“Amsterdam is an amazing city! It has this really nice ambience!! You must go there”, GA was gushing. He had just returned from his honeymoon, and of all the sights and sounds from Champagne to Cologne, all he could remember was Amsterdam. “It has..”, GA leaned over conspiratorially, “ a legal red light area, red lights(!), women on the streets, everything legal”. “ I’ve heard that it’s got these really beautiful canals?”, I asked. “Canals? Oh yeah canals! Yeah, yeah, nice but you’ve got to hear this, they have live sex shows, can you believe that? Really nice!” GA had a glazed look in his eyes. “Really, that’s interesting…”, but GA wasn’t listening. His eyes had that faraway look of a man reliving some past glory. Amsterdam cropped up again in a later conversation with an elder cousin. He had just returned from a vacation to Europe. The Dutch capital was yet again the star of the itinerary. “Oh, it’s really nice”, he said. After a moment’s silence, he added, “They have sex shows you know”. My jaw must’ve dropped a bit for he quickly added, “It’s perfectly respectable there you know, I went there with my wife!”. He had the hurt expression of a diabetic caught with a mouthful of rich creamy chocolate cake in his mouth. “It’s low calorie, and I gave most of it to the dog too” , he seemed to say. “Of course dada! But is that why you liked it so much?, I asked. “No, no, it has…, it has this…, this really nice ambience”, is all he could muster. Nice ambience, eh? This I had to see. So, not too long ago, I was travelling with friends and family and had stopped over in Antwerp (just about a couple of hours from Amsterdam). On a really grey day, while most of the group seemed happier indoors, the missus and I, alongwith some Belgian friends, left for the El dorado of civil liberty – Amsterdam.
Other than the obviously popular red light district, controversial Amsterdam honours homosexuals with a Homomonument and sells marijuana legally in stores and cafes. One can even buy a ‘good death’ – euthanasia, just as legally in this city. It’s a heady cocktail of sex, drugs and death. Understandably, not many seem to notice that Amsterdam is a beautiful city. The bottle-green canals that run through the city and the lovely little boats make it one of the most romantic cities in the world. Along one of these canals, stands a brick red house, where there once lived a young girl who lived a short sad life and wrote a moving memoir, now famous as Anne Frank’s Diary. And then of course, there is the Van Gogh Museum which is impossible to enter because it is always, either too late or too full.
De Wallen, the red light district was a short walk and a long wait away. Narrow lanes, awash in red hue, flanked by shop windows, each with a bed, a chair and a rather friendly lady, pressing against the glass pane as if her parents had locked her in and gone off to the beach, and here she was all dressed up (down?) in a bikini and nowhere to go. Every time we’d pass a window, a resident lady of love would look at me and smile. Her eye brows would dance, she’d wink and…. Phew, for a moment I felt like Brad Pitt in Nymphtown. No wonder this place was popular. There were groups of Americans on a guided tour, walking past posters of all assortments and shades of human and non human couplings, and ushers at theatre gates announcing, “show is on! Show is on! It’s alive! It’s alive!!”. “That’s Dutch for it’s all live”, said my Belgian friend. “Have a feeling they do it on purpose when they see the Americans. Never know what draws them”. Behind the bright lights though, the truth is that having legalized prostitution, the Dutch government ensures that sex workers have both rights and responsibilities. The use of condoms is mandated by law, and human trafficking is limited. Pimping is illegal and prostitutes are protected against exploitation by law. This has ensured that the scourge of HIV/AIDS is contained to such an extent that only 7% of prostitutes are affected, most of whom are drug users and in all likelihood, contracted the virus from an affected needle. A far cry from the situation in India where prostitution is illegal, but trafficking and coercion is rampant and almost half the country’s prostitutes are HIV positive. The writing’s clearly on the wall but someone’s yet to read it (see slip stream).
Back in Antwerp, someone from the stay-at-home group asked us “How was Amsterdam?” “Nice, uncle! Really nice ambience!” we replied, almost in chorus.