I think it was while my college friend Amy dumped water all over my face as I lay on the concrete floor outside of the Melkweg’s concert hall that I decided hashish in Holland was not for me.
The “Black Afghani,” which I had tried earlier in the evening, took over during the show at Amsterdam’s famous venue. As everyone gyrated around me, I stood still. Staring at my feet, I was focused and determined to synchronize my heartbeat with the drumbeat.
Finally synched, I saw a blue light shoot forward. Then blackness settled in. Only vaguely aware of anything, I fell forward, slamming into the people ahead of me. A barely audible “Steph,” Steph,” STEPH seeped in with the black. “Man, you are dead weight!” I heard someone say in the fog.
Also altered, my friends dragged me out of the main music hall and into a busy corridor. People whooshed by without even looking down as I lay on the ground. Tourists passing out in the bars of Amsterdam was about as common as tulips blooming in spring. Fortunately, my friends, whom I had only known for three weeks when we began our Dutch study abroad program, surrounded me.
The first coherent thought that came to mind was: “Damn! My parents are going to find out about this!” That thought, along with total embarrassment, contributed to the major paranoia I experienced for the rest of the night. On the train back to Leiden, I was convinced that all the passengers returning from Amsterdam at 2:30 a.m. knew what had happened and judged me for it.
During the rest of my stay in the Netherlands, I avoided further encounters with THC. I also avoided telling anyone I really just didn’t like it.
Six years later and back in Amsterdam:
“So it’s 25 guilders for 2 grams of Black Cobra light hash. You also serve space cakes, magic herbs and herbal elixirs, correct?” I asked. “All righty, that should do it.”
“Would you like to sample something?” suggested the hash bar’s balding owner. Wearing gold hoop earrings, he so strongly resembled Mr. Clean that I thought he should be hawking kitchen cleanser rather than drugs.
“I can’t. I’m working, but thank you for the offer. Dank u wel” I said while scribbling a few bulleted points into my notebook.
I was back in Holland. This time I was revising and writing for the 1996 Berkeley Guides Europe edition. Fodor’s created the Berkeley Guides, compiled by UC Berkeley students, to compete with Harvard’s Let’s Go budget travel series. Although I wasn’t a student, I worked as a copywriter for the university. My job and past experience in the Netherlands were connection enough.
As travel writer/updater, it was my job to ensure that travelers read new, accurate and reliable information. Fact checking is a huge part of the job.
Consequently, I confirmed hours of operation, prices, bus routes, wheelchair accessibility and cultural norms. I visited museums, parks, cafes, hostels and, of course, hash bars. This was for the Berkeley Guides after all.
Vigilant, I visited almost every place in the guidebook, along with new ones, jotting notes at every stop. The days were busy and, at times, tedious. Fairly regularly, I called to check in with my Berkeley Guides editor, Chris.
“Hey, Steph. Are you having a good time?” Chris would ask me first.
“Yeah. This is great! I’m a little bit tired from walking around all day, but it’s good.”
“But are you having fun? There was a slight delay with his question. “Are you smoking anything?”
“Well, no. I’m working.”
“Steph, you can have a little bit of fun while you’re there. When in Amsterdam…”
“Actually, that was my philosophy when I was here in college,” I paused. “I had a bad experience.”
Chris brushed off the statement. “Right. Well, don’t think you can’t do anything, because it’s fine with me.”
I thought back to the Berkeley Guides application materials that stated criteria like: If you’re looking for a free vacation, think again. The pace is grueling…you are expected to produce 35 pages of updated manuscript every two weeks.
After my call to Chris, I went back to the hotel where I was staying. I struck up a conversation with Josh and Ernst, the guys who ran the front desk. When I told them why I was in Holland, Josh, who was American, got out a map and pen. He drew disjointed arrows to a spot circled on the map.
“You’ve got to check out CIA.” He said tapping his pen on the circled location.
“Yeah. I’m sure the CIA would be pretty cool to check out, but I don’t think they’d give me clearance to include them in budget guide book for backpackers.”
“No, not the Central Intelligence Agency CIA. ‘Cannabis in Amsterdam’ — CIA. We are a cannabis consultation center. Our headquarters has the largest collection of hemp products in the world.”
Cannabis Consultation Center? Someone was on the public relations payroll, but I did like the alliteration. Nevertheless, it sounded like material for the book, so the next day I entered a canal house not far from Centraal Station.
Josh and Ernst showed me around a well-lit expansive loft. In one area, a greenhouse nurtured the goods. Another part of the loft housed a store offering countless products made out of hemp such as clothing, shoes, lotion, bags, stationary, lip balm, key chains… Dang, who knew rope was so versatile?
“You’ve got to watch this.” Josh led me to a corner of the loft where a television was positioned next to a bong so large that it would require Cheech and Chong to install a serious sunroof in their beater low rider.
Ernst played a VHS tape with Woody Harrelson from “Cheers” smoking from of the sunroof bong. “We’ve also got Willie Nelson and a few other stars on tape,” Josh maintained.
“All the celebrities who want the best hook up come here. Plus, it’s more discreet than going to the shops on the Leidseplein,” he added.
It finally hit me that CIA was pretty big in the world of weed. It definitely was worth a mention in the Amsterdam section of the book. As I was leaving, Ernst asked if I wanted to try anything.
“No thank you. I’m working,” I smiled. Both Josh and Ernst had the look of: “And…what is the problem?”
“I had a bad experience the last time I was here,” I said as my face reddened.
A few days later, I sat outside a hostel in the early evening with a few other travelers I had met — mainly college students. They were curious about my findings in Amsterdam. Not surprisingly, hash bars came up, so I told them about CIA. “Wow — did you get to smoke anything?” asked Zach, an American college student from Colorado.
Pause. “No, I was working.”
Zach shook his head and laughed. “Wow. If I was working, I’d still toke up.”
“I have to cover a lot of ground in one day. Just today I went to the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the Tropenmuseum.”
“Plus,” I hesitated. “I had a bad experience with hash the last time I was here.” There, I said it. Zach looked at me like I was complaining about a paper cut.
“Seriously. I synchronized my heartbeat with the drums while I was at this concert.”
Zach swigged the last of his Heineken, shook his head again and laughed away.
“I didn’t know how strong the ‘Black Afghani’ was.” I continued, trying to convince him it had been, indeed, a bad experience. Luckily, I caught myself before I ended the statement with “dude.” Why did I care what this college kid thought anyway?
I knew I would have to tell the story again because, believe it or not, we needed another hash bar entry for the book. So, I headed out to The Greenhouse, a newer smoking coffee shop in town. The owner, Arjan, was the undefeated homegrown winner and face of High Times magazine’s International Cannabis Cup for the past several years.
Arjan had traveled extensively in Asia — in particular, India. Wedding saris and Indian art adorned the walls. Ferns, incense and mellow music added to a new age atmosphere. In a tiny alcove, water trickled pleasantly from a mini fountain fashioned out of bat dung.
I asked Arjan if he could explain the legalities of pot and hash since I still didn’t quite get it, and I needed to add this information to the 1996 edition. Pot and hash were not technically legal, but clearly the cops overlooked a lot in this town.
Mentioning he had talked to the mayor and city council, Arjan told me of the current situation. Not only was he the Cannabis King, but also a Cannabis Crusader who was very intense, intelligent and good looking. Arjan could have talked to me about the sculptability of bat crap and I would have been transfixed.
Then came the question: “Do you want to see what is going to win the 1996 Cannabis Cup?”
“Sure,” I replied, hoping he wasn’t going to ask me to smoke it although I was tempted to reconsider if I could listen to him talk about his travels.
“Here it is,” he pulled a small drawer from a several tiered tackle box. He showed me the pungent sample. “Yes, this will be the strain that wins,” Arjan stated.
He put the drawer away. What? Wait. Wasn’t he going to offer me any? I didn’t want any, of course, but what? Was I that uptight looking?
I didn’t even get to talk about “my bad experience.”
A few days later, it was time to call Chris again. I had faxed him some revisions and additions to the chapter.
“Wow, Steph, this information on CIA is awesome. I love their ‘Bud of the Month’ and Kind Guide. And I can’t believe you met Arjan, the Cannabis King! This is awesome stuff. You are commanding this chapter.” Chris’s enthusiasm far exceeded mine.
“Yeah, Arjan was really knowledgeable — the high priest of hash. And I guess I did infiltrate the inner sanctum of the weed scene.”
“By the way,” Chris started. “Heather, who is doing the Spain chapter, ran into a guy who met you at a hostel in Amsterdam.” It must have been Zach, who thought I was a mega nerd.
“He told Heather you were working too hard and not having any fun.”
“What?” I was waiting for Chris to add: “he thought you were a total uptight dork.”
“You need to loosen up, Steph. I’m glad you’re working so hard but this is supposed to be an experience!” It was so bizarre that my editor was telling me everybody must get stoned.
“Chris, I told you about the bad experience I had the last time I was here, right?”
Epilogue: Not long after I returned to Berkeley after finishing the guidebook gig, Chris called and urged me to consider going back to Europe to take over the Greece chapter. Apparently, the student who was working on Greece had taken off to Turkey with some guy she met on Corfu. I hope she saw “Midnight Express” before smoking any hash in Turkey. Now THAT was a bad experience.