It was late summer, 1973, and I was a long-haired 18 year old kid about to embark on my post high school round-the-world odyssey of personal discovery…and fun. In preparation for the cross-Canada train trip to Montreal – where my best pal Keith and I would catch our flight to Amsterdam – I decided to leave my parents home in Victoria and stay in Vancouver for a few weeks, where my brother-in-law had arranged shared accommodation for me at his secretary’s apartment.
Barb was a much older – she was 23 – single mother of one, and carries the distinction as being the woman to whom I lost my virginity in the days and weeks prior to my departure for distant lands. “Wow, this is great!”, I thought, “exotic travel and sex…I should’ve left Mom and Dad’s place years ago” …what the parental home may lack in terms of exotic and erotic freedom is oftentimes compensated for by its protective cocoon – my first sexual encounter would also be my first (but sadly not my last) encounter with venereal disease – young Georgie had “the clap”.
Aah, but I was not bitter or angry (after all, I’d finally had sex :), and the clinic loaded me up with enough pharmaceuticals to kill a horse and also ensure that I could catch my train on time. Thank God for antibiotics…and sex!
If you’ve ever caught the train across Canada you’ll know, but it bears repeating, it’s an absolutely gorgeous journey and a very leisurely and civilized way to travel. Grand Canadian vistas viewed from spacious seating areas through large picture windows. Because Keith and I were budget travelers we did not rent a stateroom choosing instead to spend the 4-day trip either wandering to the dining car or residing in our ample seats…this, of course, left us exposed to interactions with the other passengers. Late one evening, before we pulled into Montreal, a fellow, whom we’d never seen before, approached us with an offer of free drugs – MDA I seem to recall – in powdered format. We ingested as much as his largesse would allow, after which time he promptly left, never to be seen again….We waited….Patiently. After a time, I said “I’m not feeling anything…you?”, “No” replied Keith, “I wonder what that shit was?” We remained in our seats with our advancing disappointment, and mild apprehension. “Maybe it was baking soda”, said Keith, “Or poison…rat poison” I countered. Either way, apprehension is not an ideal state from which to enjoy a good nights sleep. We arrived in Montreal feeling a little burnt out but eager to embark on the next stage of our journey – transatlantic flight! Europe! Yay!
By the time we were in the air, I started to notice that I wasn’t feeling so great. I had a mild headache, felt slightly feverish and had increasing difficulty swallowing. My throat felt constricted and scratchy…”I might be coming down with a cold”, I told my buddy, “That’s a drag man, why don’t you ask the stewardess if they have any pills for that?” Great idea. The ever obliging and helpful stewardess (in the days before flight attendants) hauled out her bag of pharmaceuticals and gave me two of something to ease my plight. Painstakingly I swallowed them, not thinking for a moment that perhaps, just perhaps, adding more chemicals into my system on top of the recent antibiotics and “mystery drug” might be unwise. I thanked her and smiled flirtatiously in my new role as a non-virgin.
Not surprisingly, the pills didn’t work and, by the time we landed in Amsterdam, on a Sunday, I was feeling considerably worse and now had a noticeable rash on my torso comprising of small raised red spots. “Hey man, I don’t know what I’ve got, but I feel like shit and think I need to have this looked at…let’s ditch our backpacks at the Hostel and go find a doctor “, I said, “Where are we going to find a doctor on a Sunday…in a foreign country?”, replied Keith. Remember, it’s 1973…no internet…no smartphones or handy apps…we didn’t even have credit cards – Americans Express cheques, a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide and the optimism of youth were the tools with which all obstacles would be overcome. “We’ll ask the guy at the Hostel, c’mon”
”Red Light District”…”You can find anything you want in the Red Light District”, said the Hostel Guy, “Here” …he slid a piece of paper across the reception desk, with an address on it, making sure not to touch my hand for fear of infection.
God bless the Dutch…and their quintilingualism (Hostel Guy spoke impeccable English), and their progressive ways! “Anything we want”…on a Sunday no less, how civilized. We made our way into Amsterdam’s world-famous “Rosse Burt” seeking medical salvation.
The unabashed display of prostitution and open accessibility of soft drugs made me forget – momentarily – that I was dying of an unnamed illness. For two parochial lads from the repressive Social Credit province of British Columbia, seeing bars open – and serving alcohol – on a Sunday was perhaps even more of a revelation to the permissive wonderland of vice that the Dutch had created. I knew I was going to like it here – if I survived my plague.
The bar looked seedy and non-descript. An open doorway into darkness with early 70’s era rock pounding from within. As we attempted to pass, a half dozen smallish, brown-skinned young Moluccan* males – some with knives hanging from their belts – exited the bar and surrounded us in a circle. “‘Ey man, where you boys be goin?”, “You got no need to be runnin’ off…why don’ choo c’mon into da bar an buy us a drink man”
Parochial or otherwise, Keith and I both knew what it meant to be surrounded by a slightly intimidating pack of males. This kind of threat plays out in schoolyards around the world and is not an uncommon experience of young males everywhere – the knives were an unfamiliar twist. “My friend is sick and needs to see a doctor” said Keith – going for the sympathy play. Unconvinced, our “new best drinking buddies” shuffled a bit and looked slyly at each other, without any sign of backing down. Realizing that they needed further convincing, and in one momentarily clever strategic move, I lifted my t-shirt up to my chest to expose my torso covered in bright red spots.
“Whoa man, you gots da mizzles” said the ringleader, now with a tone of fear and dread. He and his cronies had all immediately taken about 5 steps backwards when they saw me covered with an apparent communicable illness. “You gonna need a doctor…go dat way” he pointed further down the street, as he and his mates slunk back into the bar – defeated by mizzles.
Feeling relieved by this narrow escape, we carried on with our medical mission of mercy. “How’re you feeling man?”, asked Keith, “Shitty”, I replied, “I think we’ve strayed from the recommended sites of the Official Tourist Guide…are we almost there?”, “I think so, according to Hostel Guys instructions it’s just a bit further up Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal …c’mon”
The doctor’s office was on the second floor of a 3 storey brick and stone walk up. Down a poorly lit hallway, the wooden door with the frosted pane read: Dr.Willem de Ridder Room 216. I knocked. A gravely male voice said, “Kom Binnen”. Inside the room, sitting behind a wooden office desk with a cigarette in his mouth, sat the Doctor, languidly petting the head of a Red Setter. The room was stale with cigarette smoke and on the desk sat an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Between cigarettes and strokes of his faithful pets head, the doctor explored my throat and infected torso with his nicotine stained fingers. “ I sink you haff an infection”, he said, “I vill give you some pills – antibiotica – which vill clear up your problem in a few days”. Being the trusting sort: of older, more experienced women; of strangers on a train; of the medical acumen of stewardesses; and of Doctors in Red Light Districts…on a Sunday – I took the pills.
Later that night, back at the Youth Hostel, I lay in my bunk, wrapped in my sleeping bag, shivering, shaking, and bathed in sweat from fever and mild delirium. The red spots had now spread to my groin, upper arms and back. The first day of my overseas adventure had taken some unexpected twists.
It would be a few years before I made the connection between my pharmaceutical overdose – too many drugs in too short a time – and my “mystery illness”, longer still before I understood the political plight of young Moluccan* men in the Netherlands. Despite my near-death pharmaceutical misadventure, we got lucky on this day and may have accidentally been saved by ‘da mizzles’…more reliable street smarts would definitely be required to get us safely through the rest of this trip.
*(The Moluccans are a people from the Maluku Islands, an archipelago in Eastern Indonesia. When Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in 1950, The Republic of Maluku tried to secede, supported by the Netherlands. When the movement was defeated, 12,000 Moluccans were transported to Holland where “They were then discharged on arrival, not allowed to work, given pocket money and ‘temporarily’ housed in camps.”. Because “the Dutch government, never made any effort to help the Moluccans establish their Republik”, this marginalization “radicalised young Moluccans during the ’70s in the Netherlands, including a train hijacking in 1975, taking hostages at De Punt in Groningen and at a school in Bovensmilde.“