Strippers and Legal Marijuana: Adventures in Holland
“Are you ready?” We had stopped our blue and yellow rental bikes on a cute street corner in Groningen, a small town in the north of Holland that was the childhood home of my Dutch friend Rian. I had met Rian while traveling through Africa last year, and we had hit it off, traveling together in Malawi for almost 2 weeks and making plans from day one to meet up again in either Holland or America. I had been the first to jump the big puddle, this lovely little country being the third stop of my second year abroad. Arriving 6 days before, we had thus far traveled all over Holland – Amsterdam, the Hague, Utrecht, Leiden(more on this later). But this was about to be an entirely new experience.
I should have known from the mischievous grin on Rian’s face that her question might as well have been rhetorical — but I answered with a confident “Yes,” and with a push of the pedals we were off… heading straight into the one-block long red light district of Groningen.
From all of the raunchy travel stories of days and nights spent in Amsterdam that I had heard in the past, I was of course well aware of the facts that both prostitution and certain amounts of marijuana were legal in Holland. Having had no interest in visiting the touristy hooker hotels in Holland’s tourism center, I had yet to understand that this meant that in every small town, all across the country, brothels were a legitimate and regular installation. Tucked away in plain sight down certain cobblestone streets, they attracted a variety of individuals – in this case, two foreign high school sports teams on foot, a black sports car with tinted windows – and us, a tourist and a local, riding our bikes straight into the traffic jam of people on this tiny side street.
Window shopping suddenly took on new meaning, as I glanced sheepishly at women tucked into narrow booths behind glass windows, booths adorned with all manner of “tools of the trade” – toys, swings, beds, chairs, tubes of glossy liquid and shiny packaged condoms – and of course the obligatory curtains, closed to indicate a present engagement. The women were dressed in varying degrees of lingerie, almost all smoking or talking on cellphones while distractedly rubbing various parts of their bodies in a decidedly disinterested fashion (probably due to the hour, which wasn’t much later than 5pm). According to my friend, these women would rent the booths from the building owner, the rent paid out of what they made each month. In addition, they would pay a certain percentage of profits to their pimp, a practice that was supposed to have been eliminated by the legalization of prostitution, but that continued anyway – indeed, you had to know someone to get window space.
I narrowly avoided a collision as we hopped off our bikes, the street too congested with young athletes to continue. I hurried Rian along and we turned the corner, where upon noticing the look on my face she burst out laughing. “I asked if you were ready,” she said, giggling, “and, you know, you were allowed to look.” I tried to explain – I have no problem with nudity, and can see the positive side of legalizing prostitution (which has been around for thousands of years, thriving even in the most sex-negative communities) –Rian, as a doctor, had explained that these women regularly had health exams, and that the business was pretty highly regulated. I suppose the stigma of being on a street like this, and the shock at seeing a busload of young men dropped off here by their coaches (when I went on a trip with the rowing team my first year of university, we got dropped off at the grocery store) had caused me to become a little embarrassed, and I had proceeded down the street with no more than a glance into each of the windows. I trust women to make their own decisions about what to do with their bodies — I have a few friends who are very happy strippers – but I think my curiosity about this sort of consumerism would have been sufficiently addressed by simply looking down the street, not throwing myself bodily into the fray. Seeing women choose to put themselves on display, and seeing young men being taught by their role models to look at this as if it were perfectly normal, was disconcerting.
However, I added this experience to all of the others I had had in Holland thus far, and considered my time there to be more complete than most people who spend eight days in this diverse country. Thanks to Rian, I had spent time exploring the Jordaan, a national heritage area of Amsterdam that I found serenely beautiful and would recommend to anyone. We had spent another memorable day speeding around the canals and lakes of this gorgeous city, accompanied by her aunt, two cousins, uncle, and another three family friends. Her uncle had narrowly avoided two speeding tickets, indulging the little girls’ screams of pleasure and soaking all of us with his keen ability to drive straight into the biggest wakes possible, and looking appropriately sheepish when reported by a passing commuter ferry and pulled over by the boat police.
Sitting next to a canal overlooking a number of quaint houseboats, we had snacked on Egyptian food bought in a small shop in the multicultural section of Utrecht, the smells and markets and covered women reminding both of us of our travels through the Mid-East and Africa. And we had attended Stukafest (Student Festival) in the university city of Leiden, meeting her friends for a traditional Dutch dinner that only grandmothers make… grandmothers and a group of young male college students Rian had grown up with… and visiting the gardens of 3 student houses for the small, exclusive music performances that Stukafest entailed. Finally, clothed in bring pink feathered boas and surrounded by hundreds of young people of various sexual orientation, we had danced the night away on a canal back in Utrecht as part of a huge gay festival organized by her charismatic friend Judith. Literally, on the canal – they had built a floating platform suspended between the two walls of the canal, lit it up with brightly colored lights and smoke machines, and put the DJ on a barge of his own to spin tunes until 1am.
One of the best things about traveling around the world (or any portion of it) is that the world becomes a much smaller place. I made friends last year who I had visited in New Zealand, Australia, and now Holland – and I was on my way up to Sweden to see three boys who I had joined for a month of their four-month drive from Sweden to South Africa for the soccer World Cup. When we parted, Rian promised to try to meet me in Malawi before I leave next year – a promise I took seriously, as she was soon to be off to Peru for a three month medical internship in a small rural hospital, investigating her interest in tropical medicine (we had met the first time shortly after another internship she undertook in Tanzania) – we both considered these parts of the world to be accessible, and not so far away after all.
Upon meeting them, all of her friends told me in no uncertain terms that, if I were ever to return to Holland, I must stay with them if Rian was out of town. And I knew that I could go to areas of the world that I had yet to explore– South America, Russia, Spain, Mongolia to name a few locations on the top of my list – and rely on my vast network of traveling contacts, and their own networks, to meet friends in almost any city all over the world. The farthest corners of the world were no longer so far away – the unknown, suddenly less frightening, less foreign. And so I recommend to anyone with dreams of exploration to take a backpack in hand, buy a plane, bus, train, or boat ticket, and head off without fear of distance, loneliness, the unknown. Because, it’s a small world, after all.
Jess Scott is a foreign correspondent for Pink Pangea. Tune in over the next few months as she writes from Sweden, Estonia, and Malawi, where she’ll live for 9 months. Wanna know more? Check out jpscott.blogspot.com.