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Published: October 10th 2008
The nature of our acquaintance was not very profound, in fact so much so that I never even learned her name. And in so being, our relationship was not very different from hundreds of other hostellers that I had met in my travels. And the fact that I met her at the intercity bus station in Amsterdam in the early pre-dawn morning, although a strange meeting place, is neither particularly noteworthy. What was noteworthy though was in the short span of our meeting she led me to one of the strangest places that I have ever stayed.
We had both arrived on the overnight bus from Paris, and although we spent these eight hours of our lives together, I hadn’t noticed anyone else on this bus as sleep had been my main concern when boarding. Luckily for me this bus was early in arriving to Amsterdam. Had it been later, this girl and I would have disappeared onto the commuter train to the center and never again crossed paths. I had been enjoying an unbelievable five days in Paris and hadn’t even thought about looking ahead to the Amsterdam portion of my book until I got there. Before I had the chance to make a plan she approached me, having seen that I was another young traveler with a guidebook and likely also heading for a hostel.
“All the hostels in the city are full.” she told me. I had heard this before and never had much of a problem finding a bed for the night anyway so I was unfazed. “But I am heading to a hostel where I have a reservation and my friend has been staying there and knows the owners, so she can get you a room probably. The only problem is I don’t know where it is, so maybe we can find it together.”
This was a new experience for me and it got me interested. Someone was going to find me a hostel bed and all I had to do was to navigate there - something I would have had to have done anyway. So I hastily agreed and we set off on our journey. She was not sure of the name of the place but had the street name. I knew the best place to go would be the information booth in the main train station so we hopped on a train to the center and proceeded from there. On the train we got to know each other a little. Although she never told me here name, she did tell me that she was from Brazil and had been working in the south of France. She was traveling to Amsterdam solely at her friend’s insistence and thus had made rather hasty plans herself in leaving the previous day with no books or other information on the city. At the train station, the person at the information booth gave us some general directions as he had no idea which hostel we were looking for. So the two of us set off for this unknown place stopping and asking whatever locals we could along the way of the whereabouts of this street. Finally one was kind enough to point it out to us on the map of Amsterdam that I had in my book, the street was no more than a hundred meters away.
On our route we had passed some signs for some of the things that we knew Amsterdam was famous for, but still in the early morning light the streets were deserted and we had little idea where we were. When we got to the hostels I was told that there was indeed a bed for me and my short lived alliance with the Brazilian girl was over, she met her friend and I never saw her again. But as I stood in line for a bed things started to dawn on me. First of all this place was nothing like the institutional Hostelling International domiciles, which had formed the majority of the places I had stayed on my European journey. This place looked a little run down but also had a lot of character. But it also had a lot of religious items. When I got to the front of the line I got started filling out the registration form and saw at the top the name and motto of this place “Shelter City - A Christian hostel in the heart of the Red-Light-District.” Now here were two things, a Christian hostel, and staying in the heart of the Red-Light-District that I never expected to experience one at a time, let alone together.
After I finished signing in the guy behind the desk offered me a copy of the Gospel according to John and I was invited to bible study in the evening. On the way up to my room I saw the huge “Jesus is Lord” sign which dominated the upstairs common room. After I had gone out exploring and subsequently came back I was woken up by the afternoon bible song singalong. When I went out the front door soon afterwards I saw a drug dealer standing just over a car’s width away. Two car lengths to my left was the nearest café where I could buy some herbal bliss. Two car lengths to my right was the nearest prostitute sitting behind her window. Another two car lengths away from her was another drug dealer who looked a lot meaner than the first.
Still I was in no danger, just the contrast of the two worlds was striking. And later on when I saw tourists in massive groups on guided tours of the Red-Light-District at night, I knew immediately they were missing something. My three days in Amsterdam were nearly destitute ones, I had little money for anything but food and accommodation, museums remained unvisited, sites unseen. But thanks to a chance encounter I had had an unforgettable and relatively original Amsterdam experience.
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