Amsterdam’s Tulips: more than flowers

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
But why?
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.

Let It Flow!

Organized Planner – that’s me!

But less than a week ago I realized that my first Spring Break travel was coming up and I had no clue where I wanted to go. Most groups had already booked flights and hotels. But not me. What was the matter with me? Ever since I arrived in Europe, one of my fellow students and friend, Wes, has been telling me to let things go and just to go with the flow. Every time I laughed at him. That’s not who I am.

Until now…

With only a few days until break, I decided to head somewhere I never considered exploring – Basel, Switzerland. Basel lies very close to the border of both Germany and France, so I was all in for seeing 3 countries in one trip. I booked a hostel that I had never heard of before and didn’t do much research on. At only CHF 16/night it was a bargain of a lifetime! (or a bad decision of a lifetime). Something about the mystery and adventure was exciting. I at least knew I had a roof over my head at night. Since I’m working my way up on the “let it flow” scale, I couldn’t bear to just find a place when I arrived in Basel. But I had no agenda other than that. I hadn’t researched Basel or what there was to do. I was going to find out when I got there.

7:45 on Thursday morning I found myself on the train to Basel – out for an adventure. After a long morning of travel, I had finally arrived. And so had the cold! Silly me was so into being adventurous that I hadn’t thought to look up the average temperature. So I found myself in snow flurries with no gloves, scarf, or hat. The adventure had begun! From the train station a few of my fellow students and myself found our way to the hostel. Not being able to check in, we wandered around on the local tram system. Which I have to take a second and say…It is amazing! The trams run all over town and stop at almost every block. When in doubt, just jump on a tram and you will eventually get there. Many times I found myself hopping on the tram to escape the cold.

Since being in Basel, I have discovered the adventure of not speaking a bit of the local language – German. Every word seems to be 18 letters long with no vowels. Hardly anything like English! But that was part of the fun.

Most of my adventures with language block has been centered around food. On the first night we went to a local restaurant by the Rhine River, which ended up being a traditional vegitarian restaurant. The place was hopping with a relaxed atmosphere much like Gillies back in Blacksburg. Not knowing what to order and with no pictures, we chose five things to order and decided to split, hoping that we would stumble on something good with five options. I ended up with some type of vegitarian curry with rice and pita. Delicous!

The next morning I found myself at Migros, the local grocery store buying some fresh made donuts and pastries – cheap and filling. For lunch we went to Tadim Kebab Haus. These kebab places are found all over just like McDonalds back in the states. Again I attempted to order some type of wrap but ended up with the notorious finger point. It was called “durum gyro” and was much like a burrito made of durum meat that was shaved off this 3 foot tall spool of meat. I still am not sure what I ate, but it was mouth watering after a long day of climbing up to the top of St. Elizabeth Cathedral. The feasting continued to dinner where we ate at a traditional Swiss fondue restaruant. On top of cheese fondue, we ate two types of rosti (hashbrown-like potatoes with meat) and raclette (melted cheese on a plate with tomatoes and other goodies on top). I was in cheese heaven!

The food coma wasn’t enough because yesterday, I went back to Migros and found myself with a fresh blueberry muffin and warm pigs-in-a-blanket style hotdog (or some other type of meat). It was a great protein-filled lunch to start off my adventures to Colmar.

I want to spend a little time talking about Colmar, France because it took my breathe away. Only an hour away from Basel and less than CHF 30 round trip, I was set on putting my French into use. Yes it was below freezing (and I still didn’t have a scarf, hat, or gloves) but the view was worth it. The Dutch and German style, colorful houses lined the strees in perfect rows. Small, family-owned restaurants and businesses were scattered everywhere. In order to escape the cold, we would run in and out of the stores. I should clarify that we is Christina, Cassidy, and myself – it was a girls day out! We got hungry and stumbled upon a creeperie we had found earlier. Only big enough to fit 15 people, the restaurant owner came up and talked to us in French. Since neither of them knew French, I was carrying the weight of our lunch. We ordered local wines, which were much better than the “vino economico” we had been ordering at the Mini Bar in Riva. A few minutes lader the owner came out with our meal. It was then that I realized she was a one man show, and she worked it well. My crepe consisted of mushrooms, chicken, and a comatizing cream sauce. Then for dessert we shared a cinnamon and sugar crepe. Needles to say, it was an unplanned adveture that I will never forget. The small-town feel and atmosphere was a great relief. Most did not speak English, and I was quite happy to know that people were not trying to speak my language in order to accomodate my needs. The French came right back and I was so pleased with myself, and even more pleased to be able to understand the conversation around me.

After the tiring and beautiful day in Colmar, we headed back to Basel and ended up more exhausted than we originally thought. So Christina and I decided to go back to Migros and pick up some food for dinner, but it was locked tighter than a prison cell. So we wandered around in the cold for a little while till we found one of the only places left open – Coop (another local grocery store). After more wandering around inside we decided to pick up a “light” dinener. We grabbed a fresh baguette, a cucumber, a bag of clementines, a block of cheese, some sliced meat, a carton of ice cream, and drinks. We got back to the hostel and realied our “light” dinner turned out to be quite filling. About an hour later I passed out, exhausted from all my previous adventures.

Today I am hanging out and resting most of the day. I woke up at 9 and decided to go out and find breakfast since the leftover clementines weren’t doing too much. However, I forgot that nothing, and I mean nothing is opened on Sunday morning. After 30 minutes on the tram with Cassidy, we finally ran into a little pastry shop where I once again reverted to the finger point. We ended up with a braided loaf of bread and a pastry each – mine was a lemon cream danish. I am refueled and ready for a day of rest. Heading to mass later tonight with Christina. But for now I am going to relax because in less than 24 hours I will be in Milan for the day until my flight to Greece on Tuesday. Excited to meet back up with the rest of my classmates/friends and see what Greece has to offer. It definitely won’t be money, but I’m sure there will be some breathtaking architecture and a riot or two or ten.

But for now just letting it flow!

Occupy Outburst…Lesson on Leadership

Last Friday presented a unique and possibly once in a lifetime experience – attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Nestled away in the Swiss Alps, Davos is the highest city within Europe at 5120 feet and is surrounded by beautiful mountains glistening with snow. The long and windy trip around the mountains made the event seem even more exclusive and special. Once I arrived in the city, I stood in shock for a second thinking “I am at the World Economic Forum.” After walking around for a few hours and exploring the city I noticed that there were thousands of black Audi cars that all looked the same – tinted windows and all. In fact, I even got a glimpse at Sean Parker, the creator of Napster.

Not only did I get to walk the streets where the top minds in the world congregate, but I got to explore the Occupy movement and talk to the opposition leaders. After an intensive conversation with some of the protesters, I began to sympathize with them and understand their position. They expressed feelings of discontent with the World Economic Forum because they believed it was an event where the rich and famous get together and make decisions for the world. They wanted every person to have a voice. The essence of democracy. However, I had to explain to them their fallacy – these leaders who meet do not make any decision for any country. They merely discuss suggestions as how to fix the current economic, cultural, and global situations. Unsatisfied with my comment, they continued to complain about the lack of public voice.

Later that night when heading to the open forum called “Reforming Capitalism”, we ran into them again. I should have suspected, considering the forum is focused around the issues of capitalism. Two hours before the forum started, they were some of the first people at the door, ready to barge in. Not knowing their intentions, a ton of police officers and officials were on standby to help regulate the crowd. As the officers opened the door I almost fell forward as I felt my body being pushed from every angle. Everything went fairly smooth as hundreds of people flowed into the forum.

However, as soon as the moderator finished introducing the panelists, the protesters began to stand up one-by-one shouting “Mic Check” as if they had a microphone. Some of the panelists let out a slight smile and laugh while much of the crowd became frustrated. After a few minutes of shouting and chaos, the occupiers began to shout things like “We want a voice.” A few more minutes of chaos ensued until the moderator tried to bring things under control. More arguing occurred until the moderator and protestors finally agreed on taking a democratic vote to see whether the forum be held in its original format or whether the occupiers got their way with a completely open forum – everyone sitting in a circle. The vote happened quickly, and almost everyone within the forum (350+ people) decided they wanted to hear from the educated panelists. At this point the occupiers became upset and one in the front row decided to start yelling remarks in a rude manner. The funny thing is one of the panelists, Maria, was an occupy leader who was allowed to voice the Occupy Movement’s opinions and views. There was no need for the insolent outbursts. They already had a voice on the stage representing them.

Needless to say that was not enough for the Occupy Movement. So one of the panelists Tomas Sedlacek, who was a reformer in his home country of Czech Republic, decided to give up his seat and allow Occupy to rotate in and out of his seat out of empathy. From this point on the debate went on without too much interruption or chaos, but I must mention my great disappointment with the Occupy Movement.

With over a dozen times to voice their opinion on how to fix the capitalism issue, all they did was complain and complain about the current system. Not one of them offered an alternative. Maria, the Occupy spokesperson, tried to defend this issue by saying “Occupy is not a political power. The aim is to get people to think for themselves.” I completely understood where she was coming from, but I believe that Occupy did not understand it is impossible for everyone to speak on the same level at once. There must be some time of order and rule within the system.

Many times Maria said “We want respect.” She wanted respect for their movement and ideas, yet the Occupy Movement during the session was anything but respectful. The numerous, rude outbursts were uncouth and out of place. The consensus was people wanted to hear from the professionals who were well educated on the issue. However, the Occupy Movement did not want this sort of democracy since it impeded their movement. They wanted a dictatorship where their group got to win over the majority.

I have been thinking this past week about the implications of the poor leadership of the Occupy Movement. Last week we studied the many theories of leadership and one that jumped out at me was the path-goal theory. The theory hinges on leaders motivating their subordinates to accomplish designated goals. One important aspect of this theory is the emphasis of motivation on the group members. If the group members believe that they can perform a task well then they are going to be more motivated. Also, the leader makes decisions with the group in contrast to the more typical hierarchical structure. This type of leadership takes on a more supportive role, although there is some directive leadership involved. This path-goal theory describes emphasizes the importance of the group over the leader.

The same situation existed within the Occupy Movement. The protestors wanted everyone to stand on equal ground and have an equal say. Literally, they wanted the panelists to come down from their stage, get out of their chairs, and join the crowd. However, I would still be there now if we tried to all sit in a circle and have almost 400 people voice their opinions. That is just one small forum. Imagine a world run like that. It would be completely inefficient. Hence, there is a need for directive leaders who take initiative and direct the group towards the goal.

Part of the failure of the Occupy Movement was the lack of a solidified goal. Yes, they wanted to fix capitalism and stop the corrupt rich who control the system. However, like stated before, they offered no other alternative. A goal involves shooting towards something. A goal is not just complaining about the current situation. Whether the solution works or not, an idea is better than no solution at all. They cannot expect change if they are not willing to contribute to the change.

One of the other issues with their leadership was the leaders who represented the Occupy Movement. I must say that the leaders did a poor job in representing who they were. They lacked some of the skills necessary to be a leader. According to the skills approach, one can use their knowledge to accomplish a set of goals and objectives. These types of skills can be learned. The prominent lacking trait that comes to mind in this situation is inability to communicate effectively. Having a leader that can speak for the group is important, especially if the group is trying to gain the support of others. Occupy wanted to get people to jump on their bandwagon, but no one in the audience did because they did not have a solidified goal or ability to express their beliefs to others.

Finally, I want to point out the lack of authenticity within the leadership, especially Maria. She seemed like a sincere person until she began to go against her own arguments. She wanted respect for her cause, yet she and the rest of the protesters did not want to reciprocate that respect to the panel or the rest of the audience. Authentic leadership partly focuses on five characteristics of a leader: purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline, and heart. The heart and passion was definitely there, but a lack of self-discipline and commitment to values outweighed the positive characteristics.

Through this experience I have learned the importance of effective and authentic leadership. “You have to walk the walk and talk the talk.”

What is Truth?

Today in class we were asked by Dr. Heilker to answer the questions: What is the nature of truth? What is its relationship with language? in only ten minutes. Not a practical amount of time (at all), but made me think really deep really fast.

After sitting silent and pensive, wasting the first three minutes, I began to write about absolute truth versus honesty. We may all look at one object and determine it to be different colors. Color blind people may see blue as red. But which color is it? Is it just one objective color? The color blind person would honestly believe it to be red because that is what they see. Here is the difference between honesty and Truth: honesty is something that one believes in whether it can be proven or not while Truth is something that is defined and unchanging. There is one singular Truth. I speak of truth with a capital “T” because there is only one, absolute truth.

I cannot deny my faith, so I must bring it into conversation. As a Christian, I believe that God reveals those things to man that He chooses. His ultimate truth is unchanging and set from the beginning. We may not know or understand everything, but there is ultimate truth. We as fallible humans try to explain things with honesty, but often fall short. Truth is not a subjective fact that is created by man, but something much beyond our grasp and reach as humans.

Beyond a personal perspective, we discussed the three main epistemologies of truth:

1) Romantic World View where a singular Truth exists but is beyond the human sphere that can be apprehended by man. Like an asymptotic curve, we can get really close but never get there.

2) Aristotelian World View where a singular Truth exists in the physical reality of the universe and our experience of it. It is available to anyone who perceives it in the right lenses. Language is used as a transparent, unambiguous medium for communicating this Truth.

3) Social Construction Theory where only little, endless truth exist that change over time and are bound by context. It is something that human beings create and language is the base of these truths.

(Please respond if you feel obliged as I would love to start a conversation on the topic)