Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Day 5: Amsterdam Good Day

We arrived at a transit station on the outskirts of Amsterdam at 5:45am this morning. As the train station was deserted at this hour - except for the group of us from the bus - we congregated around the ticket vending machines to buy tickets into the station.  The machine didn't accept bills or Mindy's credit card, and we didn't have enough coin. Oh no... Eventually Mindy arranged for someone else to buy our tickets for us with a credit card that was accepted, and we were on our way to Amsterdam Central Station.

First stop in the station? Starbucks.  Clean(er) washrooms, WiFi, and caffeine. The ferry to our hotel also kicked off from Amsterdam Central Station, so we crossed the River Ij ("eye") to a new adventure - the Amstel Botel.

The Botel was a bit of a crap-shoot. I mean, a cruise-boat turned hotel could either be super cool, or super ghetto.  This one definitely trended toward cool! Our view from the room was of a defunct submarine, moored across the harbour.  Ducks greeted us at the water's edge just arm's reach from our window, and "barked" for attention (or food?) when Mindy stopped talking to them.

Once again, Sandemans was the start to our day of exploring, so we met the group in Dam Square and prepared to wander and learn. The Dutch are known to be pragmatic, and their naming conventions reflect this.  Dam Square used to be a dam. The primary churches are the North Church, the West Church, the Old get the idea.  The neighbourhood where our guide lives in Amsterdam is simply called "East". The "Red Light District" is similarly straightforward, as there are a lot of red lights!

There are three rules to live by in Amsterdam, which will assure you can proceed unmolested with whatever your interests:

1. Someone must be able to make a profit;
2. Illegal / Unorthodox activities must be discreet;
3. Activities must be harmless to everyone else.

This seems to explain the existing tolerance for marijuana and hash, but the seeds of this culture were sown much earlier in Amsterdam's history. When Amsterdam converted from a Catholic to a Protestant city, these rules applied then, too. The wealthy citizens were primarily Catholic, so only the most near-sighted Protestants wanted the Catholics expelled from the city. The Catholics tacitly agreed to keep their religion out of the public eye by moving their churches into attics and houses; never mind that every Sunday the organ and singing could be heard several streets over.  Further, the Catholics refrained from proselytizing, so their tendencies were deemed harmless.

More recently, as Amsterdam struggled with the spread of hard drugs, this same perspective was employed to tolerate so-called soft drugs such as marijuana and hash.  In fact, the licensing of "Coffee Shops" - as opposed to a "cafe" which sells liquor, and a "Koffie Shop", which sells coffee - was specifically intended to get the selling of weed off the street and out of the public eye; rule #2.

The "harmless" requirement - rule #3 - for the marijuana culture in Amsterdam requires a bit of mental flexibility.  There are no legal sources for purchasing marijuana, so shops get their supplies from the black market and underground organizations.  Consequently, the purchase of marijuana by a coffee shop may directly support organized crime, smuggling, and other harmful activities, even while the purchase within a shop is just good business.

Regardless of any opinions on Amsterdam's "vice culture", it is a beautiful old city!

...with quirks.  For instance, this clown paddling around in the canals playing trumpet. Not asking for money.  Just....entertaining himself?

Another quirk is the narrowest house in the city - just over 6 feet wide:

Intrepid tourists, we concluded our walking tour of Amsterdam with just enough time to freshen up at the hotel, grab a quick dinner at Vegabond (a highly recommended vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam) and make it back for another walking tour of Amsterdam.  Another Sandemans tour, this one was focused on the Red Light District.

Amsterdam's Red Light District hails back to its days as a port city and a centre for trade. Sailors created the demand for prostitutes, and their subsequent activities caused the demand for churches, priests, and confessions. In fact, the Old Church in Amsterdam was the first church to sell indulgences - confessions that were carried out prior to a sinful act taking place.  This way, the sailors could go from ship to church to get the soul cleansing taken care of, then spend the rest of their time ashore in the bars and brothels of the city.  Racing back to the boat for departure no longer required a stop at the church.

Prostitution was tolerated in Amsterdam until 2000, when it was formally legalized. Prostitutes are licensed in the same way as tour guides, which seems to amuse the tour guides, if not the prostitutes. Windows are rented for 80-160 Euros per 8-hour shift, depending on the location, and there is a waiting list for the most valued windows. The so-called "Elite Street" windows, nearest the Old Church in some of the original streets of the district, have the greatest demand. STD testing is not mandatory, though condoms are purchased in bulk from the world's first shop dedicated to selling condoms(one street over from the Red Light District).

Of course, the tour dove deeper into Red Light District culture than just these factoids.  We learned about the experiment with male prostitutes in certain windows. and how these quickly turned into a tourist attraction only, with neither the men nor the women near them getting any actual business.  We learned about how common it is for a whore (from the Dutch word "huur", which means "rent") to decline a customer if she doesn't get the right "feel" from a guy - or a couple - and that she has a panic button in her room in case her assessment of a client is wrong. (This security is included as part of the rent of the room.)

Although getting to know prostitutes can be difficult due to their insular nature, the Prostitution Information Centre provides information to those who are interested to learn, as well as support to sex workers, themselves.  The PIC encourages pride in the sex trade, and is attempting to defend the Red Light District against movements to curtail these activities, as Amsterdam is gentrifying,

Every Red Light District prostitute must be a citizen of the European Union, so it is believed that human trafficking for the purposes of the Red Light District is minimal, if it exists at all.  However, as our guide explained, it is very difficult to prevent a woman from giving her money to her "boyfriend" when she gets home from work. In other words, while trafficking may not exist, pimping may be alive and well.

Having learned much about the culture and practices of the district, we then, en masse, went into a peep show. Mindy and I stood in our little cabin and paid our 2 euro for two minutes of watching an average-looking man and woman on a round bed that was constantly revolving to provide a view from every perspective.  As the other cabins filled up and those windows opened, we could not only see the "performers", but also the other spectators. It made for a very strange experience in voyeurism.  The performers looked bored at first, then seemed to up the ante, getting into some more interesting positions as the cabins filled up.  I am told that when the next batch of tour go-ers went in to watch for their two minutes, the couple had lost enthusiasm again.

The tour was so much more fascinating than simply strolling through the streets of the district looking at windows.  Once it was done, we wandered a little more armed with our new-found knwoledge before meeting up with Dutch Paul and some friends of his at the rooftop bar of the Hilton Doubletree hotel.  Stunning views of Amsterdam by night.

We made the last ferry back to our Botel, and fell asleep.

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