The final stop on our magical mystery tour of The Netherlands is Amsterdam because, trust me on this, you can’t say you went to Holland and chose to skip Amsterdam. Seriously, people will get whiplash snapping their head around to look you in the eye… “Say what!?”
Rather than get snarled up in traffic on the crowded narrow streets, we park on the periphery and take the clean, efficient metro down into the city. Having spent a couple of days in this part of Amsterdam 15 years ago, I must admit to a profound déjà vu moment as I step off the train. I can only imagine the drive and determination it took to keep this area looking much the same as it did more than a decade ago.
We take a seat at the (in)famous Bulldog Coffeeshop to refresh, rejuvenate and engage in some serious people watching. You see, while the city of Amsterdam is a global financial powerhouse of a million or so people comprised of 187 nationalities, it also attracts more than 12 million (12,000,000!!) visitors each year. That, my friends, is a whole lotta people to gawk at… and, oh my, what a colorful cast of characters.
Now before you ask, I will admit that a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam (and Holland as a whole) is basically a marijuana store that happens to sell coffee. Oh… and beer. Those preferring soda or perchance a cold bottle of water will have to go elsewhere to feed that particular vice. Which I did, wandering two stores down to find a chilled diet Pepsi to quench my thirst. If that makes me an addict, so be it.
Fully recharged and dusk quickly approaching, we venture further into Old Town, swept along by crowds of (well-behaved) people wandering the cobblestone streets and impossibly narrow alleyways, dodging bicycling natives at every turn.
Curiosity drives us giggling into a paraphernalia store which happens to be next to an adult toy store overflowing with very colorful intimate playthings which is conveniently located right around the corner from the “we have everything you could be looking for in a condom” condom store. “A condom store?” you ask. Yep, I’m not kidding. They have Eiffel Tower condoms alongside barn animals, Dracula and even Homer Simpson.
Night falls and the good-natured giggling slows as low voltage red lights flicker to life, bringing forth the stark reminder that behind the ornate walls and storied locales there is a dark seedy side of Amsterdam that musn’t be ignored. On street after street, alley after alley, young girls are for sale, displayed openly like chattel in 300 small, glass-framed cubicles, their very existence reduced to a steady stream of nameless faces from endless places. Choosing to turn a blind eye, the Netherlands has been listed by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime as “a primary country of destination for victims of human trafficking”.
I’ve enjoyed my stay in Holland, a lovely country imbued with history and culture. This, however, moves me to tears…
Once you have seen, you can’t pretend you don’t know