I traveled to Amsterdam from New Delhi in the summer of 2002. Almost all my foreign trips have been in relation to some academic work. This particular visit was sponsored by the Department of Economics, University of Groningen, as I was appearing in an interview there. Amsterdam, actually, was less of a travel destination and more of a stopover on my way to Groningen. And Amsterdam Red Light District was never on my agenda!
The landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport itself was exciting because I saw windmills from high up. My plan was to travel to Groningen the same day. On making queries, I found out that the first available train was after three and a half hours. Such delays may be inconvenient for many but they are heaven sent for me. It meant three hours in Amsterdam and I decided to venture out.
Taxies are a big no-no for me because of the expense involved. Fortunately, I have a penchant for walking. But the problem is that I can get lost even in a telephone booth if it has two exits. To avoid getting lost in a strange city, I decided to explore the areas just next to the station. I followed my instincts and tried to get out of the station on Damrak Street. From what I had read on the Internet, it is the city center and all the regular tourist amenities like cafes, money exchange and so on are located on it. I also had to book a half-day tour of the city to take on my way back from Groningen.
What a view greeted me! It was a bright and cool summer day. A light wind was playing on a stream flowing next to the road. But after walking for a while I started feeling confused. The street that I was following was pretty deserted; it did not look like a city center at all. I decided to head back to the station and ask someone for directions. When I asked a gentleman about it, he advised me to get inside the station and exit on the other side. But then he spoke in Urdu all the time, guessing quite correctly that I can understand it. He asked if I was from Bangladesh. I told him I am from India but I understood what he said. Thanking him profusely, I hastily made my exit.
I followed the crowd pouring out of station this time and correctly reached Damrak Street. Again, a canal was flowing right in the middle of the road. I started feeling pleased with my decision to take a walk. Keeping on the right side of the canal, I meandered to the Dam Square and Madam Tussaud’s via open-air cafés and souvenir shops.
I considered going into Madam Tussaud’s but my shoestring budget prevented me from doing so. You see, my hosts at the University of Groningen paid for my hotel and travel fare. On my own, the 17 Euros entrance fee seemed to be a big luxury, which I could not afford. After spending half an hour in the square, soaking in the atmosphere and music, flowing out of various instruments and artists, I decided to walk some more.
Wandering far was out of question as I could easily lose my way. So, I decided to turn back and explore the other side of the canal by crossing a small wooden bridge. I noticed some people sitting on the railing giving me queer glances. It puzzled me; queer glances are more common in India, particularly for a woman walking alone. Even some of the shops had vague signboards. I got confused and decided to head back to the station and later reached Groningen safely.
Fast forward to my day in Amsterdam after coming from Groningen. I turn up for the tour and take a seat in the comfortable bus near the central station. The guide explains that in front of us is the post office and the station and on the right side ladies and gentlemen, is the famous red light district and went on to other things! So it was just because of the signs on the shop I was saved a shock. I never knew it was located so conveniently next to the central station! Now I have told you where it is. It gives no indication from the outside as to what it is, so it is possible just to stumble there, as I would have had the shop signs not made me hesitate. Anyone who would like to walk around in cities unfamiliar can end up there! So now my boring tour of two hours in the city and one-hour boat ride (this was interesting) got over I had no clue what to do next! The boat dropped us next to the station around 6.00 in the evening. Now sun goes down in summer in Amsterdam at some crazy hour like way after ten at night (In India it goes down around seven in the evening and even earlier in winter). So I knew it would be day light for quite a few hours.
I am quite timid by nature but now my curiosity was tickled. I tried going into the red light area, I knew it is a tourist destination and safe but when I started from India it was never on my agenda. I tried walking there but then walked back on the pretext that I want to eat something. Two bananas and a few strawberries later, I headed again but decided to take a stroll in some other direction. I started clicking a few photos and found that roll was jamming. Now for the third time I headed back to the other side of the street to get another roll of film. But by now, I was convinced that I am a chicken and I am hesitating to go into the area. A new film loaded in my camera, I told my self firmly I would go in this time, come what may! And I did.
As some of my agitation subsided, I noticed other people walking through, with their cameras and other touristy telltale signs. That gave me courage. I started reading shop sings and while much is not to be repeated here, on offer was everything from drugs, to massages, shows and much more. But the most prominent sign was ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHS’ on every glass window. Some of the vacant windows advertised contact numbers in case anyone was interested. After ten minutes, I dared to look up in one of the windows where there were sings of life. The lady occupying it looked perfectly comfortable where she was. I lost more of my agitation. I walked on those lanes for a while, proving my courage, to myself, as there was no one else with me to prove it to.
All this while, I still had the track of the direction I had to take to go back to the railway station or so I thought. I took my leave of various things ‘Red’ quickly, and crossed the bridge; only this time it led me to another place. My heartbeat almost stopped but mercifully from that place, too I could see the station, though at a completely different and crooked angle. I understood a new meaning of relief that day, as Amsterdam’s Red Light District was the last place I would like to get lost in. Since then there had been many other places and other walks but never this ‘Red.’