There's Something about Amsterdam - Part II

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

A thing to keep in mind when in Amsterdam: bicycles have their own lanes, and pedestrians are not meant to walk on them. For the average tourist who is not used to reacting to the high pitched ring-ring of tiny bicycle bells, Amsterdam can be a dangerous place. Had it not been for Ed's quick warnings, I might have ended up with 5 spokes sticking out my chest. Not that the bike riders seemed to care: they laxly sped by with their faces of stone, even after a near death collision. This city was so used to heedless tourists that its annoyed cyclists were out to get us.

Another thing to watch out for, but not in the beware-for-your-life sense, is the food. You'll notice the predominance of two types of restaurants in Amsterdam: Indonesian and Argentinean. One might think how bizarre this combination is but there are simple explanations to tie Holland to these two countries:

The Golden Age of commerce for Amsterdam saw the rise the Dutch East India Company in the 17 th century, which was granted monopoly by the Dutch government in the Asian colonies. These colonies were the Dutch East Indies, a group of islands which are today known as Indonesia. Jakarta was named Batavia in those days and was the cradle of spices so coveted in Europe, particularly clove and nutmeg. Considering I lived in Indonesia for 4 years, seeing so much Indonesian culture around me in this European city made it all the more homely.

In 2002, Maxima Zorreguieta, an Argentine investment banker, married Prince Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne and eldest son of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It was the real life fairy tale every girl dreamed of, and all of Argentina watched as the royal couple tied the knot, under the watchful but approving eye of the Dutch population. Right after their wedding, Princess Maxima surprisingly became the most popular figure in the Dutch royal family. This brought lots of Argentine immigration into Holland which has also been received with open arms.

This is how Argentine steak houses and Indonesian tokos lined the busy streets of central Amsterdam, offering a taste of home away from home. The previous night we had chosen what possibly could've been the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam. Decorated rustically like an authentic Batavian eatery, we were seated instantly by cheery friendly staff on a candle lit table decorated with fresh flowers and a typical batik tablecloth. The meal we had was outstanding: a hearty vegetarian plate with rice and spicy peanut sauce and a bottle of mineral water for less than 12 Euro per person. No desert was needed after an incredible meal like that, with so many exotic and authentic flavours, just like I remembered them.

When in Amsterdam, there's a popular stop for tourists and it's not the obvious ones. The Anne Frank Museum had a long queue running along its fašade at 11am. So long that we doubted spending the rest of our morning lining up. After much deliberation we decided we should go in anyway. It was a small museum for so many people, but it was interesting to relive the story of Anne and her family, as we walked on the same wooden floors and climbed up the same steep stairs. The most touching part was the old bookcase that was adjoined to the wall in front of the small door that led up to the attic where the family lay quietly hidden for a few years.

Another popular stop is the Rembrandt Square (or Remplandtplein). Judging from the amount of people lazying about and strolling along enjoying their leisure, this was the place to be. Restaurants, bars and coffee-shops surrounded the Square where 22 life size bronze sculptures recreate the scene in Rembrandt's painting entitled Nightwatch. The square was originally used as a butter and dairy market.

For lunch we sat on a small rattan table with comfortable sun chairs facing the square. It was the perfect little spot for people-watching while we enjoyed our smoked salmon bagels and cold Kreik cherry beer (imported from Belgium). A violinist played beautifully as we ate lunch, and soon after he finished, a mime showed up and revolutionized the entire square. I usually hate mimes but he had me, and about 200 other people, laughing hysterically. More so when he grabbed a beer from one of the restaurant's tables and handed it to a tram driver, who had his window open at the red light stop. Everyone was holding their breaths waiting to see how the driver and the owner of the beer reacted. But the square collapsed in laughter when the driver readily accepted it and had a big gulp. With this laughter in unison, you couldn't help falling in love with the aura of Amsterdam, and as I was thinking this, I heard a woman next to me recover from her laughing fit and exclaim, "God I love this town!"

After lunch we floated into the Red Light District. For a Sunday, it was disgustingly crowded. Aren't people supposed to be in church on Sundays? Oh yeah, I forgot this is Sin City, or so they say. The streets were narrow and dirty, and the buildings blocked out most of the remaining sunlight, which made you feel like you were trapped in a dark labyrinth. The rooms or windows that the Red Light District is so famous for were empty duethe afternoon shift still at rest. We did manage to spot some girls getting ready, plumping their lips and waxing their thighs.

It wasn't until a few hours and a couple cocktails later, when the darkness came, that the action started. People of every age group and gender were cruising the cobblestone streets of the Red Light District, some for fun, others for shopping. We had read in the Lonely Planet to refrain from photography here, especially when it involves the working girls. Nonetheless it seemed disrespectful to photograph them anyway. Ed's jaw dropped as we passed a blonde in a non-existent bikini, seducing him like a mythical siren. I let him walk alone for a while so he could enjoy the girls' seductions as he passed by, with pouting lips and sexy hand waves. I watched from behind in utter amusement.

We ventured into a couple of sex shops to see what was the latest in sex toys, props, clothing, and films. The sizes, shapes and colours of some of the items ranged from cute to monstrous. The funny part was that most toys were destined for female pleasure which could mean one of two things: that women masturbate more often than thought, or that men can't please them. Hmmmmmmmm...makes you wonder.

We stumbled upon the entrance of a place that had a pink neon elephant and the letters 'Live Sex' on the front. Comforted by the fact that there was a long queue of young couples, groups of tourists, and generally normal looking people (as opposed to sleazy dirty old men) we lined up. The entrance was 40 Euro each which included 4 drinks for each person. Once inside, we were surprised to find that it was actually a small theatre. We sat near the front and watched how an extremely well built man pleasured his female partner. The entire show consisted of acts which ranged from sexy, to raunchy, to humorous. It was packed with tourists having a good time, drinking booze and laughing it up. But I think the funniest was the group of elderly Japanese tourists who walked in with their khaki trousers, white sneakers, and their sun hats to watch the show. The people you'd least imagine seeing in a place like this, but then again, anything is possible in Amsterdam. After about an hour and a half later we decided that we had seen enough human genitalia for the night.

The night outside was still kickin' and the Red Light District girls were bitchin'. We saw many a man entering the lairs of the lustful ones, and a few Thai 'massage parlours' that were curiously still open at 1am. It was bizarre being in the midst of so much sex and sexual tension; it was like nothing we'd experience before. In any other country if you go to a live sex show you're considered a freak, if you light up a joint you're considered an addict, but here, it's one of those things you have to do. The older generations might frown upon these liberties but it is here where people feel free. Control and temperance doesn't come with prohibition; it comes with freedom and setting boundaries for yourself. And maybe it's this sense of swing and liberty which makes Amsterdam have such an incredible atmosphere and style. Its' inhabitants are relaxed, friendly, but most of all, they look happy.

Call it a haven, a sanctuary, or call it Sin City, but people come here because of that something about Amsterdam.
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