Java Island: a True Story of (idiot) Tourists

If this was an exodus, then Tim Hayden was our Moses. In the manner of exodus the journey was turning out longer than expected, but although the promised land was not yet in sight, we held the faith and put our collars up against the wind.

‘Are we close?’

Tim didn’t look at the map but angled his face towards the sky, as if he might be checking our location against the position of the sun in a display of rugged outdoorsmanship, or receiving data from satellite navigation or possibly awaiting a message from god.

Tim’s a well-built guy, with the kind of thoughtful air and level tone that inspires confidence; it had been pure chance that the woman behind the counter of the hostel had passed the map to him rather than to me or Sam but, of the three of us, he was probably the one most likely to fall into the leadership role.

‘We’re getting closer,’ he said.

We stopped to roll cigarettes and stood together on a bridge, Sam and I looking down into the sluggish water below, Tim glancing around like someone sizing up the place’s potential for encampment. This far from the centre, Amsterdam had lost much of its charm, modern utilitarian suburbs replacing the ancient town houses that lean friendly towards the street, average, workaday Dutch citizens replacing the freaks and thieves and hookers.

We had been walking for about an hour since leaving our hostel that morning and hadn’t yet got anywhere worth being, but Tim’s confidence seemed firm and, in the absence of any better suggestions, Sam and I were resigned to follow him away from familiar ground and into uncharted territory.

It had occurred to us the night before, as we shared two microwave meals between the three of us, that we had not budgeted well for the trip. I was largely to blame for this, having assured the others, on the basis of my one previous trip to Amsterdam, that I would be able to track down a cheap place to stay by booking last-minute. I had once been able to upgrade to the first class compartment of a TGV Europe train by booking on the day, and it had become my habit of thought, against all subsequent evidence, to assume that anything booked last-minute would end up cheaper. On this basis I waited until the three of us were already in Amsterdam to find a hostel, my friends too much taken in by my brazen assurance to challenge the idea. But now that the ‘Flying Pig Uptown’ had most of our money we were having to adapt to a fiscal limitation, discreetly refilling our glasses from shop-bought beer cans and hopping on the back of moving trams to avoid the fare. Our biggest concern was recreation; we might be able to do the week on minimal food, and survive the odd miscalculated lunge towards the number 26 to Schipstikplatz, but if we weren’t going to have any fun, then we might as well have stayed in England.

Tim pinched his cigarette between thumb and middle finger and flicked, sending the butt spiralling over our heads and into the water below. Turning his back on us he unfolded the map, tapping it and nodding. Sam and I looked at each other and, dropping our cigarettes over the wall, joined him.

‘We’re about here,’ he said, indicating roughly three square miles of terrain, ‘so we need to head north-east for maybe another half hour, an hour at most. Definitely no more than an hour and a half.’ He pushed his fringe out of his eyes. ‘It’s going to be great.’

He set off and we followed after, both wondering if it was time for us to take a closer look at the map. Even the Israelites had their occasional doubts.

Our destination, far out from the usual tourist hotspots and enigmatically labelled ‘Java Island’ did not feature prominently on the map, edging off into the far right corner, half the island hanging off like depictions of America in medieval maps of the world. Unlike the cramped city centre, which was adorned with symbols representing restaurants, nightclubs and museums, the visible section of Java island had only one icon, a red trident over a green circle, repeated on every street.

The day remained cool, the broad Dutch sky scowling grey, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm so much as it increased our investment in the absurd promise that Java Island held. Over the previous few days we had entered several famous “coffee shops” and brought ourselves to various degrees of stupefaction with the controversial product they sold there. It was these exotic locations that had brought us to Amsterdam rather than any of the other famous European cities we might have visited. Like many twenty year old boys we were fans of cannabis and semi-regular users back in the UK, so the novelty of being able to smoke it openly was not lost on us, and we had a great many conversations, or possibly the same conversation a great many times, about the taboo that existed in our own country. It didn’t occur to us immediately that after the novelty wore off, smoking dope in The Netherlands would not differ widely from smoking it in our parent’s garages, so getting high was destined to be the touchstone for the trip, not just a single aspect of the time spent there but the logical accompaniment to every other activity. We got high to go to museums, to visit places of historical interest, to walk around the canals; naturally enough, when our financial situation became apparent to us, our chief concern was the continued consumption of world standard dope in comfortable, interesting surroundings, and our prerogative, expounded in the time-honoured vocabulary of the tourist  was to visit only the most ‘genuine’ and ‘traditional’ locations, experiencing the ‘real Amsterdam coffee shops’. There is a kind of tourist who identifies themself as a ‘traveller’, and who is forever engaged in a sort of existential quest for realness in the places they visit, anticipating a location which, though necesarily predicated on perfect continuity is nonetheless welcoming to the tourist, but crucially, not to tourism in general. It’s a big ask, and the search has driven more than a few backpackers to cynicism. Worse is the dilemma of those who do find what they are looking for, because it is too often torn away from them by some unforseen factor, an incongruous Irish Pub, a keen expatriate community, or heaven forbid, a McDonald’s.

Ours was not so lofty an ambition, but as we walked a grand theory of Java Island was being formed.

‘If there’s a coffee shop on every street,’ Sam asked, ‘how do they do enough business to stay open?’

Tim frowned. ‘They must be small,’ he said, ‘so their costs will be low. The rent will be next to nothing this far out. And maybe the other half of the island- the half that’s not on the map- is full of people, so there’s lots of business nearby.’

We all agreed with this obvious wisdom.

After another half hour of walking I had a sudden inspiration. ‘Doesn’t the word “Java”,’ I asked, ‘have something to do with coffee?’

‘I think so,’ said Sam. ‘What’s your point?’

‘Well, Java Island, has lots of coffee shops. Could this be where that name came from?’

We arrived at the bank of the river Amstel and began to cross the bridge, walking in profile along a narrow pedestrian footpath.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Sam eventually, raising his voice over the traffic noise, ‘I’m pretty sure the Java Island you’re thinking of is in Indonesia or someplace.’

‘Then perhaps it’s the other way around,’ I said looking back over my shoulder. ‘Perhaps they named this island that because of the number of coffee shops they have.’

We thought this was almost certainly the case and exited the bridge footpath, Tim spreading the map over a bin.

‘I thought,’ he began ponderously, ‘that we were crossing Dijkbracht.’ He pointed it out. ‘But the bridge we crossed was too long for that.’

‘So where are we?’ I asked.

He peered at he map, glancing occasionally at the small area of apartment buildings into which we had emerged.

‘Well, I guess that must have been… Jan Schaeferburg then.’ He stood and folded the map away, looking this way and that.

‘So, what does it mean?’ I asked, ‘Are we close?’

He raised a speculative eyebrow. ‘We’re here’

The three of us looked around. If this was a hub of urban cannabis culture it was hiding it remarkably well. At first glance the various apartment buildings that seemed to constitute the majority of the island were individual and quirky, but, looking further down the length of the island it became obvious that there was a repeated pattern of the same five or six designs.

‘Well,’ ventured Sam, ‘if this is the place let’s have a look around. Maybe there’s something further in.’

Walking a few paces it became clear that there was nothing further in the direction we were headed; the island, it transpired, was only about 100 feet across, apartment buildings shore to shore.

‘The map said there was a coffee shop on every street,’ said Tim. ‘You both saw it.’

We stood for a moment, each of us silently reaching for our tobacco pouches. The journey had at this point taken somewhere around three hours and it was dawning on me what it might mean to have to turn back now, without having achieved anything, and walk back another three hours.

‘Well maybe we need to head that way.’ I pointed down the length of the island. ‘It’s not deep but it’s quite long. Could be that what we’re looking for is that way.’

They turned and followed my finger. The same five or six apartment buildings repeated as far as we could see, without a single person in sight. They frowned over their cigarettes. Sam looked out towards the river, while Tim crumpled the map unconsciouly in his spare hand.

I binned my cigarette and left them both where they were standing. The skinny island was crossed by regular canals with apartment buildings on either side and I walked until I got to the middle, where there was a grassy area with some neat benches and a single lonely swing. I turned back and met the others walking my way.

‘No use,’ I said, ‘It’s the same that side as well.’

Tim hissed though his teeth.

‘I don’t get it,’ he muttered, brandishing the map. ‘There should be a coffee shop right there, right bloody there.’

Sam and I looked at the forlorn little bridge he was pointing towards.

Sam looked at us. ‘You don’t suppose that maybe there is one there? That it’s in one of the apartment buildings or something?’

‘I don’t see anything,’ I said, craning my neck. ‘Do you want to go and knock?’

He looked away.

I asked Tim if I could see the map. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously but held it out to me, standing away as I unfolded it.

I followed our path from the south, our hostel on Vondelpark, and along the circuitous route we had wound through the city. I only had a hazy idea of where we had been for most of the afternoon but I could track our recent progress from a nearby museum shaped like an old wooden ship and the very long bridge that had finally brought us here. There was no question that we were on Java Island; it was the end of the line and there was nowhere after here. I tried to pinpoint exactly where we were standing, just this side of the grassy area, the last possible place on the map, the very uppermost right-hand corner. I looked in the key for the symbol we had been following around the city for the entire trip, the little trident on the little circle. Only…

‘Tim?’ I tried to keep my voice as conciliatory as possible as I held the map out for him to see.

‘This symbol here, the green trident on the red circle? That means a coffee shop.’

He nodded vigorously.

‘And this other symbol, the one where we are now: the red  trident on the green circle? That means “interesting bridge”.’

This is a fictionalised version of a real event. Most of it is true, the largest change being that it was at least as much the authors fault as it was Tim’s. 

Remember kids: doing drugs doesn’t make you cool. It just makes people think you’re cool. Which is actually pretty cool. 

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