THEY say that not all those who wander are lost. Walking aimlessly through the backstreets and across the canal bridges of Amsterdam, you’d think the Dutch coined that phrase themselves.
Amsterdam has been a favourite amongst lads, first-time stoners and cheap thrill seekers for years, dating all the way back to the 1930s when “window” prostitution appeared. The city has a reputation for vice and decadence that it doesn’t exactly gloat about but acknowledges and respects it nonetheless by showing curious visitors that there are no skeletons in their closet that they’re trying to hide.
Prostitution and cannabis usage is something many countries try to deny exists and thus remains stigmitized and poorly regulated. In Amsterdam, both are in full view. We could not walk out of our tiny apartment door in the heart of the Red Light District (or “De Wallen” to natives) without a working girl staring gazelessly at passers-by in one of the infamous windows.
To the Dutch, legal prostitution is simply an industry like any other, and they make tremendous efforts to convince you of such too. Taking pictures of the prostitutes is strictly forbidden, and various monuments and art projects have been erected around the city as a marker of respect for sex workers.
Strolling through the Red Light District at 9 am after an early morning coffee run, I accidentally meandered down what I later discovered to be the narrowest street in Amsterdam. Having recently undergone a redecoration, the walls were spray-painted with “#NoFuckingPhotos,” a creative decision spearheaded by an art project aimed at encouraging people to take pictures of Amsterdam’s artwork rather than the red light women.
Call me uncultured, but the Museum of Prostitution, also located in the Red Light District, was by far the most interesting museum I visited during my time in Amsterdam. For €9.50, you not only get educated, as one would expect to be the outcome of a museum trip but also leave with your perceptions of prostitution completely altered. Throughout the tour, placards ask you probing questions to challenge your own morality, such as ‘How would you feel if you were judged by so many people day in day out?’
Interactive and thought-provoking, the tour even gives you the opportunity to feel what it’s like to have your own window. Standing at a window and staring out into a virtual reality, men leered at you and women called you sluts to your face. I was deeply affected, both harbouring guilt at the skewed perceptions I had previously held towards sex work and knowing how easily I could end up in the same situation.
Truth be told, we never intended to stay right in the heart of the Red Light District. I’m probably the wildest out of all of my travel companions and the height of my rebellion is that time I used a wok as a shot glass. Still, I wouldn’t say that the Red Light District is out of the question for those who didn’t sign up for a mental lads’ weekend. Sure, it can get loud, but for the most part, we slept soundly throughout the grunts and drunken cheers from the crowd below.
Even if you don’t smoke, I’d highly recommend visiting a few of the city’s many coffeeshops (places where cannabis is sold, not to be confused with “cafes,” which are pubs.) I’d recommend The Greenhouse Effect for produce and The Bulldog for the atmosphere. If you do plan to smoke, don’t feel intimidated but also don’t pretend you know what you’re doing when you very clearly don’t, and the closest you’ve ever come to a blunt is Rihanna’s Instagram feed. Always ask whoever is selling it questions about the strength and effect so you are aware of what you’re taking. It’s also wise to bring a responsible friend to watch over you, especially if it’s your first time.
Parental advice over, if you really want to catch the Red Light District at its most interesting, try taking a stroll through the streets early in the morning. The area is like a post-apocalyptic ghost town, with nothing but dumper trucks on the streets clearing up bottles and takeout boxes from the night before. There was also something kind of beautiful about being practically alone in surroundings known for its loudness and business. I felt like I had absorbed a thousand people’s stories and was carrying them along with me, trying to decode them as I went. I didn’t even mind when my travel buddies didn’t want to paint the town even redder in the evening, as I looked forward to my early morning coffee runs so much.
Note: the coffee is good, but expensive, as is everything in Amsterdam bar the marijuana. My favourite hide-out was Ms Crumbs, a little shed turned bakery, and practically one of the only places in the Red Light District awake before noon. They also did an incredible vegan chocolate cake, which was like a godsend for this struggling travelling vegan. I often encountered the same girl working behind the counter, and I wondered what her story was. Namely, how did she feel walking through the Red Light District getting to and from work every day?
“There’s something beautiful about being alone in the Red Light District”
In a desperate effort to prove I could handle things by myself, I took a stroll through the Red Light District at around 6:30 pm whilst my friends were getting food. Five minutes in, and I was already being heckled by a small group of guys. I pretended I didn’t hear them, turned on my heel, and practically ran in the opposite direction.
Back at the apartment, I told my friends what had happened, and there was a look of concern on their faces as to why I had ever thought to wander around the debauched towns in the world was ever a good idea.
Never one to take good advice when it’s offered, I ventured out alone again the day after, this time a little earlier in the afternoon. Just my luck, I was stopped by two men speaking rapid Dutch asking if they could pray for me. Originating from a small village and able to go without human contact for weeks, figuring out how to escape from this situation left my petrified. Not wanting to be rude, I let him tell his story about how Jesus saved him from suicide, before thanking him for his kind words and making my exit. Smiling to myself as I walked away and exhaling a breath I didn’t know I had been holding in for so long, I began to reevaluate what I was so worried about. People were just people, and the beauty of Amsterdam’s people was that they came in every shape, size, colour and approaches to a casual conversation.
That’s another thing that surprised me about Amsterdam- how colourful it was. Even if you didn’t take notice of the multi-cultural community that passed by you every day, you only had to look at the extensive range of cuisine, from Chinese to Italian to Lebanese, to grasp how proud the city is of its cultural diversity. There’s a real sense that whoever you are and wherever you’re from, in Amsterdam you never feel too far away from home.
I suppose that’s how I can best articulate my time in Amsterdam. Quirky, rebellious and a bit old fashioned, I felt more like myself than I have in a long time. By the end of my stay, I had well and truly caught the Amsterdam bug.
Despite what people say, Amsterdam deserves so much more than a short weekend that you were too wrecked from to even remember to send a postcard. Even though the city is filling up with millennial exchange students with an impressive Instagram account, no one can mistake the city’s timelessness. For a city, it lets you take things easy- eat if you want, get high if you want, wander into the darkness if you want to…in Amsterdam, you’ve got time.