Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Posted on 8/16/03

And now, the city you’ve all been waiting for; Amsterdam! Aaawww yeah! Legal soft drugs! Government sanctioned prostitution! Live sex shows! More sin than you can shake a bong at! This place makes Las Vegas look like Branson, Missouri!

But first, let’s take a few thousand words to discuss Amsterdam’s rich 700 year history. In the 13th century some fishermen built a dam across the Amstel River and soon after the city was… Naw, I’m messin’ with yuh! On with the debauchery!

People come to Amsterdam from all over the world for the sole purpose of getting thoroughly f*cked up. Hash, mushrooms and other soft drugs are 100% legal and easier to get than a decent ice cream cone. While owning and using these soft drugs is worry-free, don’t plan on collecting a duffel bag worth of gear and opening your own Kool-Aid-style booth on the corner. If you get busted with more than what the authorities have deemed an acceptable sized stash for personal use, you will indeed get tossed into prison. There’s no need to worry about hoarding your personal inventory though. “Coffee Shops” (code name for hash bars, which are the only legal soft drug merchants in Amsterdam) are more numerous than Starbucks in Seattle. There are several in each neighborhood and in places like the city center, brain-dead oblivion awaits you behind about every third door.

It goes without saying that any tourist stopping in Amsterdam for more than a couple days has an agenda that includes many, many hours, slouched in a stupor in the back of a hash bar. I ran into countless people who’s European itinerary went something like this:

July: France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria.
August: Amsterdam.

I found this dog exactly like this in front of a hash bar.  Too much second hand smoke?

While most natives manage to toke in moderation, there is a huge presence of permanent resident drugs fatalities staggering around Amsterdam. These are people who probably arrived in the city anywhere from 5 to 20 years ago, decided to stay a while, never left and eventually spiraled down into a serious hard drug habit. In some parts of Amsterdam it is impossible to walk 10 steps without encountering a dope fiend hitting you up for change, putting on a free, drug-fueled song and dance show or just tripping so hard that they can’t figure out how to zip their pants back up after reliving themselves on one of their buddies. In most cases you can laugh this off as part of the entertainment value of Amsterdam, but sometimes these spectacles can be disturbing enough for even a hardened local to stop and stare at the sight of a raw, depraved, drug addict passed out in the bushes. These people are so far removed from reality that they are completely unaware of their degeneracy. Typical characteristics include a stick-thin body, five foot long dreads, inch long, yellow fingernails, wearing clothes that have clearly not been washed in months and permeating with an aroma that could knock a buzzard off a garbage truck. While I can empathize with the argument for legalizing soft drugs, it is impossible to spend an afternoon in Amsterdam and not think twice about the path that starts with soft drugs and leads to a wretched, pathetic life.

I personally do not smoke the herb. I tried it twice. The first time I think it was oregano, because nothing happened and the second time I got mildly stoned, but it also triggered a minor but unpleasant asthma-like attacked that lingered for two days. That was the only hint that I needed to let the stuff go. I’ll stick to cider thank you.

The Red Light District is a whole other matter. While hash has it’s specific cross-eyed demographic, the Red Light District in comparison almost resembles a family theme park atmosphere. The area takes up about six square blocks and every street is packed with happy tourists walking up and down, admiring the scenery like they were in a nature preserve. But instead of birds and flowers they see huge pictures of anatomically correct dildos and graphically depicted sex acts displayed outside the copious sex shops. Whole families routinely make the tour through the District with mom, dad, bug-eyed Joe junior and little, horrified nine year old Ashley getting the education of a lifetime and probably wondering how long it’ll be before she gets her boobies and how long after that before they get fondled by a disheveled guy wearing sunglasses, camouflage boxer-shorts and combat boots. Live sex theaters line the streets with humungous, color, pornographic photos. Then there are the infamous hooker windows where scantly clad women and women-formerly-known-as-men flirt and pose for the passersby, hoping to score a customer. By and large, these hookers are about as appealing as a three finger prostate exam. Once in a great while, during peak times, you can find an attractive woman that you might consider for something more than a foot rub, but this is rare. The women appear to be mostly poor immigrants from Asian and Latin countries and have obviously seen better days. Even in the throes of my exasperating drought of female companionship, I wouldn’t consider an evening with one of these women if they covered themselves in impenetrable latex, provided me with a blindfold and paid me for the pleasure.

Just another normal day in the Red Light DistrictEmpty hooker windows.  They don't like to have their pictures taken, i discovered the hard way.

If you can drag yourself away from these exceptionally powerful tourist attractions and wander into the quieter parts of Amsterdam you will find that it is endlessly cool and friendly. The canals and cozy streets are over-run with outdoor cafes, restaurants and little squares making for a quaint, welcoming atmosphere. The neighborhood mindset is strong. It very common for people to know all of their neighbors, their neighbor’s children and pets and to greet, play with or pet all of the above as they walk up and down their street.

Everything in Amsterdam is small. The houses are small. The streets are small. The restaurants are small. The bathrooms are really small. The Dutch rival the Swedes with being the tallest people in the world, so how they cope with a bathroom that I can barely squash my 5’-9”, 160 lb. frame into is beyond me. This lack of personal space is not only due to the vast number of people crammed into Amsterdam, but it can also be directly attributed to a medieval tax law. Back in the olden days, the people in Amsterdam were taxed according to the width of their houses. The natives worked around this obstacle by constructing extremely narrow, long houses, most of which are still standing today. The Amsterdamers make the most of the room that they have by finding ways to utilize every square inch of horizontal and vertical space. i.e. Book shelves above doorways, lofted beds and their three foot bongs hung from ceiling hooks.

This was my fourth visit to Amsterdam, but only my first time staying in the city. My other visits had consisted of day trips while staying with friends in Utrecht or day long layovers while on my way to somewhere else. As was uncannily customary for me, I found myself deposited in Amsterdam at the crack of dawn with little or no sleep. Some evil pothead in Prague convinced me that the best way out of the country was by bus. Being a dumb ass, I said “OK” and bought an over-priced, 14 hour, over-night bus ticket to Amsterdam. Despite being on a surprisingly new and clean bus, it was pure Hell, Norway on many levels. Not only was it a cramped night of misery, but through extraneous circumstances, I found myself with no Czech money after breakfast on the day of my departure. I had tried to calculate things with the money situation in such a way that I would leave the Czech Republic with exactly zero Czech crowns in my pocket, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the exchange to Euros with the weak Czech currency. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account the two glasses of wine and the cover-charge that I paid to get into the jazz club the night before, so I was basically broke after my morning fruit and pastry. The bus didn’t leave until 5:00PM and I didn’t get into Euro territory until about four hours after that. I sustained myself during the day by rationing a big chocolate bar I had been hanging onto for emergencies and drinking a lot of water. When we finally made our first stop in Germany at 9:00 that night, I was so wreaked with starvation that I leapt from the bus and tore into a McDonalds (the only food for miles and just the second time I have eaten at a McDonalds in over 10 years), shoving women, children and the elderly aside so that I could order and devour a chicken sandwich with a bunch of nasty sauce on it that nevertheless tasted like the elixir of life due to my level of hunger at the time. After narrowly averting starving to death, I settled down on the bus, watched “Rush Hour II” and then dozed sparingly and fitfully for the next seven hours.

I arrived in Amsterdam at 7:30AM. Due to the overwhelming number of stoners that vacation in Amsterdam in August, there were exactly zero beds available in the city, unless I wanted to pay over $100 a night. Fortunately, my old friend Sanne had a small place in a fantastic neighborhood close to the train station and after only getting about four hours of semi-restful sleep on the night bus, I slept like a baby on her floor.

My first day in Amsterdam was long and action packed. I wasn’t able to meet with Sanne until 9:00 that night, leaving me homeless for 13 hours. I locked my bags in a train station locker for a flabbergasting five and a half Euros ($6.50) and prepared for a day of wandering. I decided that 8:00 in the morning was a little too early for the Red Light District, so I ducked into a bakery to have my morning pastry and Coke and pour over my map of the city. I filled the morning by exploring neighborhoods that I had not visited previously, often stumbling onto the occasional hardcore druggie street where every person in sight was either selling, taking, tripping on or desperately looking for hard drugs. While Amsterdamers are generally champions of soft drugs, they have no patience for the harder stuff. Nearly every hash establishment had huge signs announcing that hard drugs were not tolerated on the premises, so the people seeking the harder stuff were forced to hide out in alleys and under bridges.

This was the best statue guy i had ever seen.  original and he never moved a muscle!

By mid-afternoon I was ready for something naughty. I walked up and down the Red Light District, often zipping into the sex shops to see what DVDs were doing well that month. I’ll spare you the details, but Amsterdam happily flaunts a lot of pornographic material that would not be legal in the U.S. Fortunately, I had wisely opted to put off lunch until after the Red Light District. Before arriving in Amsterdam, I had resolved to take in a live sex show, for posterity’s sake of course. I had been given a slight preview of what to expect from a couple I ran into in Austria. My opinion was that if this happy, seemingly well adjusted couple could take in a nice, wholesome Amsterdam live sex show, well then so could I, dammit! I veered into what I thought was a theater, but it turned out to be a peep show, featuring live sex acts every hour on the hour. You had to squeeze into a one person booth, lock yourself in and drop two Euros into the pay box for two minutes of fun. The peep windows were obscured by a backlight which would turn off after you deposited your money, allowing you to see the action. I was a few minutes early for the sex show and ended up catching the end of a strip show. The “stage” was a small revolving circle surrounded by the peep windows. The woman that was performing was very attentive to the paying customers, making a point of crawling over and rewarding each of us with a variety of up-close money shots and meaningful eye contact. My time ran out and the backlight switched on. I waited patiently, sweating in the hot, tiny booth for the top of the hour. Soon I heard the performers switching places. Despite the backlight, I could make out the shadows of the performers. I gave the couple a few moments to get settled and warmed up before dropping in my next two Euro piece. When the backlight switched off they were already off and running. The woman was unexpectedly attractive. I had mentally prepared myself for one of the round, ragged, homely women that were in the hooker windows. The guy was nothing special, but then I’m not exactly the best judge. They exchanged sessions of oral sex before doing the big one. The man spent most of the time with his eyes closed, but the women would make eye contact with each of us peepers no matter what she was doing. It was very intimate and weird.

After dropping a grand total of six Euros into the box, I had had enough of the peep act and moved back into the street to find a real theater show. After getting price quotes from a few of places, I decided on a medium sized theater being hawked by a young British guy. As we sealed the deal and he lead me to the door of the theater, I quizzed him mercilessly about his job. He told me that he and his wife had decided to move to Amsterdam for a change of pace and he just kind of “fell” into the live sex show promoting job. Yeah, right. Just like I “fell” into being an unemployed travel writer after six weeks of meticulous planning. The Brit and his wife planned to go back to England eventually and he admitted that his resume would probably have a big, mysterious gap for the year spent in Amsterdam.

Before releasing me into the theater, the promoter explained that the show was a continuous running loop of two strippers, a live sex act and then a porn video to finish off the hour. One of the strippers was on stage when I walked in. The theater was surprisingly full. One whole side of the theater was taken up by a group of drunk guys that appeared to be on a rambunctious bachelor outing. I sat down in one of the few open seats right up front next to the drunks and started to take in the show. The stripper was a small Asian woman. She was down to a sarong and a thong, dancing appropriately enough to “The Thong Song.” She dropped the sarong and lost the thong. A huge roar of laughter erupted as she revealed what appeared to be the white pull-string of a tampon dangling between her legs. The men were in stitches and the few women in the room were horrified. But the stripper had a surprise for us. With a totally straight face, she grabbed the string, yanked it out of herself, accompanied by an audible gasp from the entire room, and unfurled it to reveal yet another thong with waist ties, which she fastened to herself and returned to dancing as the curtain inched closed. The room exploded with applause.

The sex act was up next. The curtain opened to reveal two very unattractive people acting out a courtship scene to the song “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” The couple appeared to have a pretty healthy sense of humor about the whole performance. People were laughing, but it wasn’t clear if it was nervous laughter or if they were enjoying the couple’s attempt at light comedy. They eventually got down to business. It was clear that this was about the 10th time that these two had done their act that day. They demonstrated several positions and angles with almost zero enthusiasm before the curtains closed on them to light, tentative applause. An announcer said that a porn video would be shown to get us to the top of the hour. I wanted to see the other stripper, so I made myself comfortable while everyone in the theater but myself and five other guys promptly got up and left. By this point, the heat in the room compounded with the precious few hours of sleep I had gotten on the bus were getting to me. Despite hardcore porn being shown on a 12 foot screen directly in front of me, I desperately wanted to lay down and take a nap. Of course I wasn’t going to let my bare skin touch anything in that theater, so I played Mine Sweeper on my Timeport to keep myself awake.

Finally the showed re-started. The first stripper turned out the be the women from the sex duo, doing a double shift. She started things off by badgering us remaining men to all come and sit in the front row. Once we were all settled in the first row, she came around to each of us to test our, er, “excitement level” by wrapping her shawl around our necks and groping our crotches. I don’t know if the others were as devoid of arousal as I was, but nevertheless, when it was my turn and she reached down for a feel, she pulled back and reacted as if she had just gotten a handful of Norwegian Wood, if you catch my drift. Satisfied, she queued the music and did a short, not-so-erotic display with a vibrator before the curtains closed on her.

Then it was the Asian woman again. At this point a huge group of women entered the theater and were being rowdy in the last four rows, making all of us guys up front feel very self-conscious about not only being in the theater in the first place, but also because we were all planted shoulder-to-shoulder in the front row. I took some notes in my Timeport as even more people filed into the theater, filling it to capacity. I decided to stick around for the reaction to the Asian chick’s thong materialization bit. For some reason the trick didn’t get the same response from the new crowd. This may have been due to the majority of the audience being women and they were possibly too grossed out to do anything but groan and hide their faces in their hands. The curtain closed to a befuddling silence. I felt a little bad for the stripper. Then the sex act returned. I hung around just to see if the guy could get it up again. He did. What a stud.

Believe it or not, I had managed to exceed my seemingly endless appetite for sex for the day. I sought out dinner at an over-priced but pleasant neighborhood restaurant before having a happy reunion with Sanne.

If not for the elaborate system of dykes, er I mean dikes, and locks and dams, something like three quarters of The Netherlands would be under water. The ground under Amsterdam in particular is so soft that the houses would all eventually sink if they weren’t all built on top of deeply sunken piles. As Amsterdam grew, the city planners kept on expanding the city with ever widening concentric canals. Unlike Venice’s random canal system, Amsterdam‘s canals were built with a clear city plan in mind. The canals were not only used to defend the city against invaders, but they were also used to deliver heavy goods right to everyone’s front door. The houses along the canals were all equipped with a block and tackle (basically a giant hook and pulley system) hanging off the front for raising and loading goods from the canal up into the windows of the houses. These systems are still used today when people move in and out of the houses, due to the stairways being far too small and narrow to carry up anything wider than a folding chair.

Despite the streets being barely the width of a Smart car, the streets are open to all kinds of traffic from cars, to horses-drawn carriages to the countless bikes that dominate the city. On the canal streets, pedestrians are sometime given little slivers of something resembling a walkway, but these are often obstructed by locked bikes, cafes and slumbering, free roaming pets, so the pedestrians are forced to share the road with everyone else, making the streets a chaotic every-man-for-himself atmosphere with a constant choir of horns honking, bike bells chiming and people yelling to warn others of their approach and to make space for themselves. During my brief visit I saw several near accidents, mostly between bikes, scooters and people but there was also a very close one between a horse drawn carriage and a car that almost resulted in both vehicles plunging into a canal.

The biking situation in Amsterdam rivals Copenhagen, but there seems to be far less structure. The larger streets (two whooping lanes wide instead of the usual one skinny lane) have designated bike lanes, otherwise the bikers roam freely and brazenly into any open space they can find. In the bikers’ defense, the bike lanes are often crowded with confused, idiot tourists thinking that they are simply on a secondary sidewalk and the bikers are forced to either ring their bells incessantly to make a path for themselves or they have to get creative with their routes and find space on the sidewalks, streets and tram lines. Bikers are known for their ingenuity and sometimes misplaced confidence while riding. It is very common to see bikes with a second person balancing on the rear wheel rack and a small pet in the front basket. Even with this tottering load, the bikers like to add to the danger level with one or more accessories in use such as walkmen, cell phones or maps.

One thing that I loved about Amsterdam was the constantly fascinating and sometimes hilarious clash of the old and new. Common sights included three hundred year old houses with sports cars parked out front, dusty old restaurants with waitresses carrying wireless Palm ordering pads and creaky, old canal boats puttering around blasting Rage Against the Machine.

Anne Frank's house

Amsterdam is the home of the Anne Frank house and museum. This sight was on my walking route from Sanne’s house to the city center and I had considered stopping and taking the tour just for the massive history value, but every single time I passed the place, the line to get in was so long that I could have written my own fricking memoirs in the time it would have taken to get inside.

The only blatant tourist activity that I engaged in, aside from the Red Light District, was a two hour pedal-boat ride through the canals. This sounded like huge fun before Sanne and I pushed off and started our tour, but it became immediately clear that Amsterdam’s 100 kilometers of canals had way too much traffic on them and we spent a large part of our time and energy avoiding other craft. As in Prague, all motorized boats had the right of way and us pedal-boats were to keep as far to the right as possible. This wouldn’t have been so difficult if the steering stick and the rudder on our pedal-boat weren’t seemingly two independent entities. We often found ourselves in situations where we were on a collision course with a giant tour boat, with the steering stick wrenched to the far right to avoid disaster and the pedal-boat kept going lazily in a straight line or even occasionally to the left. When we weren’t doing battle with the steering stick, we ended up spending a fair amount of time, trapped in a corner of the canal while two or three tour boats and private motorboats navigated around each other in the cramped canal intersections. Despite these troubles, we managed to cover a lot of distance and see a great deal of the city from the canal point-of-view without noticeably damaging the pedal-boat.

After three days of hanging out in Sanne’s quiet, beautiful neighborhood, I hauled my bags back to the train station and set out for The Hague.

Go to The Hague

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©Leif Pettersen 2012