We left Geneva early on a Sunday morning. We traveled to Amsterdam through Brussels and Paris. We got to Amsterdam at 4pm - checked into our hostel - a really dingy hostel, but it was on top of a fabulous bar. Winning! But that hostel was dingy! We had to pass through some toilets to get to our room - yes.....who built this place???
4pm - everyone passed out and we vowed to wake up and PARTAAY! Cause, hey - this is Amsterdam......Well, we actually fell asleep till the next morning. All our traveling had finally finished us. The next day we woke up and went for Sandeman's New Europe Tours - amazing free tours in different European cities.
Amsterdam was actually really cool and quite multicultural. I kept on wondering how a country that is bordered by Germany and Belgium attracted so many people of all races, religions , ideologies etc. I also wondered why the people were so nice. People had been so nice
and friendly even the older generation who usually stare at you with xenophobic suspicion.
Amsterdam was founded by two men and a dog. History claims that. How two men and a dog were able to build this town is a good question. They built a dam on the river Amstel….Amsteldam became Amsterdam. We went to check out the old part of town and it dawned on me how fragile the place is. Most of Amsterdam is on reclaimed land. People don't store anything in the basement for fear of flooding. We passed one street where all the houses were toppling forwards. Apparently this was intentional. All houses had a one meter or so beam extending horizontally from the roof. This was used to support ropes to pull up
merchandise from the river direct into the attic when the merchant boats came. All storage had to be done in the attic for fear of flooding. The houses were built leaning forward so as to avoid stuff breaking your windows as it was pulled up. It took the town 100 year to realize that this danger could be avoided if they made the beams longer.
During Napoleon's reign in France, he invaded Netherlands and gave it to his silly younger brother. His brother was not that sharp. The first time he tried to speak Dutch to the people and announce, "I am your King," he actually said "I am your rabbit." They never really took him seriously after that. Before his time, the Dutch never used surnames. They had names like, "Dirk from Utrecht" or "Jan the baker" etc. A law was passed forcing everyone to have a surname. The Dutch had an interesting sense of humour and took on nonsensical surnames –
"Dirk PeesInTheForest", "Jan TheLaughingCow" etc. It was quite funny then, but many young Dutch of this generation do not find their surnames that hilarious.
Another curious thing was that houses in Amsterdam didn't use to have addresses. They had gablestones. If the dentist lived there, there would be a tooth sculpture at his door. The baker, there would be an oven etc. I found the founding of Amsterdam quite organic. Who says
addresses are the only way to mark houses? It would be nice to know
who lives in what place by looking at their door.
Our next stop on the tour was the Red Light District. Right at the entrance of the Red Light District was an old church. This District is the oldest part of the town. When the sailors came back they would visit the bordellos first. After this they would go to the church, repent their sins, pay for their forgiveness and get a "Get out of hell free" card from the priests. Understanding the Red Light District is an important aspect in understanding Dutch culture. They are very Calvinist, and believe that everyone has a right to live their life how they see fit. It surprises people, but the Dutch are actually quite conservative themselves. They however tend to turn a blind eye/ have a non-inteference culture when it comes to many things. This is why the Netherlands is known as the hotbed for people of different sexual orientations, marijuana-legality and lax immigration laws. They themselves may choose to live what they consider pure or religious lives, but they don't impose their thinking on anyone. I really liked
that. Your reality is not my reality.
The Red Light District is basically a collection of windows in buildings with red lights, and women on display behind the windows. Pimping in Netherlands is illegal. All the workers here are self-employed. They pay 150-200 Euros a night for their window, and what they do there is their business. They also pay taxes. I thought it was very practical as banning prostitution just means that more people are forced to be sex workers and work under horrifying circumstances, have no basic rights, have a middle man oppressing them etc. In Amsterdam they are unionizable workers just like teachers etc. They also have better police protection than they did when it was 'illegal' but still happening. In Kenya one always hears horrific tales of prostitutes reporting cases of violence or rape to the police, only to be further brutalized -because the police know the women have no one to turn to - as their trade is illegal...
The first three windows I saw were African women. The next one I saw was a woman with bondage gear. The next one was a woman sitting with a huge dildo on. The District is organized into all sorts of different fetishes. I was told there is also a part just for Asian prostitutes, leather, foot fetishes etc. A basic appropriately named "suck and **ck" goes for 50 euros and lasts 15 minutes. These women are making bank. How many 15 minutes do you have in 8 hours?
Another thing that would be worth mentioning about Netherlands is the marijuana laws. In the 60s and 70s Amsterdam was hit hard by the drugs madness. The town had more heroin abusers than it could rehabilitate. The Government took drastic measures. It decriminalized marijuana which it considered to be a pseudo-drug and had stricter punishments
for heroin and cocaine. Though these measures seemed crazy, it helped the town put more funding into catching dealers of hard drugs, and leaving the pot-head down the street alone. Contrary to popular opinion, weed isn't legal in Netherlands, but is tolerated. 'Tolerated' means that as long as it doesn't disturb anyone else then it is fine. I can't tell what the difference between tolerated and legal is. There have been no weed-related arrests in over 30 years. The
Dutch also believe in subtlety which is why everyone calls these places 'coffee shops.' Netherlands now has half as many heroin addicts, percentage wise as the US. Their experiment was a success after all. It was funny to learn that the Dutch are not even a big consumer of the product. It is now quite a tourist thing. The Dutch themselves rank 7th in Europe on the list of most marijuana consumed. The highest is Spain, France, Germany etc. Also equally surprising was learning that New Zealand is the country in the world with the highest percentage of weed smokers – 16.7%. Everyone had thought it was Jamaica. We were also given a tour of the outside of the Hemp Marijuana Museum and the Cannabis College.
To be continued......