Smith / HEART OF DANKNESS
The Paradiso shifted in the water and cut its engine as it swung into the Brouwersgracht canal. The windows and roof of the boat were glass, making it look like a floating greenhouse, and tourists sat planted in rows, like some kind of sentient flora, taking in the sights of Amsterdam on a crisp November afternoon.
The static-spiked voice of a prerecorded tour guide rumbled from speakers inside the boat, a multilingual travelogue chock-full of facts and delivered with all the enthusiasm of an airport security announcement. The passengers followed the narrator, craning their necks in unison, perfectly synchronized sightseers.
I sat on a bench overlooking the water and watched the passengers blink up at the architecture behind me. The buildings alongside the canal slouched, leaning against each other for support like drunk friends, posing for the tourists who raised their cell phones and digital cameras, concentrating their gazes on the tiny images in their hands, oblivious to the life-sized versions that stood in front of them. From their awestruck and excited expressions I could tell that this was the site of something historical. Something momentous must have happened here.
The Paradiso revved its engine and, with a sputter and burbling surge, continued down the canal. The sound of the boat’s motor faded and the sound of Amsterdam—the chime of a bicycle’s bell, the squeal of children playing, the clang and rumble of a tram—replaced it.
The Paradiso’s propellor had churned the Brouwersgracht, leaving a wake that bounced off the sides of the canal and caused the water to ripple and refract, the surface reflecting the fading afternoon sun, turning slate, then blue, then violet, and then a color I’d never seen before, a color you can’t find on any color wheel. It flickered and flashed along the canal like a special effect from a 3-D movie. It was breathtaking—the kind of blue Pantone would kill for.
It was my first trip to Amsterdam. I’d come to check out the annual High Times Cannabis Cup, to do some last minute fact-checking on a project, and to chronicle the experience for the Los Angeles Times. I wanted to experience the coffeeshops, to see what legal cannabis consumption might look like, and maybe go to the Van Gogh Museum and eat some pickled herring or pannenkoeken. But the real reason—the reason behind the other reasons—was to sample what was purported to be the best marijuana in the world.
I was not disappointed.
It was nothing like the Kansas dirt weed I’d smoked in high school. Back then we’d pile into Mark Farmer’s bedroom after class, light up a doobie, and choke on its harsh smoke, getting as high from oxygen deprivation as from the scarce tetrahydrocannabinol in the crumbly leaves. We’d pass the shoddily constructed joint around—as seeds exploded inches from our faces—while we discussed the important teenage topics of the day: girls, motorcycles, girls and their breasts, electric guitars, what certain girls would look like naked, and the astonishing ass-kicking abilities of Bruce Lee.
The all-important incense would be lit—to cover the smell of the dirt weed—while we settled into a languid stupor, the faint taste of strawberry-flavored rolling papers on our lips, and let the power chords of some stoner epic like the Who’s Quadrophenia or the insistent cowbell and corpulent lead guitar of Leslie West on Mountain’s Nantucket Sleighride wash over us as we sipped Dr Pepper and stared at black-light posters of topless faeries posing in a psychedelic garden and Spanish galleons at sea.
A half hour before I watched the Paradiso putter up the canal, I’d sat in a sleek, modern coffeeshop called De Dampkring on Haarlemmerstraat in Amsterdam’s city center. Seven German skinheads sat across from me, lined up along a banquette as if they were about to watch a soccer match. They were taking turns doing rips—inhaling hits of marijuana—from a large glass bong. The pot had energized them; they bounced off each other like hipster Oompa-Loompas, all playful punches and fake kung fu, brimming with testosterone, their faces plastered with oversized grins. They were distinctly nonthreatening skinheads, too goofy to be soccer hooligans or Nazi sympathizers, the shaved heads more a fashion statement—the look that goes with a hoodie sweatshirt, jeans, and logo Ts.
Next to me a stylish French couple snuggled and shared a nugget of hashish while two giggling Japanese girls in Tesla-high platforms and short skirts tromped downstairs to the bar for another round of bright orange Fantas.
The coffeeshop was festive, relaxed, like it was some cool person’s private party and everyone was a VIP. As the good vibrations rolled around me, I sat at my table, sipped a cappuccino, and struggled to roll a joint. Intellectually I understood the technique of rolling. I ground the weed to a uniform size; I creased the paper and filled it with the recommended amount. I even took the little piece of thin cardboard and rolled it into a tight circle to act as the filter end. But when it came to the gentle massage, the all-important caressing of the paper in my fingers, rolling it back and forth to even out the bud and make a nice tight cylinder, I might as well have had lobster claws for hands.
The skinheads noticed my struggles and offered me the bong. I politely declined. Earlier, when I had gone down to the bar, I’d watched the waitress scrubbing out the clear glass tube with a toilet brush.
Eventually I crafted a ramshackle fatty and got it lit. I was smoking a cross between a Congolese sativa and a strain called Super Silver Haze, a hybrid named John Sinclair, after the former manager of Detroit punk rock pioneers the MC5. Smelling of sweet pine and tropical florals, this strain was De Dampkring’s entry to the 2009 High Times Cannabis Cup, the premier marijuana-tasting competition on the planet.
What the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles is for wine, the Cannabis Cup is for weed: a blind tasting to determine the best of the best. Sponsored by High Times magazine, it’s the Super Bowl of cannabis, the Mardi Gras of marijuana, the stoner equivalent of the Olympic Games for the botanists, growers, seed companies, and coffeeshops who compete. It’s a harvest festival, a weeklong bacchanal, a trade show, and a deadly serious competition all rolled into one. Cannabis connoisseurs, marijuana industry professionals, and people who just like to party, all descend on Amsterdam to sample the entries. Most of them come from the United States, Canada, and various parts of Europe, but I’ve met people from as far away as Africa, Japan, and Brazil at the Cup. It is, truly, a global event.
While just being entered in the Cannabis Cup is a big deal for a lot of competitors, emerging victorious is even more valuable—just like winning a gold medal is for a vintage of wine. The competition ultimately determines the market value of the seeds and, make no mistake, for the botanists and seed companies who create these new strains, a Cup winner is potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.
My attempt at a joint collapsed like a badly wrapped burrito, but I had smoked enough of it. An anime-flavored techno track began galumphing out of the sound system—a tuba riff played under a glockenspiel melody with vibraslap punctuation—and the seven German skinheads became even more animated, clowning with one another in a kind of pixilated slow motion. I smiled. I wasn’t stoned—I didn’t feel like my ass was vacuum-sealed to my seat. I felt uplifted. I was energized, optimistic. In fact, I felt like taking a stroll.
Which is how I ended up alongside the Brouwersgracht canal, watching extraterrestrial colors spark and flare across the water.
As the Paradiso’s wake settled and the light show on the canal began to fade, a cartoon thought bubble popped up over my head, another special effect, as if epiphanies came with a bonus track. I looked up to see what I was thinking.
Set in Comic Sans and floating above me in the crisp November air were the words “This shit is dank!”
I had no idea what that meant.
Excerpted from Heart of Dankness by Mark Haskell Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Haskell Smith. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.