Monday, July 1, 2002

"Gehen Sie Amsterdam?" I asked through his car window. I'd just been dropped off at the gas station a minute before, and hoped to find someone going the last few hundred kilometers directly into town.

"Ja," he answered.

"Haben Sie platz?" I verified if there was room for me, not sure if he meant that he wanted to take me, or that he was merely going.

"Sure," he said, "but you'll have to squeeze, we're both pretty big."

I climbed into the back seat, my backpack beside me.

"Fuck, I'm tired," his buddy said as he nestled into the front passenger seat. Sure enough, they were big guys. American guys, as it turned out.

"Hey Bill, this is Ult," said the driver, who'd introduced himself as Chris, pointing to me in the back. "What could I say, he asked if we were going to Amsterdam."

"No problem," Bill replied. "Maybe his brain is still functioning. Anything more than 24 hours feels like ten days."

"Ten days, that's the longest we ever went without sleep, Ult," Chris informed me. "In the gulf war."

That explained their crew cuts and overbearing voices. Although I figured I could handle a few hours in a car with a pair of enlistees, I could already imagine waving farewell the moment we hit town. As usual with snap judgments, however, my preconceptions were soon brought into question.

"Hey Bill," Chris said, "I'm really sorry I snapped at you before." I was a little surprised by this sensitive apology; not what I expected to come out of the mouth of a hardened army vet.

Bill took it in stride. "No problem, we've had a long day."

"Ult, we've had such a bad day since flying into Frankfurt this morning. It took us literally two hours to find our way out of the city."

Their stories rattled and rolled between this morning's thwarted attempt to visit their old army base ("He was so scared he nearly drew his gun on us."), to their days together in the army ("Mother's Womb is what we called our sleeping bags."), to the various misadventures in between.

"Maybe we should ask Ult if he minds us talking about this stuff," Chris commented at the tail end of an off-color story about an ex-wife.

"Nah, he's happy -- he's got a ride to Amsterdam," came back Bill astutely.

"If it makes any difference," I interjected, "I'd rather you talked about sex than violence."

"You seem like a peaceful guy, Ult," Chris said. It was somehow comforting when he would address me directly like that -- I wasn't too surprised to find out that he had plans to be a politician. "We're peaceful too, by nature. It's just that we've been steeped in violence." I thought he was talking about the army, but they elaborated with stories of their childhoods, growing up in bad neighborhoods with racial and class tension to contend with.

So yes, Chris and Bill were indeed a product of their environment. But they were aware of it and didn't hang on too tightly to those identities, which made them entertaining for me.

"Morning," Bill said. He looked pretty bad, like he needed another six hours of sleep. We'd been out on the town until long after the coffee shops stopped serving coffee (only hash and beer, folks) and the women in the Red Light District began to lose their bedroom eyes ("You can always tell when they're trying to look sexy," Juliette said once, "because they look sleepy.").

"How'd you sleep?" I asked. Chris and Bill had slept in their rental car. I'd spent the night in the grass next to the car, and in spite of the rains I felt relatively dry and rested.

"Not as bad as I thought," he told me, "I brought a little blanket that belonged to my daughter, and put it over my face. The smell really calms me down."

The Amsterdam coffee shop scene was largely as expected -- heaps of tourists, many of them American, getting drunk and stoned, eating pizza and kebabs on the street outside, drinking coffee, and starting the cycle again. For some reason I thought it would feel intimidating or exciting, like being in an opium den, but it was more like a bar -- except the guests were more apt to be staring at the window with heavy lids than being belligerant.

As for the Red Light District, there's nothing that makes a woman less appealing than putting her in a window in her underwear, desperate for someone to offer her money to remove them. Either that, or they weren't appealing to begin with and the red neon lights didn't help. In any case, without the clandestine, illicit nature one would expect from the sex industry, it was a fairly unexciting destination.

The city itself, on the other hand, is quite nice, filled with beautiful old buildings, canals, bicycles, pleasant cafes, and friendly people.

When you cut out major transportation expenses by hitchhiking, accommodation expenses by camping, and intoxication expenses by not drinking or smoking, you're not left with much. While the remaining expenses, like food and cultural experiences, can vary dramatically depending on personal taste, the bulk of the cost of traveling has disappeared, magically replaced by adventure and surprise.

I've been practicing keeping my costs very low, and also helping to defray them by playing didgeridoo on the street. This is what is known as busking, and in theory can pay pretty well, although as a beginning busker I'm still in the red.

Drunk Australians (is that redundant?) seem to be the most generous because they recognize the instrument as a symbol of their homeland, while drunk Brits (perhaps redundantly redundant) are the most obnoxious, but either way the hat collects a few coins now and then. Location, of course, makes a huge difference -- unfortunately the best wages come from places where the acoustics aren't so good (or some authority asks me to go away) so it's not often inspiring to play for tourists.

Sometimes people are creative in what they give. A man leaned out of the window of a dump truck as it passed, and with a big smile handed me two and a half sticks of mint chocolate. Somebody else donated a tiny ziplock bag embossed with a marijuana leaf; inside was a tiny bit of hash and some rolling papers, for which I found a good home later -- a Samaritan, of all people, who told me the history of Samaritans in the Middle East since the time of Jesus ("There are only 700 of us left in the world."). I also gave him a coin from my hat for the Metro -- how could I pass up an opportunity to be a good samaritan to a Samaritan?

"I give you some advice more valuable than anything I could put in your hat," he told me, and I'll pass on his advice at no charge: "Never use violence."

Travel Trivia

Everybody goes to Vondel Park to hang out, play frisbee, practice capoeira, drink beer, or smoke a spliff -- but nobody goes to Gaasperplaas Recreation Area, a park on the south edge of the city. So that's where I lived. It's far enough from the city center that nobody cares if you camp there, but close enough that public transport goes there all night. So my home was a little spot by the lake, watching sailboats float past on the choppy surface as I ate my breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

I didn't go to very many of the coffee shops in Amsterdam, but the few I did go to were at best merely bars with a special menu. However, one stood out for its relaxing atmosphere; it's called Kashmir Lounge, and it's a bit of a hike from the main drag (a benefit of which is that you escape the tourist scene). It does have a bar, but also tables, and if you're feeling really loungy (like I was), you can sprawl across the cushions on the floor. The ambience is further supported by a mishmash of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, elephants, and a deejay. It's located at 85 Jan Pieter [a word that got wet] Straat at Borgerstraat, northwest of Vondel Park.