Image courtesy of Azhar J on Unsplash
I am not one for impromptu trips. I need months to mentally prepare for leaving my comfort zone but as I sat in my room staring into nothingness, I found that I needed an escape from myself. Right on cue, my phone buzzed, and the dark room flooded with light.
“Let’s go to Amsterdam.”
Growing up in Asia, I knew virtually nothing about Amsterdam. I knew there were prostitutes and I knew there was weed. As I sat on the train to Gatwick airport, on a grey April day, I imagined what my trip was going to be like. I imagined walking into a smoky coffee shop, greeted by the sweet aroma of burning cannabis. I imagined sitting down with a cup of tea and a joint, accompanied by turtleneck wearing hipsters engaged in discussions about art, politics, and philosophy. Discussions that I would never actually join but would really enjoy eavesdropping on. My friend Amelia and I met at check-in and I couldn’t help but smile. It’s was good to see a familiar face. Things were looking up.
We arrived. From the airport we boarded a train to Amsterdam Central, and made our way to EasyStay hostel; our base for the next 10 days. We stayed in a room of eight people. EasyStay was right in the centre of the red-light district and by hostel standards, the place was great. This was, however, the first time we had stayed in a hostel and our pampered international student butts were taken a bit by surprise.
Outside, night had come, and we ventured out into the narrow streets. We walked in single file in search of the Bull Dog coffee shop, trying our best to avoid fast and furious cyclists, and loud tourists. Bull Dog was very crowded, and not by turtleneck wearing hipsters.
People pushed and shoved, and I was feeling very overwhelmed. We left and returned to the hostel. As the yelling from outside got louder, the shadows in the room began to grow and I shrivelled up. I was out of my element. I was a fish out of water, a bat out of his cave, a sloth out of wherever it is that sloths hang out. I was not having a good time. In my panicked state I asked Amelia if we could reschedule our flights and leave at an earlier date. I failed to explain that it was because I was having a breakdown, and that it wasn’t any fault of hers. I hurt her feelings and we spent the next few days exploring Amsterdam separately.
I had walked as far away from the red-light district as I could and found a quiet coffee shop called Kashmir Lounge. Home sick, the Asian aesthetic put my mind at ease. “Isn’t it such a beautiful day outside?” the man behind the counter said to me. I paused and looked out the window. Majestic clouds rolled through a blue sky as the sun drenched the streets in a golden hue.
I had been too deep in my head to notice. I had played myself. Embarrassed but optimistic, I left the lounge an hour later to meet Amelia and our friend who was visiting from Den Haag. I finally realised Amsterdam was so much more than just weed and prostitutes. It was a beautiful place full of very friendly and interesting people. The three of us roamed the streets and it was lovely. I returned to the neon alleyways of the red-light district and marvelled at the wackiness of the place; aprons with rather large phallic images on them were displayed in shop windows; middle aged couples giggled and ate their Nutella crepes at strategically placed munchie stores.
The next day, after hours of exploring we walked into another coffee shop. We were indeed greeted by the sweet aroma of burning cannabis. I ordered my cup of tea and rolled my joint. Turtleneck wearing hipsters sat in booths discussing art, politics, and philosophy. We went outside to watch the sun set. The sky was a painting, streaks of pinks and oranges. As we sat there shivering in the cold, I thought to myself - what a weirdly wonderful place.
Image courtesy of Armaan Latif