A Bible study at the red light district? Why not? This is Amsterdam.
Tolerance has been the calling card of the Netherlands’ capital and while of late there seemed to have been a penetrating examination in the Dutch society amongst themselves of whether too much open-mindedness can be bad, the debate seemed to have died down. At least when we were there.
A bus ride that took almost a day eventually led us into the heart of the country, and as we made our way into our hostel in De Wallen near the Central Station, there was no misconstruing that the Dutch are generally a more welcoming bunch than the Benelux’s neighbor down south.
The hostel was one of the two branches of Shelter City in Amsterdam, a lodging run by Christian volunteers. This one’s smack dab in the red light district, where “ladies by the window,” as our guide would tell us the next day, display themselves for customers every night. You should be smart enough not to take pictures of them lest you end up and your camera in one of the many canals cutting through alleyways, our guide said. I was smart enough. And a scaredy-cat.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the hostel is in a way a microcosm of whole country with the people operating on tolerance. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye on things — it’s just one’s free to practice his/her own faith, and also free not to. On an open space, some spaced out dudes were smoking weed despite strong discouragement from the staff and a “God Loves You” sign that greets you in the corridor. In the kitchen, a group were singing praise and worship songs with a guitar.
The next morning, some of our group joined one of those free walking tours (It’s free! What have got to lose?) that start at the National Monument. Our guide was Nick, a Florida native who’s fallen in love with Amsterdam and decided to share his love for the city with us tourists. Nick clearly loves the city and knows way too much about the place, including where to get the perfect weed. But he packs it all into a nice ball of humor and it blends well into the Dutch’s sociable atmosphere and the city’s atmospheric charm.
We make our way into narrow streets, obscure doorways, canals, gilded houses, erotic museums, more canals, a “coffee shop,” a cheese store, overweight prostitutes wearing a two-piece in preparation for the evening, even more canals…
It only takes so much before you ask yourself, “Is this degree of tolerance even possible?” And then you realize this is Amsterdam. Anything is possible. The contrast is bewildering.
And sure it is. In the evening, after fulfilling tour of the less the “immoral” aspects of the city, if you will, Joseph sort of dragged me into the hostel’s daily Bible study. It wasn’t one of those proselytizing gatherings that hammer their faith into your head like a giant sledgehammer; rather it’s a fun way of examining your spirituality while making friends with other people from all over the world. Dutch, Germans, English, Americans, Mexicans, Brazilians, you name it.
With spirituality securely thumbscrewed into my inner being, Tita Marie and I then went outside to explore the hostel’s neighbors. Women who looked like Eastern Europeans stood on seductive poses while pressed against the glass windows. They weren’t looking at you but you can feel that they know your presence. Our guide earlier said that a 15-minute “job” would cost EUR 50. If you think that’s a pretty pricey cost for a quickie, be aware that the cost of rent in the Netherlands for these women is high.
The following day, I went with my mom, Tito Boy, and Tita Marie roaming around Amsterdam with the ultimate aim of getting to Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. We did reach both sites but not after a chat with a Filipino couple and a kind old Dutch woman at the Bloemenmarket.
On our final day in the Netherlands, hours before we would ride a bus to Frankfurt, Germany, we had some hasty day trip to Zaanse Schans, a community an hour ride from Amsterdam. Short on time, we couldn’t explore much of the site, as well as the museum. We did get inside one windmill, which converts peanuts into peanut oil, but with a very tight schedule, we ran to the bus stop to get back to Central Station, and eventually to the Eurolines station.
Next stop: Germany.