a tram station. The public didn’t seem overly concerned – people strolled past the pair as if they were invisible. The graffiti was exquisite – incredibly vibrant colours in exotic patterns. These two weren’t angry teenage vandals – they were artists.
Everywhere I went, I saw the most beautiful graffiti. On one wall I saw a three story fresco – it must have required ladders and days of effort to complete.
Amsterdam has many civic places – big open public squares designed purely for loitering. I remember once when I was young I saw a sign that read “No loitering”.
“What does ‘no loitering’ mean?” I asked my Mom.
“It means they don’t want anyone just hanging around, causing a nuisance.”
“Why can’t you just hang around?” I asked. I didn’t understand then, and I still don’t understand now.
The squares were filled with the most interesting street performers. I watched a hilarious puppet show and later an African dance routine. I discovered that there are dozens of secret gardens sprinkled all across Amsterdam.
These gardens are built on the inside of city blocks. To get in, you first have to find the nondescript entranceway, best described as a ‘hole in wall’. After that you walk through a dark tunnel, and suddenly you’re in the cutest of gardens. I would never have found these if they weren’t marked as little green trees on my map.
I walked out of the inner city and into the newer suburbs on the outskirts. It was a strange feeling – the further I walked, the bigger everything seemed to get. The roads were wider, the buildings taller, the spaces greater. It may be considered more “efficient” living, but it will never have the character and charm of inner Amsterdam.
Over the next two days I spent time discovering book stores, CD shops, adult video stores, and many more. I felt like a kid in a candy store. All too soon, it was time to leave.
I had to catch the bus back to Eindhoven from the central station. When I got there with my suitcase, I realised that I couldn’t quite remember the spot where I had been dropped off. With mounting panic, I surveyed the dozens of waiting coaches, and realised that I couldn’t even remember what the bus had looked like. I looked at my watch. I had five minutes to find the correct bus. Great.
As it happens, I never did find my bus. After half an hour I abandoned the search, and bought a train ticket to Eindhoven . Then I caught a taxi (at considerable expense) to the airport, only to find that I had missed the check-in cut-off by 30 minutes.
I got to sit on the observation desk sipping a cappuccino, and watch my plane fly away without me. The next flight was leaving in 24 hours. Being stuck in Eindhoven for the evening wasn’t exactly part of my travel itinerary. I trundled my suitcase into town and checked into the first hotel I saw. The evening was saved by two beautiful Icelandic girls who followed me into the hotel.
“Hey, you guys also stuck in Eindhoven for the night?” I asked.
“Yeah. We followed you because you looked like you knew where you going.”
I chuckled. “Well, I’ve got the evening free. If you ladies aren’t busy, perhaps you’d like to go out?” The pair conferred and then agreed. Excellent!
After stashing our bags in our respective rooms, we went out for dinner, and got chatting. The pair were from Reykjavik and were applying to study industrial design at a college in Eindhoven. They told me all about Iceland, and confirmed my belief that I absolutely must go there before summer is out.
“Would you guys like to go to a coffee shop?” I asked them.
“Yes,” they replied.
“Have you ever been to a coffee shop here before?”
“No,” they replied.
“I’ll think you’ll enjoy this.” I smiled.
Determined not to get lost, I forced the waiter to draw me a map to the nearest coffee shop on a paper napkin.
As coffee shops go, this one was a bit strange. It didn’t have the chilled Rasta feel of the shops in Amsterdam . There was heavy metal music playing. And there were dark-looking posters on the walls. You get all sorts of bars and pubs, so I suppose you get all sorts of coffee shops too.
We got high, and I told them a bit about Joburg. All true stuff: the fact that you can drink the tap water, the fact that it’s the worlds biggest man made oasis, the fact that there are street signs pronouncing “Hi-jack hotspot”.
We parted ways at the hotel – the girls were going to pull an all-nighter to finish a project for their interview at the college the next day. I felt guilty that I’d got them stoned, and unfortunately I never did find out how it went.
The next day I lounged around Eindhoven, and then arrived at the airport two hours early, determined not to miss my flight again. You’ll be glad to know I made back to Dublin in one piece. I really enjoyed my time in Amsterdam, and I think I might actually go live there for a while. I’ll keep you all posted.