The first time I heard about Amsterdam was in 1999. My mum had travelled over there on a work trip. I was nine years old, a primary four kid with stick-like limbs and steel wool hair – rough. My only responsibilities in life were to play, eat, go to school, play some more football and have a crush on a girl called Winnie. That crush probably explains my shitty performance that year and the year after.
Winnie’s desk was at the front and mine – like the seemingly bad guy I wanted to be – was towards the back. She spoke sunflower blooming English. When she said a word, all I wanted to do was listen. She had me at hello. Hehehehe. That’s a joke. I dreamed of listening to her alto voice all the days of my life. I saw myself visiting Amsterdam with her, my head spun with childish love.
My mum who was in Amsterdam had no clue her son was there in Arua Hill Primary School – arteries, veins and capillaries – smitten with a girl whose mum would’ve chased him with a mingling stick had she known the kind of thoughts I was harbouring about her daughter.
We would be in Science class, the teacher writing stuff on the board about things primary four kids should know, stuff like what spiracles are and what their function is and I’d be stealing glances at that damsel that caught my nine-year old eye. I’d speak to her in class sometimes but mostly, I’d think about talking to her during break-time or asking her a question whose answer I already knew.
I’d imagine speaking to her behind the classroom block at the end of the day. I’d walk to her with a flower in hand and say, “I need your help, Winnie.”
She’d smile and ask me to go on.
“What’s this part of the flower called?” I’d ask pointing to no particular part of the nectar filled organ of a plant.
She’d say, “Uhm, I don’t know.”
“Oh, I’ve remembered,” I’d say, “this here is the petal and this one is the sepal and that one, do you see it? That one is its heart.”
She’d give off a kiddish laughter, her facing looking up and I’d be in heaven. I’d tell her, “Here, this is for you.” Then I’d hand the flower to her and she’d hold it, hiding a shy smile.
Oh Winnie! She stole my heart at nine. But I wasn’t fast enough to act on my imaginations. During one mid-morning class session which the teacher did not come for, a guy whose name I don’t remember hands over a piece of paper to me. It was neatly folded.
“This is for you,” he said in Lugbara. “It’s from Winnie.”
I looked to my left, then to my right. I got an adrenaline rush that raised my heart beat. I placed my forehead on the desk, opened the paper from under the desk and read those words on it. The letter wasn’t signed. There was no name on it. It had those three little words, words of magic, words that have an I and Love and You. I trembled and didn’t know what to say or do or how to react. I was awestruck.
The next time I went to speak to her, the fumes of awkwardness filled the space between us. She wore a dress of guilt and uneasiness. She became uncomfortable around me. She’d take a different path when I was anywhere in her vicinity. She avoided me. And we drifted apart.
Over the weekend, I went to Amsterdam with a host of friends, none of whom was called Winnie.
Amsterdam gives off the energy of, “I don’t give a fcuk. I am Amsterdam and I am the best.” The windmills know it. The streets know it. The harbours know it. Heck, even the air knows it.
My feet touched down at the Amsterdam Central Station and they had no clue where they wanted to go first. So we took a boat cruise, seeing the attractions and going through the history of the city; the St. Nicholas church, the house with a thousand windows, the Crazy Jack Tower. Fifteen minutes into this boat ride, I was bored stiff. I wanted to drift into a snooze. This wasn’t the Amsterdam I signed up for. I expected something punchier, something exciting. But I’d paid 10 Euros so I needed to get my money’s worth of sight-seeing.
There was still more; the Amstel River that Amsterdam was named after, the leaning houses from 1659, a former prison from the 17th Century under one of the bridges, and the smallest house in Amsterdam. Who even cares about the smallest building in Amsterdam anyway?
We get off the boat after an hour.
The streets are flooded with legs. Lots of people are jaywalking and cyclists are ringing their horns to give way. I see a man standing at a silver tubular pillar. Is he taking a leak? Yep. Man walked there, unzipped his trousers, pulled out his manhood and peed away. There is an open public urinal at the side walk on the street. This is the Amsterdam I wanted to see. The crazy one I’d heard about.
My friends and I sit at El Torado, an Argentinian Steak and Grill Restaurant for lunch. There’s smooth bosa nova music sipping through the speakers. The chairs are coated with cow skin. The walls and ceiling too have cow skin decoration and deer heads with forked horns. There’s a crucifix, a cross and an artefact of the last supper to the right of the entrance. It is deeply catholic in there.
When I tell one of the guys attending to us that I’m from Uganda, he says, “Ah, Idi Amin.”
I tell him Field Marshall Idi Amin is no more. It doesn’t matter to him because he says, “Many people my age (he’s in his late 50’s) know Uganda because of Idi Amin.”
“And where are the rest of your friends from?” he asks
They were all from Kenya.
He takes our orders. We have fine pork ribs, beef steak and chicken something with beer.
We explore more streets, looking at the sex toys displayed on glass windows for all to see. If you have kids, you’d be afraid of taking them through some of the streets. Did I enter one of those sex toy shops? Absolutely. It wasn’t for long. This blog allows me to stretch my creative imagination but I can’t describe what I saw on display in those sex shops.
I admit though that I spent quite some time at the Sex Museum studying the collection of sex artefacts, stories and pictures from the 16th and 17th Centuries and listening to sounds of old. I read the story of Marilyn Monroe, Long Dough and Titanic Tina. I read about Rudolph Valentino. I climbed up the stairs from where, on one of the steps, a moulded woman’s arse farts over your head. Laughter follows over the speaker system as though to spite you for being interested what this sex museum is about.
I found everything in that museum, although very graphic and raunchy, lifeless. I felt as though I was walking through an abandoned house with cobwebs on the walls and ceiling, stagnant water on the floor, termites eating away on the wooden doors, dried left over posho and beans on an old wooden dining table and stray cats living in there. I walked out of the sex museum feeling meh.
The sun went down and darkness fell. The street lights brightened the city. I went to Red Light District, strolling with anticipation. I cleaned my glasses. I needed to have clear vision. And, my oh my! There are lines of shops with women behind windows doing inviting dances. Sensual they are. There are peep shows and live shows. Everything is spiced up liberal. Sex is a business that sells here. Add weed to that.
I needed two Euros to enter one of those show rooms for a two minute watching experience (which I was eager to write about) but I didn’t have that two Euro coin. I had one Euro. I had 50 cent coins. I had 10 cent, 5 cent, 2 cent and 1 cent coins but not two Euros. I asked my friend if he had change. He didn’t. I went to one of the counters to find change. I failed. Then someone called me out of that place. I walked out with a face-palm wishing I had a two Euro coin. And that’s how I missed a show at the Red Light District.