By Eyeopener Staff
The sun hasn’t decided on his plans for this warm May afternoon in Amsterdam.
He peaks his head out every few minutes, checking on the action, but appears unsure about whether to fully partake in the day’s activities or catch some early Zs behind the clouds. We hope he’ll stick it out and hang around, but if he chooses to be an antisocial prick, we won’t let him spoil our fun.
We get off the train from Utrecht at 4 p.m. All we’ve consumed is water, bad Dutch coffee and worse Dutch pastry. The mostly empty stomachs are a deliberate choice; nausea can be a terrible buzz killer and it’s important to have a plan when you’re doing mushrooms.
It was a change of plans that brought us here. When my best friend Daniel and I sat down last February and made plans for a three-week trip to Italy, Amsterdam was not on the agenda. But as we reached the halfway point of our trip, my cousin Fabio suggested we skip our planned final destination — Naples — and fly to Amsterdam. We laughed. Then we considered our options. Naples offered the world’s best pizza, easy access to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast and the possibility of joining an organized crime family. Amsterdam offered legal drugs and a free place to stay.
We chose the latter. We’re staying with my friend Aaron, who has been living as an exchange student in Utrecht, a Dutch university town, for five months. Upon our arrival, he takes us to a coffee shop where we sit on cushions at the back of the room, smoke “Cristal” weed and watch the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform live on a big screen.
We begin our mushroom trip walking through a street market, with crowds of people who, like the city’s buildings, are too tall and too thin, always looking like they’re on the verge of falling over. I need water. I remember Aaron’s advice: “If it gets too crazy,” he said, “eat an orange.” Vitamin C counters the effect of psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms. The experienced druggie is often a closet chemist. We turn away from the crowds, leaving behind the smell of fish and the sound of merchants shouting, “Three mangoes! One Euro!” The sun slowly melts and everything becomes silky.
Good thing I wore my sunglasses. Dilated pupils and a tendency to focus on objects of perceived beauty make staring at the sun a major hazard for shroomers. A man pushing a cart walks by wearing a smile that stretches up to his ears. I have never seen anyone smile so widely, and I get nervous.
“That guy really WAS smiling like that, right?” I say hopefully, not quite ready to completely give in to the drug. Daniel and Aaron say they saw the same thing, but they’re not exactly reliable sources. My pupils expand further and Daniel looks wobbly, but Aaron, a necessary guide to this strange city we’ve only just met, is calm and cool. He suggests visiting an art gallery where the work of American photographer David LaChappelle is on display. Although Daniel and I are weary of being in an enclosed space, we follow. LaChappelle’s celebrity photos are dark, sexy, suggestive and hallucinogenic. Provoking, modern, American.
I see life and death in perfect harmony, the eternal promise of the American experience clashing against the trappings of celebrity-worship and consumerism. In one photo, a group of jewelry-clad hip hoppers surround Jesus. While I later critique this particular piece as being too obvious (hip-hop as the new gospel? Blah), I smile in appreciation at the time. LaChappelle’s work speaks volumes more to me than Michelangelo ever could. Or maybe I’m just on drugs.
Cocaine and ecstasy are illegal in the Netherlands but the government’s wonky policy on marijuana — it is legal for coffee shop owners to sell small amounts to customers, illegal to buy large quantities from underground distribution operations — has made the country into Europe’s hard-drug trafficking nucleus. The mushroom laws are equally incoherent. It is legal for designated shop owners to sell fresh mushrooms but not the more potent dried variety. The safer method would have been to dry the mushrooms ourselves, but we don’t have the time for that so we buy 4.5 grams of dried Mexican mushrooms for 11 euros at an underground head shop.
To mask the flavour of shit, we eat them with yogurt, creating a flavour fusion of yogurt, fruit and shit. Of course Holland offers more than a chance to get high and fuck hookers without worrying about the fuzz. A major attraction is the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, where we visited yesterday afternoon. As we find a place in a grassy field and finally convince the sun to stay, I return to Van Gogh’s world of strange shapes, distorted perspective and intense colour.
Van Gogh’s work is the unholy marriage of punk and psychedelia, as elaborate and expansive as it is aggressive and loud. As I reminisce, the Rijksmuseum in front of us transforms into a castle in a fairy tale and we become a part of a new painting. Colours shimmer. Green suddenly makes sense. Everything is beautiful. Is it beautiful or is it boring? The sky streams a radiant blue and the clouds move in four directions at once. Up, up, up. Daniel becomes blinded by the brilliance of it all and his fairy tale takes a dark twist. All three of us drift into a private space and there are only a few windows remaining into each other’s worlds.
We watch the children at the nearby playground and I’m sure I have never seen more joyful images of family. A group of tourists ride by on their yellow bikes, snapping us up with their digital cameras but we’re happy to share in the aura. I don’t even believe in aura. Children skateboard on an ugly piece of modern art, now useful and practical, obliterating its status as a piece of art. I watch as a father asks his daughter to climb the structure so he can snap a photo, but she can’t do it. “Let your sister try,” he tells her, probably, and the sister mounts with ease. Resent. Heartache. Pain. A psychiatrist’s paycheque in 15 years. It’s time to move on, time to get going.
We walk through the streets, passing twisting, melting faces that constantly change shape. Daniel is worried but I remind him that they are Dutch, and therefore ugly, but that doesn’t make it any better. We sit by a canal. Did you know Holland was made up of canals? I didn’t until we got here, but I knew about the drugs. Daniel’s lost his marbles and is too scared to find them. Aaron’s been in Europe four months, we’ve been here under three weeks, but now the wires are crossed and he’s there and we’re here, and we’re there and he’s here. Tap, tap, tap go my fingers, banging out a rhythm on my water bottle. You find yourself when you travel. I drum.
I try to capture the moment in writing but get distracted when Aaron and I start discussing the merits of keeping a travel diary. “This way I’ll be able to relive the memories,” I argue. “But then you’ve experienced the memory second hand,” he responds. I put pen to paper. “That damn book! Throw it in the water!” Daniel shouts. I close the diary. It’s a road movie now, a travel memoir, The Sun Also Rises or something by Jack Kerouac. Daniel freaks and I can’t calm him because I’m freaked too.
Everything is too exciting, too amazing, too expressive. Later we’ll describe it as “emotionally overwhelmed” but right now, we’re too emotionally overwhelmed to notice. “I see death,” says Daniel, analyzing the graffiti on the wall. “Watch the ducks,” I say. Later, he will call this “the best trip ever,” but at the time I am worried and offer him my sunglasses as a way to protect himself. He refuses to wear them but insists I keep them off. He doesn’t want to see his reflection. He gives me his eyeglasses, to see the world through his eyes, but they don’t fit my head. I suggest he wear jeans instead of cords. Aaron disagrees. It’s the red T-shirt he dislikes.
And suddenly, the entire trip flashes before my eyes: dodging scooters in the wild and dangerous streets of Rome, visiting David in Florence and thinking about The Simpsons, boredom in Venice, drinking in Pescara, eating in Bari. I’m caught in a loop and suddenly I don’t know which drug I’m on: mushrooms or travel? I think of my bag, permanently attached to my shoulder for three weeks, now a part of me. I look at my arms, covered in mosquito bites, tanned, worn, telling a thousand stories that will soon be retold, rearranged and forgotten. We move down the canal, but not far. A group of Brits crash their boat directly in front of us.
They are drunk. We are high. The relationship between stoners and drunks is usually one of civility, if not overt friendship, but these guys really piss me off. I say nothing, of course, but they’re spoiling everything. But, as They say, “Laughter is the best medicine,” and though I’ve never been one to trust They, I down a dosage anyway. In the end, there’s no way through the chaos. Might as well enjoy it while you have the chance. The experience with the drunks brings us back to Kansas, but it’s the Technicolor version where the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion are still in costume. We walk away from the canal and watch a group of young guys play soccer at a nearby court.
We’re far away from the city centre and the moment feels authentic. These guys aren’t very good and I remind Daniel and Aaron that Holland’s soccer team failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. I need water and wait for the big Dutch boy to finish at the fountain. Perspectives are still altered and as I walk away, it looks to my friends like I’ve shrunk. You know, like in the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The sequel wasn’t nearly as good. They never are. Conversation flows. No more grunts and uncontrollable giggles. I explain the bible and how anarchists don’t care enough about Jesus. “God? There’s no God, only religion.” “It’s Woody Allen, Dan, not Woody Harrelson.”
Sentences return and the senses make sense. The world is still on mushrooms but my mind is clear. Now we’re at a bar and drinking beer. It’s cold, clear, crisp, easily the best beer in the history of the universe. A man in a white suit passes by, not quite pulling it off. I go to the bathroom and look in the mirror.
Is it cliché or classic?