Separating Travelers and Observers: How Amsterdam Changed My Perspective on Life

 Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2011. Photo by Shannen Garza.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2011. Photo by Shannen Garza.

It was totally awkward. I was staring right into her face, and she was scantily clad, surrounded by a window lined with red neon lighting. Do I look her in the eye? How does this work? I wanted to spend more time examining, but it's not exactly polite. Even more, this situation was a photographer's worst nightmare. I've always wanted to capture everything; I just have to do it, it's engrained in me. However, if I'd taken a photo at this moment, I'm certain I would have been in danger of a beer bottle being thrown at my head. And so there I was, observing this extremely controversial scene, and I could do nothing but etch it into my memory, and I can never share that image again unless an individual decides to go to The Redlight District in Amsterdam and observe it for themselves.

Now, before things get even more awkward, I must state that I'm a graduate student of Cross-Cultural Studies, and I've spent many hours researching human trafficking and advocating it's prevention, so being in The Redlight District was not so much as an enjoyable experience, but something that I felt I needed to see and try to understand in regards to what it meant both for individuals native to Amsterdam, as well as those who had immigrated and become a part of such an extremely controversial lifestyle. However, I must leave "controversial" open to interpretation, because in reality, the Dutch did not seem to find the existence of The Redlight District very controversial at all. It is this dichotomy of traveling experiences that I actually want to focus on, as I had two choices: I could become an observer and look at "those crazy Dutch people" and "those crazy things that they do" in "that country over there," or I could become a traveler and immerse myself in my surroundings to try to understand what was happening and what it meant to me in my experience as a human being.

Now, this happens to be an extreme case of reasoning. I could have easily decided to ask why the Dutch choose to eat their french fries with mayonnaise, or why they possess such a business-focused culture, but talking about The Redlight District is so much more meaningful and causes us to look at contrasts in lifestyle or perspective. For most, rather than allowing other cultures to change our perspectives of the world, we leave our country and we observe. However, I believe that if we choose to stop being observers we will not only benefit more from travel, we will grow from it. I think going abroad should be about more than viewing other people like scientific specimens and being entertained by our obvious differences, it's about truly appreciating the many ways of life that exist. We return home unchanged instead of becoming immersed because it is easier to separate ourselves from others than it is to acknowledge the complexity of humanity and try to understand it in a deeper fashion.

So, what does it all mean, you might be asking? Perhaps that is something that I am still trying to figure out. It's been two and a half years since I walked the streets of Amsterdam, but I can say that it did change something inside of me. I can also say hearing about individuals that live differently from Americans on television is much less effective than experiencing it in person, and that I hope to continue to expose myself to new cultural perspectives for the rest of my life. Some things in this world are beautiful, some are ugly, some are shocking, some are thrilling, and I need to see it all or I will simply experience a one-dimensional view of this world. For me, Amsterdam is where this epiphany occurred, but perhaps it could be elsewhere for others. Wherever it may be, it must happen outside of the comfort of your home. The next time you're abroad, don't divide yourself and "the others," and remember that something valuable can be learned from the way individuals live across all borders. You just have to stop observing and start traveling.

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