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Walking through Amsterdam with the sinners and the saints

I’ve always felt a strange sense of liberation in travelling to a country whose language and practices are alien to me. You’re not expected to be very smart there, and if you get hopelessly lost or buy the wrong tickets, it’s not really your fault, is it? So when my two cousins and I land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport after being cramped in cattle class for nine hours, I’m happy to let the good old grey matter rest a while. Everything’s double Dutch to me anyway. Yet, our first blooper leaves me red-faced.

“You’ve bought tickets for the metro and have travelled on the train network,” says an official, explaining why the exit doors won’t open for us. “That’s a euro 40 fine for each of you for travelling ticketless …” “What a sorry start to our vacation,” mutters my cousin in Hindi. Suddenly, the official lights up. “Are you from India, Madras maybe?” he asks in Hindi. “A lot of my relatives in Surinam still have family there…” Chattering about bhaji, Bhojpuri music and Bollywood, the Surinamese official saves us from the fine, shows us how to work the ticketing machine and sees us out. Shaken, we head to a coffee shop for a caffeine boost. That’s our second blooper.

It’s a cozy enough place, but the music playing seems a little funky for 7 am. The menu features, among other items, Purple Haze, Nepal Seed and Super Skunk. Clearly these aren’t single origin coffees. Coffee in Amsterdam, it turns out, is often a euphemism for a mind-numbing variety of drugs, sold here legally by the gram or baked into cakes and brownies. “For real coffee, go to a Kaffee house,” laughs the waiter.

Over the next few days, we find that the city of canals and gables offers plenty more blooper opportunities for befuddled first-time visitors. The canals go round in circles, for starters, leaving visitors like me forever lost. Their picture-postcard beauty makes up, though. We walk along Prince’s Canal, peeping shamelessly into the gabled houses and flower-bedecked houseboats. The sun is playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, and we make good use of the city’s 1,500 bridges to cross over to sunny patches. Although it’s Friday afternoon, people are relaxing in the sun, jogging and cycling. The narrow, cobbled streets have more cyclists than cars (the city boasts more cycles than people). Cafes are filled to the brim, much like glasses of the local brew, Amstel. It has the air of a city on a perpetual vacation.

On Saturday evening, we decide to dress for a night about town. But Amsterdam is a little like Las Vegas — sneaker-laced tourists comfortably rub shoulders with couture clad fashionistas here. Indeed, anything goes, and how. Sex stores sell silicon fingers that feel ‘just like the real thing’. Souvenir shops sell models of classic Dutch windmills and gables as well as cannabis-flavoured condoms for the discerning pervert. A café with a chandelier made up entirely of multi-hued brassieres catches my eye as we approach the city centre — the buzzing red light district of Amsterdam.

The St Nickolas Church towers on our horizon as sinners, saints and all mill about around us. St Nickolas is, rather conveniently, the patron saint of sailors as well as prostitutes. Prostitution is legal in Netherlands, and Amsterdam deals with the world’s oldest profession with jaw-dropping matter-of-factness. Women ply their trade from dimly-lit windows dressed in their scanties, beckoning gawking tourists to come in. Then I find myself next to a peephole. I peep, only to find it empty, save for a TV blaring the news. “She’s gone for dinner,” says a guy standing nearby. “Try the next one, she’s sizzling!” Evidently, there’s little room for embarrassment in Amsterdam. Ahead, a man knocks on a red door. It opens and a red-tipped talon pulls him in…

The next morning, headed to Museumplein, we’re looking to explore the more classical side of the city. Amsterdam’s best museums are located here, and it’s full of art students, tourists and locals enjoying a sunny morning at the museum. I’m headed to the Van Gogh Museum that displays 100 of the master’s iconic works, including 10 self-portraits. The display is organised to show how Van Gogh’s oeuvre evolved over time. I realise that in the troubled final years he spent in the south of France, his colours became even more intense than earlier. As I stand before the painting that Van Gogh left unfinished when he shot himself in 1890, the artist’s almost palpable melancholy transcends the canvas, and into my mind.

The best way to beat the blues in Amsterdam is to sample its cheese and beer. Instead of the better-known Amstel, my friends recommend I try Herfstbok, a dark beer with caramel overtones. I sip the beer and watch a boat navigate the canal, remembering the story the manager of our hotel told this morning, Apparently, when Amsterdam’s canals were dredged last year, 15,000 bicycles were recovered from the bottom. So locals like to say that the canals are three-feet deep — one foot of mud, one of bikes and one of water! Later, whilst on a canal cruise, I hear about Amsterdam’s Cat Lady, Henriette van Weelde, who in 1968, bought a houseboat for the stray felines in her neighbourhood. Today, the cat boat has evolved into De Poezenboot — the city’s floating adoption centre/clinic for abandoned cats.

As we float slowly down the canal, a trance-like state steals upon me as Amsterdam passes us by. The sun sets, lights come on in the gabled houses and we pass under the Lover’s Bridge where lovers kiss in the naive hope of finding ever-lasting love. It’s time to leave, but I’m high on Amsterdam’s technicolour charm… without even having sampled the Purple Haze in the ‘coffee shop’!


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