Postcards from Amsterdam
It's funny how you end up meeting people in the most unlikely places
As we departed Iceland, I thought about the things I left behind. And I’m not talking about footprints in the sand (or in this case, snow). I literally lost my brand-new scarf and one of my gloves. I never realized that winter can be so expensive.
Lost in Translation
It was December 21st and we arrived in the city of Amsterdam after a four-hour flight. First impression: the airport was an expansive labyrinth of unhelpful signs and cryptic instructions.
When we finally reached the information booth, we were told that we could get train tickets from a machine on the first floor. Unfortunately, it displayed a different language and refused to accept our credit cards.
We queued in another booth but were told to go to another line. Then, it took almost forever before we were told that we were actually in the wrong line. The whole ordeal made me feel like we were in a life-size pinball machine!
We reached Amsterdam Centraal Station which was bustling with people scrambling to catch their train.
I was excited to see the exterior of the station. The architecture was exactly how I imagined buildings in Amsterdam would look—saturated, sturdy, and timeless. We spent a moment appreciating the man-made beauty and wondered how long it had been standing there.
Our hotel was another train ride away. I looked at my phone to familiarize myself with the facade of the building. It looked like any other building in the city.
Reaching the lobby, an old man on the counter 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 was so shocked by this encounter that I left without responding to him. Welcome to Amsterdam!
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 above us. A huge window gave the room ample light but we kept it closed for privacy.
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 before coming there
- Marijuana is legal. Space brownies!
- Prostitution is legal.
- 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 weird noises.
Like when 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 parts, 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! It doesn’t help that their average cycling speed is about 25-30 km/hr?
Though scary, it was fascinating to watch the bikes. 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 toward 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”.
Anne Frank museum
The only thing we planned for that night was to see 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 to 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 spot and joined us. They introduced themselves as students visiting from Zurich but were originally 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 knew we would never see them again.
The museum was the house where Anne Frank’s family and four other people went into hiding during World War II. It was a decent-sized house with lots of hidden rooms. Each room had a story, and the deeper you went, the more tragic it became. 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.
I wanted to try space brownies. Despite growing up in a predominantly conservative country, I’ve never been against its recreational use. As someone who doesn’t smoke, I thought the edibles were a good place to start.
Unfortunately, our schedule was looking tight and 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 couldn’t take them with us.
We compromised by getting an ordinary cookie instead.
There’s something bizarre about red-light districts. It’s not just the glowing lights and the mysterious characters that fascinate me, but also the human interactions that happen there. In Amsterdam, women danced inside aquariums as bright red lights cast over their bodies. It’s interesting that sex workers are viewed differently there than in other countries.
There are live sex shows that attract a long line of people as if they were attending a broadway show.
Alleys and corners
A few years ago, I was the type of person obsessed with itineraries and made sure we followed them. 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.
The next morning, we took an Uber and ventured into a coffee shop called De Wasserette. We had a pleasant chat with the driver who told us he migrated to Amsterdam just a few years ago. I couldn’t remember which country he was from. He said that he had to move because of war but was adjusting perfectly to this new city. A year after moving, he was already fluent in the local language, graduated, and got a job.
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. We told ourselves we would be back in this beautiful city.