As far as backpacking goes in Europe, it seems that Amsterdam is one of those places that nobody is prepared to miss. Amsterdam is an architecturally beautiful city — with its meandering canals and its squashed-in houses — and it also boasts plenty of history to be explored. But, of course, most people visit the city for the things that make it really famous: soft narcotic drugs (i.e. cannabis, hashish, and magic mushrooms) legally available everywhere; and Europe's biggest and most famous whore-lined red light district. Like everyone else, I just came here to have a good time.
One of the people staying at Bob's (apart from José) who wasn't completely stoned, was a friendly backpacker dude from Croatia. A bunch of us were sitting and having a few drinks in the dungeon this evening; and gradually, we all decided to call it a night and to head up to bed. The Croatian guy and myself ended up being the last people left downstairs. I asked him when he was heading upstairs, and he said: "I'm staying here until they close the lounge (which is at 3am) — after that I'll find somewhere else to sleep for the night". After a bit more questioning, it seemed that what he meant was that he was actually completely broke, and that he was waiting to go to the Croatian embassy tomorrow and to beg for money (to get a flight home); and that he couldn't even afford another night here at Bob's.
This afternoon, I visited one of Europe's most renowned Jewish museums: the "Joods Historisch Museum" of Amsterdam. Amsterdam was home to one of the longest-thriving and best-treated Jewish communities in Europe, for at least 500 years; like everywhere else in Europe, though, it was all but decimated by the Nazis, during the Second World War. The museum is located inside what was once the long-time Jewish quarter of the city — it's built on the site of the old Great Synagogue, the restored version of which is part of the present-day complex — and it gives an extremely well-presented overview of the history of Amsterdam's Jews, from medieval times through to the present.
The Dutch are not known for their amazing cuisine. Fortunately, however, modern Amsterdam is known for its impressive selection of international cuisine: in particular, Asian cuisine. For lunch today, I found a great Thai noodle bar in the centre of town, that cooks up a delicious satay chicken stir-fry, served with rice and chili. Quite cheap, and absolutely delicious. There are numerous such places in the city, and they all look just as good — be sure to try one next time you're here.
I've been "doing the hostel thing" for almost 10 months now: and for the most part, I've really enjoyed it. Most of my hostelling experience has been in the areas I've travelled the longest this year: that is, Mexico and South America. Down there, hostels are super-cheap, super-friendly, and super-casual. Wherever you go in Latin America, you'll always find somewhere that has a free bed (and it's usually somewhere good): this means that you can rock up in a new town, wander into one of the local hostels, and stay there until you decide to move on. You have total flexibility as to where you want to go, and how long you want to stay there. That's backpacking, the way it should be. I can count on one hand the number of times I had to book a hostel in Latin America, or the number of times I was turned away due to lack of space there. But here in Europe, it's a different story: around here, true blue backpacking simply ain't possible anymore.
This morning I explored the streets of Amsterdam, by going for a very long walk. 'Twas a bit chilly, but the sun was shining and the atmosphere was pleasant. Amsterdam's a great city to walk around: great to cycle around as well, but I'll have to do that another time. I spent several hours admiring the lazy canals that ring around the city centre, the quintessential squashed-in terrace houses, and the plethora of bicycles that are both chained-up in, and being ridden on, every street in town. It's quite a sleepy place of a weekday morning: unlike what you'd expect from a northern European city, many of the shops in Amsterdam don't open until 11am or midday; and many people are clearly still recovering from a big night out.
This evening I arrived in Amsterdam, Europe's most infamous city and one of its backpacker favourites. The train from Brussels was a quick 3 hours: it was pretty boring (Belgium is green and flat, Holland is green and even flatter), and I slept most of the way, tired after all my walking around Brussels in the morning. My first impression, upon walking into my hostel here (Bob's), is that this is a city of serious weed junkies. Everyone here is totally stoned! Further exploration of the city — going into the many nearby "cafés" — revealed that the stoned-ness is not limited to the basement of my hostel, either: it's absolutely everywhere. Since I don't smoke (anything), I might be hard-pressed finding something to do around here. Amsterdam is a junkies' and layabouts' paradise.
José is about as close to the "stereotypical Mexican dude" as you can get: he reminds me a bit of Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. He comes from Mexico City, but he's been living in Europe for the past few months, and he has an Austrian girlfriend down in Vienna. José was the first person I met this evening at Bob's (he's in the same room as me); and as soon as he saw me, he suggested that we go out and hit a few pubs. Amazingly, he's one of the few other people at Bob's who's not (completely) stoned.
Bob's is a basic affair, but it's cheap and it's good fun — and it's central enough that all the essentials are an easy walking-distance nearby. The most memorable thing about Bob's is the "dungeon" entrance / reception / lounge area: it's a glorified weed den. People sit down here and smoke weed, literally for days on end — with the result that the room is presided over by a permanent smoky haze. The rooms are pretty squashy, and the bathrooms are a bit seedy: but breakfast is included, the staff are very laid-back, and the fellow guests (when not stoned to the point of being comatose) are a friendly enough bunch.