Postcards from Amsterdam


It's funny how you end up meeting people in the most unlikely places.

May 15, 2016

As we departed Iceland, I thought about all the things I left behind. No, I’m not talking about footprints in the sand (or in this case, snow). I literally lost a few things in Iceland.

  • A brand new scarf that took me half an hour to pick because I wanted to make sure it was the right color. Shopping is not my best skill. I could spend an entire day and end up with only one item.
  • A glove that might’ve slipped out of my coat’s pocket while walking around town, leaving me with one lonely glove. I couldn’t throw it away though because I just bought it so now it lives in my closet forever alone.

Destination #2: Amsterdam

It was December 21st and we arrived in the city of Amsterdam after four hours of flying. The airport was an expansive labyrinth of unhelpful signs and cryptic instructions.

The lady at the information booth told us we could get train tickets from a machine down the escalator. But when we reached the machine, it spoke a different language and refused to accept our credit cards.

We queued in another information booth and was told to go to another line. Once there, it took almost forever before someone informed us that we were in the wrong line. I was beginning to think we were in a life-size pinball machine!

In the end, it worked out and we got our train tickets.

Amsterdam Centraal Station was bustling with people scrambling to catch their next train. You have to navigate through a tsunami of backpackers and locals before finding the exit.

Grand Centraal Station

I was excited to see the exterior of the station. The architecture was exactly how I imagined buildings in Amsterdam would look like—colorful, sturdy, and timeless. We took a moment to appreciate the man-made construction and wondered how long it had been standing there.

Amsterdam view
Woman with a red bag in Amsterdam

We hopped on another smaller train that took us to our hotel. I looked at my phone, familiarizing myself with the facade of the building. It looked like any other building on the block! When we thought we found the right hotel, we went inside it.

There was an old man on the counter who looked up at us without saying a word. I asked him whether this was the Hotel Plantage. His facial expression immediately transformed into a scowl, followed by an infuriated ‘No! can’t you read the sign?!’. I stepped out without even saying a word. Jeez. I wondered if this was going to be a recurring experience in this city. I hoped not!

Our hotel looked like a small apartment building with compact rooms for short-term travelers. The bathroom was the size of a boat cabin’s bathroom. The place looked old and worn out but you could tell it wanted to look rich by the pretentious chandelier hanging on the roof. A huge window gave the room ample light but keeping it open meant giving passers-by access to our privacy. So we kept the curtains closed and the chandelier on. Fancy.

It wasn’t so bad for the price we paid. We were backpacking after all and wanted to spend our hard-earned money on cultural experiences rather than extravagant hotels.

What I knew about Amsterdam

These are things I knew about Amsterdam before we went there:

  1. Marijuana is legal. Space cakes!
  2. Prostitution is legal.
  3. Canals.
  4. Bikes. Lots and lots of bikes.

Too many, in fact, that we almost got hit twice! They move so fast that you don’t realize they’re behind you until the biker starts making wordless noises. No words, just weird sounds.

For instance, Jeremie stepped onto the wrong lane once and the biker made a ‘HUUUUU’ sound behind us. He was able to divert his bike from us in a split second. In some areas, the pedestrian lane and the bike lane were only separated by a line so it was confusing for someone not familiar with them. One wrong move could send you flying.

The other time we almost got hit was when we walked down a narrow (seemingly pedestrian only) alley. We turned a corner and heard a ‘Pssshhhhttt pssssssssshhhtttttttt’ sound. Luckily my reflexes were working that day and I was able to avoid a freak accident! Did I mention their average cycling speed is about 25-30 km/hr?

Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker
Amsterdam biker

It was still fascinating to watch the bikes though. Standing in a corner, we saw people cycle with one hand or no hands at all while they were busy on their phones. We saw bicycles with a wheelbarrow (for lack of a better term) attached in front for their children.

As we walked down the road to the city center, we came across a man and a huge dog walking towards us. I kept my eyes on the dog but remembered I wasn’t supposed to, to avoid provoking it. They got closer and the dog leaped towards me and I instinctively shut my eyes tight fearing the worst. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes and realized, there was a knee-high, stone wall beside me and the dog just wanted his human to pet his back. I looked at the man and saw him laugh and then wink at me as if saying ‘Don’t worry, he’s harmless’.

Man and dog
Amsterdam bicycles
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam Christmas Tree

Anne Frank museum

The only thing we planned for that night was the Anne Frank Museum. Because it’s an important part of history that attracts plenty of visitors, security was very strict about reservations. People who had no reservations lined up around the block in cold, torrential weather. Our schedule wasn’t until 6:45 PM so we had plenty of spare time.

We found a small, concealed corner to hide from the rain. Jeremie and I passed time by telling jokes and sharing our observations. We talked about how it had been gloomy the whole time since we started our trip in Iceland. My down jacket kept me warm and dry but I wasn’t sure how long it would last.

A couple of guys saw our hiding place and joined us. They introduced themselves as students visiting from Zurich but were from India. They were studying data science (a course that I just recently learned about) and were there for a quick vacation. They asked about our trip intrigued by our stories of Iceland. It’s funny how you end up meeting people in the most unlikely places and in uncomfortable situations yet still get into interesting conversations. They soon left when their friend picked them up in a car and we went back to exchanging jokes.

The museum was the actual house where Anne Frank’s family and four other people went into hiding during World War II. It was a decent-sized house with loads of hidden rooms. Each room had a story, and the deeper you went, the more tragic it was. The staircases creaked as you stepped on them and I tried to recreate in my head what they were going through.

One of the rooms had windows that were completely blacked out. Anne’s room had magazine cut-outs pasted on her wall like any normal teenager. I got teary-eyed when we reached the last room of the building. It gave me so much to think about.

Amsterdam bus
Amsterdam woman in alley

Looking for that euphoric feeling

I’ve always wanted to try space brownies. I’ve read that people have different experiences when they consume it. Some felt euphoric, some felt like time was moving too fast, while others felt nothing at all. I’m not against using it, after all, it has its medical benefits for people who are sick. I’ve read that it’s supposed to calm your nerves. As long as you are in a stable state in your life, I don’t see why it can cause any harm.

People argue that it’s a gateway drug that can lead to addiction but studies by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander show that addiction happens depending on the environment you are in. His test showed that rats are only likely to get addicted to substances when they are placed in a ‘bad’ or ‘unhappy’ environment.

Armed with this knowledge and the brief assessment of my current state of mind, I was ready to try out the space cookies. I told myself, I wouldn’t overdo it, unlike the first time I was introduced to alcohol. By ‘overdo’ I’m talking about consuming an entire glass of beer, which to other humans might be harmless, but to my body was too much.

Jeremie wanted to try it out too but after judging our schedule, we ended up passing. Missing our train the next day didn’t seem very appealing. Plus, it was illegal in Germany (our next destination) so we can’t take them with us.

We compromised by getting an ordinary cookie. Suffice to say, we stayed sober that night but I still enjoyed the cookie!

Amsterdam food shops

Red lights and coffee shops

One thing I noticed about the streets of Amsterdam is that there seems to be a pattern of alternating coffee shops and these calorie-infested shops that display mouth-watering food on their windows. Business must be doing well. 😜

And there’s the occasional sex shop where you can find strange ‘toys’ and giant genitalia exhibited on their windows. Ah, yes. Amsterdam is such a fascinating place.

Next on the list: the Redlight district. Taking pictures of women is not allowed in this area. If you attempt, a huge, intimidating man will come out of nowhere to harass you. I don’t know how accurate that is but I never tried to raise my camera. I’d like to avoid being confronted by big men screaming profanities in my face. Although come to think of it, I’m curious to see how Dutch people curse.

Women dance around inside aquariums while bright red lights cast over their bodies. When you make eye contact, they’d ask ‘You want to try?’

I’d smile politely and say ‘Sorry, but no thanks!’ as I move to the next lady who echoes the same thing. They are pretty and they don’t look like they are abused in any way so I don’t feel sorry for them. In fact, they might be doing better than most people.

Up ahead, I hear cheering and clapping in one of the buildings and see a group of people line in a theatre. I read the large neon sign and it says ‘Live Sex Show’. Ok. Moving on.

Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets

Alleys and corners

A few years ago, I was the type of person who’s obsessed with itineraries and made sure we followed it. Lately though, I’m more relaxed or probably just lazy when it comes to a rigid schedule. In Amsterdam, we didn’t have a solid itinerary. We walked around the narrow streets, crossed over canals, and watched people until we grew tired. Sometimes an idea would cross our minds and we’d do it if it was feasible. Amsterdam has that sense of making you want to drop everything and just take a walk—a long pleasant walk.

Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam streets
Amsterdam architecture
Amsterdam architecture

The next morning, we took an Uber and ventured into this coffee place called De Wasserette. We had a pleasant chat with the driver who told us he migrated to Amsterdam just a few years ago. He was Middle Eastern though I could not remember which country he was from (I have the worst memory when it comes to details). And he told us he had to move because of the war but he was adjusting perfectly in this new city. A year after moving, he was already fluent in the local language and had graduated and gotten a job. He was happy, he says. And you can hear it in his voice.

Avocado toast
Amsterdam coffee shop
Amsterdam cafe
Amsterdam market
Amsterdam market

A small farmer’s market was less than a kilometer from us. People started setting up their stalls and displaying fresh vegetables and delicious selections of cheese. Boxes of produce were stacked, and the sound of people conversing filled the air. We were on our way to our last stop before leaving for Berlin. Soon it was time to leave yet we haven’t seen most parts of the city. We told ourselves we would be back in this beautiful city.

Amsterdam kids in shop
Amsterdam museum

What to read next