MAY 15 - MAY 21
To fill the gap of when some people in Germany could see me, I decided to take a quick tour of Hamburg and Amsterdam by way of hostels. Hamburg, still in Germany, is a port city of the Elbe River. I stayed in the St. Pauli district, known for its culture of music and arts, and not to mention where the Beatles nurtured their early career. But perhaps the most famous, or infamous aspect of St. Pauli is its red light district, established long ago for lonely sailors coming off the Elbe. I somehow thought it was a good idea to book a hostel right smack in the middle of the Reeperbahn, the main street that houses all the hedonistic festivities. It kind of reminded me of a small scale Las Vegas except not trying to be "glamorous". This part of town definitely revels in their dirty, fun loving ways. The hostel was no doubt a former brothel, with Austin Powers-esque kinky decor and everything (padded doors, anyone?) It would be my first stay at a hostel, so I was bracing myself for the maximum three other people I would be sharing a room with. But it was it was in the middle of the week so throughout my three night stay I only had one other guy, Tim, who had just got a job in Hamburg and decided to check out the St. Pauli district that he'd heard so much about. If you're traveling alone, hostels are a great way to meet other tourists to explore the city with, but it's a gamble on whom you board with. Thankfully my roommate was not old, not creepy, was German so knew the language (good for translating when needed of course), and spoke fairly good English. And when I mean 'fairly good'... well, I had to be careful not to use 'big' words, play-on-words, or phrases specific to English. In a sentence I used the term "getting a hold" of someone. "What? Get a hold? You had to grab him?"
Seedy St. Pauli aside, I also went into St. Georg, which apparently houses Germany's most fantastic shopping. Hamburg is Germany's wealthiest city so this would make sense. The entire district is basically a consumerism paradise but leans towards the pricer, more exclusive shops. I barely walked through a quarter of it and my feet were already killing me. So with these two parts of town I was able to ramble through in two days and two nights, I had a very interesting dual view of Hamburg.
Then it was onto Amsterdam in the neighboring country of the Netherlands. I am completely awe struck by the view out of train windows in Germany so far, and Hamburg to Amsterdam was no exception. Amsterdam is an easily navigable, small city of canals lined with quaint river boats, cobble stone bridges and buildings that evoke a certain, almost Scandinavian simplicity, but with more character. The two aspects of Amsterdam that contrast with the charming Dutch lifestyle are the "coffee shops" and the window prostitutes, but are still important because they represent the city's tolerance. The funniest part to me is the god-awful souvenir shops that play up the legal weed smoking culture to tourists (because come on, who doesn't want to take home an alien plushy with dread locks in a tie-dye shirt smoking a massive joint?).
The Dutch folk in Amsterdam are a little more fashionable than the Germans, which reminds me more of Oslo. People are generally pretty cheery and open, and unlike Germany and Norway, I have not encountered one single person who does not speak English. Everyone speaks at least decent English, if not pretty damn good. I have heard it's due in part to movies and TV shows being rarely dubbed in Dutch because Holland is such a small country, as one example. All these people eat are bread and cheese, especially cheese. Their pastries are amazing and I ate way too many of them... I guess all the bike riding these people do is key to keeping the weight off.
If I was really lucky in my first hostel experience, this time I guess my luck was average. The room holds six and it was full for my entire stay. It's like some strange sort of "camp" experience. The boarders were from China, Argentina, Malaysia, and France. Have I mentioned the importance of ear plugs yet? I had foreseen the issue of snoring long ago and made sure to stock up.
On Saturday night I explored the Red Light District with the Mayalsian, Iqbal, currently receiving his Master's degree in marketing at a university in England. While making the trek I discovered that Malaysia is an Islamic country and he too is Muslim, explaining to me that he's never had a drink in his life because the religion strictly prohibits alcohol usage. Differences aside, we did have small things in common… Like growing up with centipedes in our native land, though I'm fairly certain Malaysia wins the argument for the biggest.
Though Amsterdam has streets here and there with 'window workers', the Red Light District (De Wallen) is a small, concentrated area that provides the most. The main streets in the district are unbelievably crowded with giddy tourists coming in and out of the "XXX" shows which feature live sex to ogle at. In the smaller alleys are where the infamous ladies are found on display behind glass, like puppies at a pet store, seductively lit by the neon red lights. A blue light means that the worker is trans. When the curtains are drawn, it means they are busy with a customer.
Unlike the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, I felt a much more controlled and regulated feel to the district even though there are no cops that patrol the area. It is actually illegal to photograph the women, so every time I'd try and inconspicuously raise my camera towards them there was a bodyguard tapping my shoulder (politely) and saying "No photographs. I'm sure you've read the signs". Yes, there are signs everywhere. The women actually get very upset if they see you sneaking photographs as well, and use the rings on their fingers to tap the against the glass, immediately alerting their bodyguards.