Down but not Out in Amsterdam
Trip Start May 15, 2003
1Trip End Jul 07, 2003
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Down but not Out in Amsterdam
By Justin Bilton
4 May, 2004, 10:58
"Goetmorgen," the ticket collector steps into the car without looking up from his ticket book.
"Central Station alstublieft," I hand him a 5 euro note. I sit back and watch the outskirts of Amsterdam awake to the pale morning sun.
The train from Schipol airport grinds to a halt in Centraal station. I step off the train into one of the old capitals of Europe- home of some of the best paintings, diamonds, and hash in the world. The Golden Age of the 19th century is a distant memory. Business is still booming in the banks and diamond exchanges, but drug tourists who come to smoke, eat, and drink anything that will alter their mental state are a main staple of today's economy. The Station hums with the bustle of a weekday morning. A train glides off, sending a rumble echoing through the old station. I weave through the morning crowd of business people and travelers; station residents beg for change or just mumble incoherently. A guy tries to play a guitar with no strings.
The city is wet with early morning rain-turned the same gray as the sky. The old trams sit beside the new, waiting to start their routes. The Number 5 tram pulls off and glides away from Stationsplein towards the Dam square. Centraal station looms over the canal, its two towered façade facing the Old Church in the Red Light District. Thousands of bicycles are locked up in a parking garage. The wind whips off the harbor tattering loose clothing with its gusts. Bicycles are knocked over. It's cold.
I drag my jetlagged body and the big red backpack that's been everywhere with me to the tram platform and wait for the 1, 2 or 5 to arrive and take me to Leidsplein. The tram rolls up as my eyes try to roll back in my head. Its 8 a.m., but it shouldn't be. My American clock is telling me its 2 a.m. The world woke up too early, or perhaps I've been through a time warp. I brace myself against the wind and climb onto the dilapidated street car with my head down. I look up and see a uniformed Dutch man with a ticket puncher looking at me from his window in the back of the tram. I pay and he slides a strippenkart across the counter. I find a seat, placing my bag with all my possessions safely between my knees. The car is filled with the faces of lands unfamiliar to my American eyes: Africa, Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The tram grinds through the ancient narrow streets. Brick looms high and close on each side- a canyon of Dutch architecture. Everything is still closed downtown. We pass coffee shops, restaurants, and sex shops. Unlit neon signs cling to ancient facades advertising live sex shows. Prostitutes prowl from backlit windows even at this hour. Their g-strings and spike heels are a 24-hour fixture of the Red Light. I remember my first trip to Amsterdam. I hated the place.
I came to London to see a friend. The friend turned out not to be in London, but in Amsterdam, so I hopped on Ryan Air and made the one hour flight over the channel. My friend was staying somewhere in the center of the Red Light District. By the time I got to the hostel I had already been offered heroin, coca, and ecstasy by more than a few denizens of the night. It was Cannabis Cup weekend; the last week in November when all the coffee shops grow their best dope and enter to win the pewter prize. All the hard core stoners from the States and Europe converged on the cheap beds of Amsterdam. We went out and got high. My friend told me that there were no beds so I'd have to sleep in Centraal Station. We walked through the crowded streets, the dim eyes of the Red Light's transient inhabitants staring back at us, the whores in glass closets set right into the building fronts. In the coffee shops American, Canadian, European, and Australian tourists were getting high, yelling, and laughing. Few Dutch were to be seen. Everything in the Red Light costs about twice as much as in the rest of the city, so we spent most of our money. On the way back to the hostel a pick pocket went for my wallet and I pushed him to the ground. He got up and scampered away into the shadows. I went back to the airport to sleep and took a flight back to London the next morning.
I am back to give Amsterdam a second chance. It's 15 May. I have a return ticket and enough money for cheap groceries, but not enough to pay for a bed every night. This worries me. I need to find a job. But the American government makes it nearly impossible for Americans to obtain work visas in the Netherlands. That leaves me with under-the-table-work, preferably at a hostel. I've learned online that the Flying Pig backpacker's hostel allows long term traveler's to stay at the hostel and work for board. They call it WHAP: Willing Helper at Pig.
"Leidsplein." The crackling voice of the conductor announces. Cars thump, making that funny rubber noise of tires over cobblestone. The trams, coming into the square from Leidstraat behind me and Weteringschans to the left, cut between taxis and bicycles as they head along their routes. The Pig is near Leidsplein, just over the bridge of Singelgracht , past the gates of the Vondelpark, on the quiet hidden Vossuisstraat. The Flying Pig is all the way at the end of the street, a deceptively long walk with a heavy backpack. The upper middle class residents complain about noise from the hostel, and about young people smoking pot on the hostel's stoop. I walk up, ring the bell, and enter. I have a reservation for my first night.
"Only one night?" The Dutch girl asks with a smile as she hands me my room key and my locker key.
"Yeah. I need to WHAP. Do you know if there's any jobs open?" I return her smile a bit too eagerly.
"No, not right now." She stops smiling and looks back to her computer screen.
"Shit." I know I have to get a job, but I won't panic yet. "Ok. I'll book the weekend just to be safe." It is money I can't afford to spend, but I do anyway.
"Maybe something will open up after the weekend," she says smiling again, "You'll have to talk to Helen, the owner."
"Ok, I will. Dank je wel." I find my bed.
Getting a job at the Pig hasn't been easy. It's been two weeks. I paid to stay for seven nights before I realized I was going to run out of money by the middle of the second week. I told Helen my situation. I begged her for a job daily. She said I was just the kind of traveler that whapping was for, but there weren't any hours available. She assured me that if anything opened up I'd be the first in on it. In the meantime, I crashed on the floor of a Whapper called Skylar. Twice I had to sleep in the park when my friends weren't around. It seemed that if I helped out the official Whappers, no one minded my squatting. I help cleaning bunk rooms and bathrooms, serving the hostel's complimentary breakfast, and doing rounds at the bar- a job that comes with two free pints an hour. The Dutch would say Lekker.
"Hey, how's things in there, mate?" Simon says through the door of the bar's toilet.
"Jesus Christ this is fucking disgusting," I yell, my shirt over my mouth and nose.
"I don't know how to thank you for this Justin, I owe you big time."
"Whatever, go get me some breakfast."
Someone shit on the toilet last night. Simon is on cleaning duty this morning, but vomited when he saw what awaited him in the bathroom. His stomach is still a bit fragile from the poison fungus we ate last night. I volunteered to spare Simon from the shit. I use a paper towel to push a big clump into the toilet. Minutes later I emerge from the bathroom into the kitchen to where Simon, Sky, and Aubrey sit around the table.
The kitchen is open for everyone to use, but currently is still closed for cleaning after breakfast. There is a refrigerator which the guests of the Pig can use, but if they don't mark their name and date of departure on the food, the Whappers get the grub. This food source is a huge relief to my budget.
"I can't take this shitting!" Simon complains in his middle class British accent. "It just happened to me last week. I can't deal with it anymore. Bloody hell, Sky you got one last week too, yeah?"
"Yeah, that was cute." Her blonde hair, petite figure, and candy smile give her a deceiving look of fragility. She'd been a paramedic in New York City for five years. A little shit on the toilet is laughable.
"These bastards get so fucked up they can't shit straight." Aubrey says from his seat at the table.
"It's too true," I shrug at Aubrey, "I'm gonna go straighten up the stage. I'll be back."
"Right, Sky and I have got some cleaning up to do in here." Simon says as he looks around at the mess he and Sky made while preparing the breakfast of bread, hard boiled eggs, and coffee for the hostel's 125 occupants.
I hand breakfast to Aubrey and exit to the bar area. At the far end of the bar is a stage, seldom used for live music, covered in pillows and littered with lounging tourists from all over the world. Above the stage, a traditional Dutch ground level picture window lets in the early sun.
"OK, thanks," I reply, "I gotta kick you all off though, just for a minute to clean." I say to the stage in general. The Aussie gets up and goes outside with his joint, the rest grumble as they struggle to get up. They look like the patients in a nursing home, favoring their tired bones as they get up from the floor and move ten feet to the nearby tables. I pull the pillows off the stage and vacuum up the waste of another day in paradise. When I'm done, I fluff the pillows and rearrange them. For a second the stage looks like the chamber of Kubla Khan, or Willy Wonka's chill spot, with the early sun coming in through the big window, shining on the wooden table, the pillows, and the bright mural on the wall. The mural is a sylvan scene, but the trees are psychedelic- red, blue, yellow, and purple mushrooms carpet the forest floor. When I'm done everyone throws themselves back on the stage and it looks as it had 10 minutes ago. Simon and Sky, finished in the kitchen, are heading upstairs with Hilde and Aubrey. "Where you guys going?"
"To the park. Wanna come?" Sky asks.
"I'll be over in a little while. I'm gonna write for a bit."
"Nice one. Later," Hilde says.
I settle myself on the stage and take out my journal. I had intended to write daily, but I've only written twice in two weeks. The bar, packed and teeming during breakfast, is now nearly empty. Two guys sit on the other side of the stage. I can't guess what language they speak, but it isn't English, so I leave them alone. I hear the voices of two girls and a few guys behind me. Ben, the maintenance man, comes in and out of the bar to his supply closet, his tools jingling on his belt as he passes to and fro whistling. He's native Dutch and embodies the easy-going mood of the culture.
"We got some MDMA and went down to the Red Light to see a sex show. It was lame. The guy wasn't even hard." One of the girls says.
"And you were grinding your teeth like a crackhead the whole time," another of the girls chides her friend and starts laughing hysterically, as if something really funny had happened.
"We want to go back down there. I mean it's not really dangerous, is it?"
"No. Just watch your pockets and don't buy anything. It's all a rip off." I hear one of the guys say. "Well except maybe for the pastries, you got to go to Nina's." My back is turned to them and I pretend to write as I listen.
"We'll go with you," says another of the guys.
"Have you been to the Van Gogh?"
"We ate some space cake first. My friend here freaked out and we had to leave."
"Fuck you man, I did not. I was just bored."
"That's awesome." The girls break out in hysterical laughter again. "We went yesterday and waited like so long in line. Then it only took like twenty minutes to see all the paintings. I don't see what the big deal is."
"How long are you girls here for?" One of the guys asks.
"Like three days. We leave tomorrow for Paris. We want to make sure we see everything."
"We want to go to the Heineken Brewery, and then to the penis statue. Then we're going to Rome and Athens." The other girl says. "We're traveling together for six weeks."
"Mucho dinero ey?"
"My dad paid for both of us. We already had to send home for more money like twice!" More hysterical laughter cackles through the room. "Oh my god, we spent so much money in London. It's like so expensive. Pounds are worth twice as much as dollars."
"How long are you guys here?" The other girl asks.
"A week, just in Amsterdam," one guy answers, "I don't really know anything about the rest of Europe. I mean, it's just like a big museum, the whole thing." This conversation is common at the hostel. Everyone is here long enough to "see everything" and then go tackle the next guide book on the map. I get up and go to the park, failing again to make an entry in my journal.
I cross the busy street adjacent to the Vondel park, dodging cars, bicycles, and the Number 2 tram with its giant Halle Berry head on the back. The tram shrieks as it passes heading over the Singelgracht towards Leidsplein. Cars buzz past with that dirt bike sound that only cars in Europe make. A horn blasts. The chords of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" drift over the canal from a street musician's tired guitar. The main gate to the park straddles a paved road with entrances to a foot path on the left and a bike path on the right. The pillars of the gate rise above the street with trees hanging over the fences from inside the park. On the front of both pillars, just about at the top of each, is a poster depicting a white pot leaf on a blue back ground. The posters are for an upcoming legalization rally. I only know this because a friend told me about the rally. He had heard about it from someone else, and so forth.
Droves of cyclists disappear into the entrance of the park. I walk down the path at the park's narrowest point, squeezed by residential streets on either side. After about a quarter of a mile, I pass beneath a bridge where the park widens; to the right a duck pond surrounded by loungers winds its way to the southern entrance a mile away. Beyond the duck pond, through the trees I can see a café, and nearby a school. To the left is the grassy and forested east side of the park. Straight ahead, the bike path continues towards the southern entrance. Open grass by the road and the duck pond is littered with blankets, picnic baskets, and people. Some men play futbol and others toss a Frisbee. Old couples sit on park benches or walk hand in hand through the verdure. I wonder if their tired glassy eyes are old enough to have witnessed the horrors this city endured at the hands of the Nazis. Another street performer's guitar moans behind me. Children laugh and shout in the hollow distance. Bike peddles clink. A dog barks. This is the voice of the park.
Many people are around the statue we usually hang out near, and finally I see Sky and Hilde sitting on one of the hostels white bed sheets. I greet them, and squat on the blanket next to Sky. Aubrey and Simon stop throwing a Frisbee nearby and join us.
"You feeling any better Simon?" I ask as he approaches.
"I am." He replies. "A little fresh air can work wonders, can't it?"
"So how'd your writing go?" Skylar asks.
"I got a few sentences down then eavesdropped on someone's conversation. You know, Red Light, Van Gogh, Anne Frank house, going to Paris tomorrow, just came from London, daddy's paying." I pick up the frisbee and spun it on my finger. Sky giggles.
"For sure," Aubrey half scoffs in his Seattle accent. "Heard that shit too many times." Aubrey had already been at the hostel for a month when I got here.
"Oh, I see Justin my man," Hilde starts in her Norwegian accent as she looks up from picking her dread locks. "We are better than everyone else because we are not tourists, yes?"
"I didn't say I was better than anyone. I just don't see the point of coming for three days," I defend myself, "and you know some people would call us tourists, too".
"It's just a whole different experience." Aubrey says.
"I want to experience the culture, not just pass through and take pictures of the canals-that got so old so fast. All of those two week trips I took cost me more than twice as much as I've spent this month. I used to spend all my time with maps and guide books trying to do everything. The museums I saw, all the crap I did- most of it I don't even remember. I just remember the times when I really saw those places. Like looking out over Prague from the castle wall, or sitting by the river in Paris."
"Well you know, that's what really counts," Simon smiles. "No matter where you go, they'll always be tourists. It's a bit like prostitution isn't it-the city selling itself? But it's what keeps these cities alive." I look at Simon and nod.
"There are always fellow travelers," Hilde says. "People who think the same way tend to find each other. We all talking in the park like this just proves it."
"It's true." Sky says. "Last summer it was just like this, only different people. It has always been like this." She had worked at hostels in Thailand, Morocco, Argentina, Australia and some other places that I can't remember.
I catch the scent of her clean blonde hair as she leans on my shoulder and watches my fingers work. I smile. Her travels are my envy. I imagine spending years on the road without going home like she has. People ask her where she's from and she only laughs.
We fall silent for awhile. Sky squeezes my arm and Aubrey winks at me from across the blanket. Simon gazes off into the distance, a faint smile on his face, his feminine lashes dancing as his eyes open and close in the sea-scented breeze. Hilde sits still, employed picking dead hair from her dread locks and basking her pale Norwegian legs in the fleeting Dutch sun. We sit in the sun for a long time, smoking, content in silence. In the afternoon it starts to rain and we wander back to the hostel, not minding the warm sprinkling.
I've got forty euros left for two weeks. I know my friends will take care of me but I also know I don't need them. Not having enough to pay for a bed doesn't worry me anymore. The nights have gotten warmer and the rain only seems to come for a brief time each afternoon. Sleeping in the park isn't so terrible if it comes to it. I'll eat bread and eggs from the hostel. I spend some of my money and give the rest of the cash to a homeless friend in the park.
The next two weeks are the best of the trip. I didn't have any money and I was glad. It was more satisfying that way. My days were spent in the park talking to my friends or just sitting in silence. We talked of idle things and of important things. We talked of where we would go next. And the people we would meet there. For Skylar it was the Pacific Rim, (even though she ended up in Turkey). For Hilde it was London and for Simon; Oslo, Norway. For Aubrey and me it was Thailand after some time at home to build up cash.
Where we travel to next is really a mystery. We make plans, but they evaporate and are replaced with new ones. What really happens is always decided last minute and is never definite until the plane takes off. Aubrey and I never made it to Thailand, but Sky did. Simon moved to Scarborough, England. Last I heard, Hilde was somewhere in Morocco.
© Copyright 2004 by Justin Bilton