Dawn broke and I struggled to open my eyes. Peering out the window, I sulked at the gray and cloudy sky that fell like a heavy blanket. It felt like another bad start to the day. After 12 hours on the overnight train from Riva San Vitale, my body was quickly fading. I soon learned a valuable lesson – a sleeperette does not mean sleep. Oh, and 33 Euros is way overpriced for a hot, smelly, and crammed seat within a claustrophobic cabin for six people. More like six small children. With less than four hours of on and off sleep, I was anxious and fully ready (or so I thought) for the adventures ahead.
Nine o’clock in the morning finally came and it was time to debark at Amsterdam Central Station. Stepping of the train felt like being released from shackles. I was free to move and breathe again. For about thirty minutes we walked around the large, crowded train station trying to find Saskia – Not for Sale’s European Coordinator. Not For Sale is a nonprofit organization that works to fight human trafficking around the world. My group had previously contacted them in order to learn more about our research topic – human sex trafficking. After lots of looking for a woman I had never seen before, she finally found us. Being only 22 herself, I guess she could tell the lost and confused look of a group of American students.
Quickly we were off and about the streets of Amsterdam. Like a typical tourist, I continued to turn my head in circles trying to take in the new smells and sights. Yet it seemed so much like home – McDonalds and English-speaking people everywhere. From the train station we took a left towards the Red Light District. Soon I found myself among Dutch-style shops and ornate, yet simplistic bridges above the canals. Within ten minutes, we had arrived at Not For Sale’s office, which they rented two days a week from a local church. It was an apartment style-building with opened shutters and flowers in the windowsill that were inviting to guests. Being a great hostess, Saskia made us some hot tea, which was rather soothing after a long and tiring train ride. We settled into the comfortable, leather couches that molded to my body. I was settled in and ready to hear all about Saskia’s story and work with human trafficking.
While talking to Saskia, I happened to glance out the bay window behind me. Immediately, my eyes drew towards the large, glass window of a shop across the street. I felt my eyes begin to bulge out of my head as my body began to cringe. I was UNCOMFORTABLE!
She is a woman
She is like me
Yet she stands there like an object
Ready to be sold
As if a price tag can represent her worth
She stands there in shiny, gold lingerie
Showing off her curves and dark skin
Seducing men that walk by
Trying her best to lure them in
Doesn’t she know she is worth more?
The rest of the meeting I could hardly focus. I saw the red curtain close as the buyer walked in. A curtain stained with images that should never be seen. Like a permanent scarlet letter that feels no shame. My heart struggled and I began to feel nauseous. I may not have eaten much that day but I was no longer hungry. Something within me was turning and churning, as if my body was eating itself away. Fueled with disgust, I didn’t know how much more I can take.
Let my people go!
Part of me wanted to break through the glass and save the women from a life of pimps and sex. To free them of the bondage and torture. But I can’t, and it hurts! I wish I could solve all their emotional, mental, and physical problems. I wish I could provide them with money to sustain themselves and their family. I wish I could end it all. But is it possible? I cannot help but think that I am just another tourist. Just another observer. Just a 19-year-old girl that is clueless to reality.
Later that evening after touring around the city, I found myself in the hostel mentally and physically drained. I did not care that the hostel was small, cramped, and not well maintained as I looked at the wallpaper peeling off the walls. Or that I had to walk up four sets of narrow, tight, spiraled stairs with my suitcase. Grateful to have access to free internet, I sat down on the bottom bunk to do some emails when Wes stumbled upon a video posted on Facebook from the Passion concert about human trafficking. As I watched, I was empowered to continue the work set out for me. Those 27 million people could use my help.
Most of Friday was a blur because I was still stunned by the sights from the previous day. Night came quickly and it was time to meet Saskia for a tour of Amsterdam’s red-light district, De Wallen. I figured I knew what I was in for and braced myself.
I was wrong again.
Smells and sights so unfamiliar – so discomforting. The musk of marijuana hung over the streets, and I gasped for air. But soon I found myself struggling to breathe, as if an elephant had stepped on my chest. This time not from the marijuana, but from horrifying sights. Streets and streets of windows with shining, bright, red lights above them. Women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities almost naked standing in the windows. Their bodies on display for the whole world. Breasts (many of them enlarged) are hanging out of bra tops while a thong barley covers their bottom. As they dance around and tease, my heart breaks. Yet they continue doing anything to bring in the next buck.
Behind the window and curtain lie a chair and bed, and even props for some. Chains and handcuffs – they are all part of the act. My eyes were burning and I literally couldn’t look any longer.
It is more than an act. It is a life.
Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore, we walked down another alley of red lit windows. I am DISGUSTED. More than fifty men lurked around like dogs with their mouths open and drooling as they searched for their next buy. How repulsive! These women are not toys. They are human beings with hearts, heads, and souls and deserve to be treated that way. Their bodies are precious. Yet, these men were okay with defiling their bodies at a price less than 50 euros – not that any price is acceptable. What ever happened to the sacredness of the body?
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[d] is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
As I continued to look around, I began to realize the problem is larger than prostitution or human trafficking. There is an issue and break within the society of Amsterdam. This entire part of the city is dedicated to fleshly lust and desires. Located along one of the many canals, the area is brightly lit from advertisement and building signs. Yet part of me wishes I could not read the signs. Shops that sell ever type of sex toy and dvd. Theaters that feature strip tease shows. And people fill the streets to see and buy these things. Single, married, man, woman. They all go.
And it was soon my turn to go, but to go back to the hostel. The entire tram ride back I sat with a blank face – puzzled, confused, and disgusted. Everything was becoming too real. After a fifteen minute ride, I walked to my room like a zombie and lied in bed for the next hour in cycles of contemplating and crying.
What can I do?
Nothing is not an option!
This is an issue and I am going to do something about it!
Now I am beginning my search to find where I fit into helping these women escape the dangerous and unethical life of being trafficked. They are women like me and I must find a way to help set them free. I constantly find myself comparing these women to the tulips that draw tourists to Amsterdam. Not because they should be an attraction, but because they are beautiful and deserve respect. There can be a brighter future for them.
My life will forever be changed by my visit to Amsterdam. I will not be the same. I am starting to develop a new set of lenses by which I view life. I am starting to understand my role within a global perspective.