As you navigate the city’s bewildering network of twisting, dead-end streets and gently bending canals, one of the first things that strikes you is how many of the offerings seem meant to be experienced—only meant to be experienced—under the influence of marijuana or mushrooms. There is a store that sells only holograms. There is a café with stalactites and stalagmites. There are restaurants with life-sized dolphins made from plaster, restaurants where you eat in the dark, restaurants where you eat on a La-Z-Boy, and what must be more than a thousand purveyors of Belgian fries with mayonnaise (the first time you try them stoned, you realize that even if the fries are for everybody, they’re most especially for the stoners). It is like an open network of sensory pleasures and communicative understandings built into the rest of the city that suddenly illuminates before your eyes at the moment that you get high.It is a marvelously trippy city, even if you wander through without major chemical enhancement. Someone once said that one of the best pleasures to be had under the influence is "the close examination of your own sensory information". Amsterdam bears up well under such close examination. It's full of stimulation for all five senses, and for that kinesthetic sense of being in a particular place in a particular situation--the feeling of being alive in the moment.
Out of respect for my colleagues, I don’t want to believe that the travel writers haven’t actually visited the city. So my only explanation is that many of the writers have never actually tried the drugs, and thus don’t understand how deeply the drugs filter through the culture and how incomplete an account of Amsterdam really is that doesn’t talk a lot about them. (It never ceases to amaze me how much more often people who have never tried drugs like to talk about drugs than people who have tried drugs.)
In any case, this lack of information leads to a lot of strange moments of contact between culture and subculture, like the executive in the coffeeshop looking for a cup of coffee, or the lost British couple with the young child wandering into an alley of the red light district and getting directions to Amsterdam’s most famous tourist attraction from a heroin dealer to whom they’re later compelled to give an involuntarily large tip.
It's a curious fact about Amsterdam that when you tell people that you're going there, they assume that you're going for the same reasons they would. The sex fiends assume it's for the prostitutes & sex shows, the druggies for the pot & shrooms, the flower people for the tulips & wooden shoes. It's a city that's also a projective test.