Sucked into Amsterdam’s red light district
The Dutch city is charming and laid back—if you can resist the temptation to get tangled up in its foggy, seedy centre.
We must surrender what’s left of our innocence in Amsterdam, boys, or we’ll never get out alive. Or so I think as I venture with my friends, Jim and Tiny, into a sex shop called the Porno Supermarket in the middle of the red light district. There’s the usual sex shop nonsense, with the exception of gas masks with hoses attached to rubber underwear streaming from the ceiling. Upstairs are the DVD cabins—blacked-out booths with TVs set up for a skin flick and a lonesome rubdown.
“We don’t need to be here,” Tiny says. “Where’s the exit?”
I sniff and catch a whiff. “It smells like”¦semen in here!”
“Oh my God, it does!”
So we race out into the daylight. The streets smell of pizza and dope. A man runs past us balancing a plastic potted flower on his head. I’ve been in Amsterdam two days now and I’ve seen this oddball six times. The pot falls off his head and he stands where it lies, gazing down at it as if he’s about to cry. And I just stare at him. Who’s the oddball now?
My goal when I arrived in Amsterdam was to fight temptation and avoid the devils that lurk within the red light district. I wanted to write a sober account of the debauched circus encased within this small area.
It wasn’t meant to be. I can’t focus here. Not with two coffee shops per block providing powerful cannabis to eager tourists. These pink-eyed zombies come from around the world to obliterate their senses in a hallucinogenic haze. Why should I be any different? This is a vacation, after all.
So now I’m a flustered, foggy mess. That’s okay, because Amsterdam’s not set up for clarity—not for the tourists, anyway.
“Clarity’s overrated,” Jim says. I think he’s right. Nietzsche found clarity and look where it got him.
The downside to getting caught up in it all is that we haven’t left the red light district since we arrived. It has sucked us in, blasted our brains and turned us loose. Navigating these tangled streets is like orienting yourself after a ride on a Tilt-a-Whirl. A map is totally useless in our current condition because the alleys all look identical and have names like Oudezijds Voorburgwal. The buildings all lean into one another like rows of crooked teeth.
The city sprawls out from the red light district like threads on spider web. There’s very little happening during the day except a steady stream of Mary Poppins bikes. By midnight, though, it’s sheer madness, even on a Tuesday night.
All these bobbing heads of pedestrians on both sides of the canals, the streets just packed with people—and here comes this derelict druggie soaring through the thick of it on a bicycle, warning “No brakes! No brakes!”
Cocaine dealers with the hardest faces and shiftiest eyes I’ve seen in a long time are harassing the tourists. One of them starts intimidating some poor Englishman, screaming, “Coca? Eh, coca?”
The famous red lights of the brothels and sex shops beam upon us all, beckoning every soul moving through them. The sex workers, many of whom appear barely of legal age, are showing off, cooing, knocking on the windows. Rubbing themselves. These are gorgeous women—model material. But they’ve perverted beauty for me.
What am I doing here?
I’ve come off a brief romance with a beautiful Norwegian I met in Barcelona, and now these visions of Camilla, like Bob Dylan’s Johanna, haunt my every step, showing me this is not what sex is about. Our very presence here makes us inhuman.
I need out.
I wake up the next morning in the fuzziest state of mind since high school. It’s my last day in Amsterdam, and I refuse to spend it in a lazy fog.
Outside, the clouds have rolled in, and they don’t look friendly. I saunter down to the tourist information centre across from Amsterdam Centraal station and ask the woman, “Is there anything to do here other than pot and prostitutes?”
She scoffs. In my experience, the Dutch have no sense of humour, and she’s no exception. Maybe that’s because I offended her. In any case, she hands me a map of the sights. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum? Too stark. The Anne Frank house? Too depressing. A purse and handbag museum? Uh”¦
I settle on the Sexmuseum, only a block up on Damrak, the artery of Amsterdam, because it involves sex and I’m a curious male. The museum is an amusing, nonpolitical exhibition of art’s relationship with sexuality over the last 200 years. Another tourist hogs the bestiality exhibit. I leave after 20 minutes.
Tiny and Jim are waiting for me outside our Amsterdam haven, Suzie’s—it’s the coziest bar we’ve found. Both friends look horrid, having stayed up all night snorting ecstasy after I went to bed. They have runny noses, bed head, and eyes as puffy as pincushions.
“Still want to get those bikes?” I ask.
“Oh yeah!” Jim says.
We rent bicycles from Rent a Bike Damstraat—for â‚¬9, or about $14, for three hours—and speed around the city. We have no idea where we’re going or how to get back, but who cares? We’re free on these bikes, not bound by expensive gasoline or our sluggish feet. We learn that although it’s easy to get sucked into the red light district’s carousel of sleaze, it’s just as easy to escape it.
The city’s quite tame once we get out of the red light district. The buildings and the streets are done in pastel colours and there’s a noticeable absence of corporate signs. Winding streets are paved in brick. Trams crawl through the traffic like giant caterpillars. Amsterdam goes about its business without a hint of the party that bulges at its centre.
We find a quiet pannekoek house by a canal and watch people in business suits drift along in cigar-shaped boats as we eat lunch on the patio. A weeping willow leans over us. The bill ends up over â‚¬12 each, but living frugally in this city is almost impossible. I open my wallet and hope for the best.
We cycle down to Vondelpark, about a 15-minute ride from the red light district. The grey has rolled back and the sun smiles down on us. White clouds spot the sky like drips of coconut milk on a blue tablecloth. Kids play football and travellers toss a hackeysack. Pot smoke proliferates. People are relaxing by the pond, and everything seems genuine, breezy. We all rest our brains in tranquil beauty.
“We should have come here days before,” I say.
“We tried,” Jim replies, “but those mushrooms got in the way.”
Alas, it’s time to leave. We return the bikes. Back at the station, I catch a glimpse of some new arrivals, four of ’em standing in a circle with a large map unfolded between them.
That map won’t help you, lads, I feel like saying. Surrender your innocence. You have no idea what you’re in for.
Access: A little research through the following Web sites could have better prepared me for my visit. For all things touristy, see www.amsterdamtourist.nl/en/. A breakdown of the city’s areas is at www.amsterdam.info/. For a directory of the city’s plethora of coffee shops, visit www.coffeeshop.freeuk.com/.
Aug 22, 2008 at 2:28pm
Great article Steve. I felt the same way when I was there as well, extremely high and extremely lost. I was only there for 8 hours, so I guess it was all worth it! <a href="http://www.ronatron.net/" target="_blank">www.ronatron.net/</a>
George T. Baker
Sep 16, 2008 at 9:51pm
That wasn't groovy Smynnn, ripping on the Dutch like that.
Aug 19, 2011 at 2:19pm
mmm i like the whole sex part not the drugs. my kind of place. i wish i could go