With a looming cannabis ban for tourists on the horizon, it has never been more imperative for travellers who enjoy certain vices to visit Amsterdam. As one of the most expensive cities in Europe for hotel rooms, the idea was to stay in a hostel and cut costs where possible. Originally, the thought of staying in a 6 bed mixed dorm was both worrying and exciting at the same time – here was an opportunity to practise travelling solo, meeting new people and compromising on luxuries such as your own bathroom, but cheating slightly by having a travel buddy. What would it be like? Having previously avoided hostels on some unknown principle with the exception of an all girls dorm in Dahab, Egypt, which was an air-conditioned paradise after an appalling stay in a stifling insectarium nearby, it was difficult to know what to expect.
When my travelling companion and I arrived at the Mevlana Hotel, at the fairly innocuous time of 7pm, we found all of our new roommates asleep in their beds; a couple from Germany and two brothers living in London. Suddenly highly embarrassed for no real reason, we exchanged lightening quick hellos, threw our suitcases on the bed and ran out of the door. It was a little awkward that first night, as most first nights usually are, but humans are by nature social creatures and over the next few days, we formed the sort of bond that only strangers sleeping in a small room can create.
Amsterdam is a rare city. Its infamous title as the world’s capital for hedonistic adventures doesn’t mean you can pigeonhole its visitors – people of all ages from all across the world weave through the masses of crowds, bicycles, trams and buses and everyone who’s visited has a story or two to tell. It’s a place where you can ask to borrow a lighter from a stranger and thirty minutes later, you’re chatting like old friends. You end up telling random people about your job back home; how boring it is and what you actually want to do with your life. You end up swapping all sorts of amusing stories and jokes, from high brow gags to filthy urban legends, the kind everyone enjoys but usually has to pretend not too. We exchanged horrifying yet hilarious tales of embarrassing medical stories (none of which were our own) and eagerly showed each other bizarre or thought provoking videos online that we’d collected and stored in our memories and iphones for such occasions. The couple from Germany shared their own quirky smoking habits, which included blowing on the filter end of each and every cigarette before smoking it.
Simply walking around trying to navigate the streets became a dangerous game; in some areas, pedestrians were second class citizens. Looking left and right became as important as breathing, as cars, trams, the odd bus and hoards of cyclists hurtled around every corner.
Under the hazy gaze belonging to the perpetually stoned, we people watched from the few tables and chairs set out in front of our hostel and snippets of amusing conversations in foreign tongues were duly interpreted by our German friends.
One evening, our group took the time to go en masse to a nearby coffeeshop and through the course of the conversation, discovered that one of the Londoners had accidently-on-purpose filmed some of the girls in the Red Light District, not realising this is a no-no in Amsterdam. The only other girl in our room felt that this was entirely inappropriate and chastised him, saying truthfully, “they’re not animals in a zoo”.
Our ventures into these smoky dens of iniquity led us to experience group epiphanies – it’s probably no secret that food tastes better when you’re high, and we too were part of a taste phenomena when we went to the McDonalds in Dam Square; fast food so satisfying it prompted long debates about the quality of McDonalds’ in different countries – was there indeed a difference in quality? Or were we just very, very stoned? Serious discussion ensued. Later on that evening, a pack of cheese twizzles was passed around the room as everyone slowly got ready for bed, occasionally bursting into peals of laughter for no apparent reason.
Despite enjoying the benefits of the laid back city centre and our new roommates, it was agreed that our entire trip shouldn’t just focus on visiting the coffeeshops and eating sweet waffles. We found that it was equally satisfying to walk around Vondelpark, strolling through the gardens at a leisurely pace and spotting rogue groups of small green parrots (which we later discovered were Rose-ringed Parakeets) setting up home in the secret spaces of old trees and stopping eventually at the Blue Tearoom in the centre of the park for a coffee and chocolate muffin combo. Visiting the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum had been on the agenda before the plane had even taken off, but turned out to be a minor disappointment. It smelled wonderful and was moderately interesting, but €9 a ticket seemed a bit pricey for the overall experience. Next on the list was the Torture Museum which had been recommended by a friend who shares my fascination with the macabre. Though a small venue, it felt far more reasonable at only € 5 and sufficiently appealed to me with its low-lit rooms, terrifying devices and ample illustrations dotted along the walls.
Having run out of money the day before, souvenirs for friends back home consisted of empty plastic spliff protectors left over from the many pre-rolled joints we’d sampled. As it turns out, they were quite popular. Our allotted time in the hostel eventually came to an end and we left Amsterdam late in the afternoon at a leisurely pace, bags full of maps and dog-eared brochures that had steadily built up over the long weekend. We said goodbye to our roommates, swapping Facebook details and handing out various pleasantries like ‘have a safe journey home!’ and fell into the wing seats of the plane home for a good long rest.