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.

9 thoughts on “Amsterdam’s Tulips: more than flowers

  1. Karli, I am so glad you got to go on this adventure. I’m sorry that you had to see the ugly side that goes on in so many countries around the world, but you are determined enough to take that experience and use it to help others, which is wonderful! You have always had a huge heart and are extremely smart, let these months help to change your outlook on life and how you live, and fuel your passion to change the world. You can, one person at a time! Stay safe, love you!

  2. I was Skyping a friend tonight and telling her about the whole experience and realized just how much I had been affected emotionally. What really surprised me though wasn’t the impact of the District, as I feel like we’ve talked enough about that to understand how important that experience was, but how much the Anne Frank House moved me. I was moved to tears just while talking to my friend. I didn’t expect that at all. Have you felt the same, or has all of your thought been on the District (which is perfectly understandable considering how powerful it was for all of us)? I hope Interlaken’s treating you well (enjoy the slopes!).

    • Interestingly enough, I have not been thinking about the Anne Frank House that much. I think it has been pushed to the back of my mind because I was not surprised by what I saw. I knew what I was getting myself into and saw it more as a historic museum. Although, I did get emotional and started to cry while walking through the house because it was so surreal to think that she and her family were hiding in that house for their lives. I find it easy to forget about the past and just push it aside – and sadly I think that is what I have done to a large part of that experience. The more that I think about it, the more I am beginning to realize how important it is to learn from and be affected by the past in order to make changes for the present. Much of my emotions have been directed toward the District because I want to end it now. I do not want these women being another Anne Frank, who are forced into a life that they do not choose for themselves. Thanks for making me think!

  3. I am sure you have heard Thomas Gray’s quote that “ignorance is bliss” before, and learning more about sex trafficking has been a blessing and a curse. A curse because we can no longer be ignorant about such a horrible, disgusting, and devastating problem.

    But also a blessing. As American society has shown us through its nearly mute voice on this issue, America is ignorant on the world of trafficking (very generalized statement I know) and because of this ignorance, the issue of sex trafficking needs a voice! We can be that voice! We need to vividly remember those experiences, not in a lustful way, but a way that breaks our hearts each time we think about it. We need a lifelong burden for these women, because not too many other people currently seem to! I know some of these women are holding onto the hope that someday they will be able to get out of this wicked industry, and our voices can slowly help make that a reality for them, and hopefully prevent this way of life for future generations of women.

    • Austin – I completely agree with ignorance being bliss (but maybe that’s the problem). Part of me originally wished that I wouldn’t have taken on this topic, but I now would not change that experience for anything. Ignorance just makes things easier on us, rather than facing up and dealing with the tough situations. I think that is a huge issue with our society and our world. We know there are problems like human trafficking out there, but we are too lazy and selfish to do anything about it. Why would I compromise my stability and emotions for others? is often the mentality. Am I just too cynical of society or do you think that there is a problem with liking ignorance?

    • Without a doubt in my mind that is a huge problem in American society. However, I think it is also important to point out that there are SOOOOO many more issues that we really should not be ignorant about today, than in past generations. This is because of the bittersweet taste of globalization. This communication network that has almost covered the entire world in WiFi, has also allowed US citizens to help “free Libya”, it has brought attention and food aid to the Horn of Africa during this great famine, and it has allowed the US to help with worldwide natural disaster responses almost immediately, but it has also allowed us to no longer justify ignorance. So I do think this is a problem with society liking ignorance, but with as many urgent issues that are available for people to get involved in, it is hard to say that it is ALL the public’s fault. With as much access to worldwide information as there is, we just have to find someway to set this issue apart from the rest. That, in my opinion, is how we have to react to this “problem”. What are your thoughts?

    • I think you hit the issue on the head. We live in an information overload society, and our brains cannot process it all. We hear thousands if not millions of news stories a year, and many of them are quickly forgotten. I think it is possible to care and sympathize about most of the issues in the world, but we have to find somewhere to invest our efforts and time. This is the hard part for me in my life – I want to solve all the world’s problems. Reality tells me that you have to find somewhere to plant yourself if you want to make a difference. I think our challenge is going to be finding those people that not only sympathize but that have the desire and drive to make a change. We have to more than care; we have to act.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Karli. I love the passion you have for this topic and can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be there. Just reading this made me cringe in disgust.

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