Why Me?

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Why Me?

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time asking “why me?”

This question has not floated around in my head due to my inability to accept responsibility or fate. It is not the result of me complaining about the circumstances that have been dealt to me, or that I have dealt myself. This question is, however, my best attempt at understanding my purpose in life.

Having developed and memorized an answer to the horrifying question every young adult, at least most of them in the United States, gets asked frequently, “what do you want to do with your life?” I long thought that I had a solid plan.

I have always left flexibility in my rehearsed response. From a young age I was taught to take opportunities, but even more importantly take initiative. My family has always been exceptionally supportive of any endeavor I have wanted to try, and thus I have always considered my self a “jack of all trades, but a king of none.” Always being the person to go headfirst into a new activity, but within a matter of time growing bored and moving on to the next “ big idea.” I have developed a skill of connecting seemingly unrelated content and phenomena and of networking people and thoughts. Over time this has led me to fully believe things happen for a reason, that people are generally good, with some exceptions, and that there is an indescribable (at least by natural means) connection between all people, places, and events that continuously grows stronger. I wholeheartedly believe people become unique individuals from a combination of their experiences, genetics, and personal choices and that they are not born into who they will be for the rest of their life.

As previously mentioned, having been taught to “be prepared” for anything the future may throw at me, I keep finding myself coming back to what is the “connection” of my experiences? How can I best serve others given my talents, desires, and personality? Why I have been so blessed to have such a supportive university, family, and friends? Why me?

These questions have led me to reflect on some of my past experiences:

I’ve been inches away from a mother dying of HIV/AIDS, laying on a straw mat in the middle of a field softly crying from the pain while her husband harvested corn and sorghum around her so he could both be with her in her final days and afford to send their three children to school in Mfwue;

I’ve walked through the Red Light districts of Amsterdam, Naples, Budapest, Stockholm, Athens, Managua, Buenos Aires, and San Jose and seen through the thin veil of happiness the women temporarily wear, into their hopeless, desperate, and devastated hearts ravished by the unfaithful desires of men;

I’ve felt the immense pressure of having to make a split-second decision while having a furious federal police officer point a loaded shotgun at our car in Mexico City while demanding a monetary bribe;

I’ve seen air pollution so thick that you could not see more than two city blocks down the road in Xian;

I’ve been feet away from a friend who was mugged at knifepoint for his camera in Granada not even knowing it was happening until it was too late;

I’ve put my hands on the rough and eroded walls of a slave castle in Elmina and whispered sincere apologies for the horrific actions of my ancestors;

I’ve carried malnourished children down dirt roads in northwestern Nicaragua to visit a doctor and then to get a hot meal to alleviate some of the pains of their swollen bellies;

I’ve marched alongside thousands of people protesting the low standards of public education in Rome, and the high levels of governmental corruption in Athens;

I’ve sweat out Malaria in a hotel room in Managua, and contracted chemical pneumonia from hazardous fumes while doing research in unsafe conditions in Ghana;

I’ve witnessed the street crime of Europe after almost being kidnapped by the Nigerian Mafia while walking the streets of one of London’s worst neighborhoods early in the morning;

I’ve grieved the lost of a great friend, at the young age of 21, who pasted away while we were traveling abroad together.

These sights and situations have shown me firsthand what despair, poverty, hunger, hopelessness, crime, death, and disease look like when they are affecting real people that I have shared meaningful conversations with, hugged and cried with, shared meals with, and people I have dreamed with about the future, and not just anonymous individuals from low-budget documentaries and the pages of books. They are real people to me! These experiences have been discouraging to say the least. I have found myself completely vulnerable and weak in many of these situations pleading with others for help I could not give myself (or others), something I had never thought I would experience. I have stayed in contact with these people, and followed the news of these places, to often find bad luck metastasizing. This often leads me to question who I am, what I am doing with my life, and what “greater cause” there is to work towards, because even with hard work and cooperation positive change does not always occur.

But I’ve also sat on the ground in the middle of a farm listening for hours to the big dreams of children as they declare their desire to be future musicians, teachers, researchers, farmers, inventors, and global change agents in rural Zambia;

I’ve celebrated Easter in Zagreb, and the unexpected win of the “Dwarfts,” the local professional soccer team, in Cape Coast;

I’ve prayed in the spectacular Haggia Sophia, while watching Christians and Muslims peacefully coexist;

I’ve made lasting eye contact with a pair of giraffes in the wilderness of central Zambia, and hand fed wild monkeys in Granada;

I’ve laughed and haggled with street vendors in the bazars of Marrakech and with black-market vendors in the hidden backrooms that fill the alleyways of Shanghai;

I’ve seen the steep and narrow steps of the highest parts of the Great Wall of China and the gloriously gagged mountains that seem to swallow everything else in site;

I’ve hitchhiked with compassionate strangers after spending almost two weeks hiking through Denver on blistered feet;

I’ve carefully inspected the ash covered ruins of Pompeii, the large stone pillars at Stonehenge, the religious artifacts in Ephesus and Corinth, the castle on top of the hill in Bellenzona, the pyramids of Teotihuacan and Tulum, and the Terracotta solders of Xian;

I’ve witnessed the passion of young Argentineans dancing the tango on a warm summer evening in La Boca;

I’ve embraced and been comforted by the pride and hospitality of the people of rural Appalachia;

I’ve been humbled by standing at the edge of the southernmost city in the world starring into the misty and quickly fading abyss;

I’ve sat on the very edge of Mt. Vesuvius in Naples and reflected on its miraculous power;

I’ve heard the roaring of a live glacier in El Calefante crackling as it moves towards open water.

And in these experiences I’ve seen Passion, Hope, Love, Compassion, Empathy, Eagerness, Synergy, Beauty, Dedication, and Cooperation; and these far out power the others! To describe the smell inside the Louve, the taste of Fufu made by local villegemen as a sign of goodwill in Ghana, the sounds of waking up to the wild birds of Costa Rica, and the feel of the bark of the “Great Sequoias” of California; are all things I have been exceptionally blessed with having experienced. I am not typing any of this to brag or boast, but to analyze and to understand.

But why me? I already draw a tremendous amount of motivation and inspiration from these and other blessings, but there has to be a deeper reason why I have been afforded these opportunities. I work hard, but there is no way I deserve them, and without the help of others I could not afford them.

I have seen people legitimately content without any material possessions besides the tattered clothes on their backs, I’ve seen hope thrive where hope should not be able to even survive, I’ve been inspired by the compassion of complete strangers, and I’ve been blessed to help create happiness for others.

The biggest change I have seen in myself since experiencing all of these things is the tremendously heavy burden my heart has taken on to do all I can to help people in as many ways as possible. I have always thought my place in life was going to be in some form of service, probably through agriculture education, but I have recently came to the realization that I can be involved in many different fields of helping people at different times in my life. This has completely changed my perception of my purpose. Currently pursing agriculture as a means of assisting communities in developing themselves has already been huge in making me into who I am, but if in the future I feel a deep urge to work with anti-sex trafficking efforts, drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation, and/or anything else, that is okay. I, nor does anyone, have to pick one thing to do for their entire lifetime unlike we are often led to believe.

I am finally completely happy with saying “I am not sure what I want to do, but whatever it is I will try my best to change the world for the better with it because I will give it my all. Right now I am focusing on agriculture education and development, but in five years it might be something completely different or exactly the same. It all just depends on opportunities and the calling of my heart.” I believe these experiences, my spectacularly supportive friends, family, are the way they are is to teach me what, how, why, when, and where I am supposed to spend my life. I don’t know the answers yet, I probably won’t until after everything is all said and done, but what is wrong with that? Why do we assume if you don’t have a concrete plan that you are set for failure?  Having a strong vision with objectives goals is much more helpful in life than having a plan. Vision allows for flexibility and changes with the times and new opportunities that are available, while a plan is rigid and frequently gets complicated at the smallest change. Keeping a vision close to your heart is critical; a plan can be a good compliment, but is not always necessary to get started. The impossible can be made possible with a combination of great people, spectacular energy, and outstanding teamwork.

The Other Side – Ghana

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     From screaming on the local professional soccer team (the Cape Coast Dwarfs) in the pouring rain, to meeting the former President of Ghana and Chairman of the African Union, to being pulled into the middle of an international agricultural trade deal, to traveling to the Elmina slave castle, Nzulezu, “the village on water” (a village built on stilts in the middle of the lake), and Kakum National Park where I had the opportunity to walk through the canopy of one of Africans oldest virgin rainforest  – this past couple of weeks have been phenomenal! 

     I must admit that I did not have the best first impression of Ghana, but it has grown on me immensely! Most of the people that I have interacted with are slightly shy (but certainly not all of them), but if an effort is made to get to know them they have almost all ended up being great people. The only bad incident that I have had since being here, as described in my last blog entry, has proven not to be the norm and after several discussions with others, I have learned that last year gold was found near by, and that man may have thought I was collecting samples from the lagoon to try and pillage Ghana’s gold for “white profit”. And after my experience at Elmina slave castle and learning more horrific details than I ever want to know about the trans-atlantic slave trade, apart of world history that still has many fresh scars around the costal areas of Africa, and hearing about how companies from across the planet still exploit many Africans on a daily basis for economic gain, I can understand why that man could have thought I was here for that reason. 

     The local food, after you figure out what each dish actually is, can be quite tasty. The internet, power, and running water have all been very reliable after the first week as well. The temperature has taken some getting used to (but I think I am even starting to be comfortable with that).

     As far as a better description of some of the events I mentioned in the first sentence:

  1. President Kufuor – Wow!! After meeting President Kufuor at The World Food Prize a couple years ago and speaking with him on several occasions during the week of the conference he told me “If you are ever in Ghana please let me know”. So, I decided to e-mail him/his office and see if by any chance he was available to meet while I was here and two days later, on a Monday, I received a phone call from his assistant saying that “The President has seen your e-mail and would love to meet up with you while you are in Ghana. He remembered you from the picture you sent and he is very excited! Would Wednesday work for you?”

    The next day I took an non-airconditioned bus from Cape Coast to Accra and spent the night. The next morning the Presidents assistant came to my hotel at about 9 A.M. and spent about three hours with me speaking about everything from his favorite Ghanian football (soccer) team, to current Ghanaian politics, to funny stories from some of his past jobs working at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington D.C.

    At one point he received a phone call and hurriedly ran outside to take the call. I did not think much of the event, knowing how busy of a man he must be. However, a couple minutes later he came back in with another man following him. The President’s assistance then informed me that when he realized I was coming he had set up a surprise for me since he knew of my passion for agriculture and agricultural development. He then introduced the man standing behind him as Abraham Odoom, the former Deputy Minister of Agriculture for the country of Ghana. He also informed me that Abraham was in charge of the development of several of the Cocoa (Chocolate) development programs that helped Ghana become the world’s largest producer of Cocoa. In just four years, Abraham helped expand the countries output from roughly 200,000 tones to well over 750,000 tones. We had some very interesting and positive conversations for about 45 minutes before he had to leave to attend to several other business matters that day.

    Then I asked the President’s assistant where the meeting would take place. We had discussed having it at the John A. Kufuor Foundation headquarters before, but he smiled and said “If it is okay with you, the President wanted to move the meeting to his personal residence.”

    Once we arrived at President Kufuor’s house and went through security (even though I was waved through), I was directed straight to the main living room in the house where I waited until our appointed meeting time. Since I had some time to spare I had the opportunity to look around at some of the awards and accolades that he received over the years. I was instantly like a kid in a candy shop! I saw the first 8oz. of oil found in Ghana (which happened during his Presidency and helped create an economic boom in the country), to many awards from the United Nations, African Union, various international human rights, environmental, and agricultural organizations, and even some of the gifts that he had been given when traveling (my favorite being his Zebra skin rug). 

    Then I heard someone coming down the steps and I slowly see President Kufuor appear. The first words he said to me were “Austin it is great to see you again! As soon as I saw your e-mail I was very excited! Although you have gained a bit of weight since the last time we met… Have you been eating too much Fufu (a traditional Ghanaian dish that is a national favorite amongst the people)?”

    President Kufuor and Myself (in the background you can see the Zebra skin rug I was talking about).

    After about 45 minutes of conversation, President Kufuor offered me a job/internship with his foundation, offered to write a letter of recommendation for me for a scholarship (without me asking him), said he would try to come to Virginia Tech as a speaker for a Feed by Seed event, asked me to consider bringing Feed by Seed to Ghana, and made me promise to stay in touch. I could not have been happier! 

    After our meeting he had one of his security guards, Sammy, drive me to the bus station. After talking for about 30 minutes we exchanged numbers and I headed back to Cape Coast, but about the time I was getting back I received both calls from Sammy and the President’s assistant to make sure I had a safe journey. 

    Note: The description of this event and how nice everyone was has been a better description of my time in Ghana than the stories from my first blog since arriving. 

  2. Nzulezu – Around 600 years ago a tribe from Mali left there homeland due to conflict and settled in western Ghana. Then, due to food insecurity, the tribe split in half. Half on the tribe stayed on land, and half built a village on stilts in the middle of the lake. Since then, the two villages have worked together to produce enough food for each other. One fishes, and the other grows crops.

    Yesterday we journeyed to this village (about 4 hours from Cape Coast). We left at 5 A.M. to avoid traffic and arrived a bit after 9. Then we rented canoes and paddled for about an hour through flooded rainforest with our guide before we arrived at the village. Currently, about 450 people live and work in the village doing various jobs. They have a church, school, several hostels, several small shops (about the size of a walkin closet), and even a few bars. 

    After touring the village we were taken back to the school where we spoke to the tribal chief’s daughter (since he was visiting the land village of the same tribe). We asked her many questions about the history of Nzulezu and what life was like living in the middle of a lake. She told us that the only motorized boat they had was only used for medical emergencies and besides that no matter who you are, you had to paddle for about an hour to get to the nearest store/small town.

    We then left and paddled all the way back to where we started (and let me tell you the paddling thing was really starting to get to me) and headed back to Cape Coast. 

    Image

    A view approaching Nzulezu by canoe

  3. Kakum National Park – At Kakum National Park we had the opportunity to explore one of the few virgin rainforest in all of West Africa. To better allow visitors to experience the whole rainforest, they have built a series of 9 huge swinging rope bridges through the canopy of part of the park. So after a long hike up the side of the mountain we were able to start our journey on the bridges where we did see several different species of birds and butterfly’s, and although elephants and other well-known African wildlife do live in the park we were told that they are rarely seen near the canopy walk because there are almost always humans there. 
    Image

    A view of the bridge and rainforest

More blogs about Elmina Slave Castle, the international agricultural trade deal, and the soccer game to come later this week! Until then, stay positive, healthy, and busy.

Ghana do some research

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Welp… Ghana has so far proven not to be full of jacked, machine gun toting children and middle-aged males who all seem angry, as seen in many American movies. Nor have I come across any deserts, elephants, deathly sick children, or even any violence at all.

However, in the first week I have tried many new foods, been asked for a bribe from a governmental official, been called “White Satan” by a group of Ghanaian men, spent almost a full day collecting research samples from a lagoon full of human feces, dead animals, and trash, spent countless hours in a non-air conditioned lab analyzing those samples, and spent one wonderful relaxing day at a local beach reading the afternoon away in a swaying hammock while sipping on fresh coconut milk.

Some of my first observations are:

  1. It is hot and humid! Even with all of the warnings from Dr. Wubah and others that told me “it will be HOT and humid!” I still managed to underestimate not only the heat, but also the humidity!  Most of my traveling experiences to warm climates have been to Central America and although it is normally humid there, it does not seem like it is nearly the same as it is here in Ghana.
  2. The food is interesting, and some of it is very tasty! I have found Ghanaian food to be much different than the food from anywhere that I have been before, but most closely relating to that of Zambia (which makes sense since both are in the Sub-Saharan). So far I have had a couple meals that have been fantastic and a couple meals that were not very good at all. Nonetheless, I am excited to explore more foods in Cape Coast and experience the real “Ghanaian cuisine”.
  3. Like many developing countries, Internet, running water, and power are unreliable. The biggest problem with this is trying to do research without the three of these things. It keeps causing problems and I just heard from some locals that starting next week they will be rationing electricity so we will only have it a maximum of 12 hours a day (with the 12 hours alternating between day and night).
  4. The people seem slightly standoffish, at least until you put the effort into talking to them. I have also been told that Cape Coast is like the “New York of Ghana” and that elsewhere people are much more friendly. However, when I smile or wave at someone walking by they seem taken off guard and even slightly suspicious. For example, the other day I waved at a little girl who was walking with her dad and he pulled her away from me and stared at me. This struck me as strange and at first really offended me. I am the type of person that is really sensitive to the perceptions of others, especially when travelling to an unfamiliar area. I find myself wondering if things like this keep happening just because I am white, or because I am associated with UCC, or if it pertains to a certain unknown political situation, or maybe even something else that is out of my control. I have heard that Ghanaians are some of the friendliest people anywhere, and I am not about to give up on that yet. With this being said, I have also had several really good experiences with people after “breaking the ice” (although with the daily temperature, one would imagine it would not be very hard to break the ice). I have made several friends that I see on a regular basis and have started sharing jokes with people that work in the same lab as I do.

***One funny story***

The following is an excerpt from my journal:

“Woah! Today has been interesting. I woke up at quarter till seven to walk over to the lab to meet Margret and the rest of the research team. Upon arriving I realized I was there before anyone else, even though I was just right on time. Margret finally showed up 45 minutes late and we headed to the lagoon.

We carried all of our equipment down to the edge of the lagoon through a small town. However, once we arrived I saw how absolutely nasty the area was because of pollution, sewage, and trash. When I started carrying things to the water I almost stepped in human feces at least half a dozen times. Then as I was carrying the last load of equipment “it” happened… I was in a rush to get out of the way of some other people and I slipped on the mud bank and used hands to catch myself. I was instantly horrified (and deservingly so)!

A few minutes later after I cleaned up the best I could we got in the small raft and went out to collect samples along the very large lagoon. It took about three hours to gather all the samples we needed. Then we went back to our starting location to “wash our samples”. 24 of the 36 samples we took had to be “washed” and sifted through a sieve and then the remains were added to plastic bottles full of formaldehyde.

We were just about to finish up this process when a young man came over and started yelling at us in Fanti (the local language . Having no clue what he was saying I turned, looked at him and smiled. I very quickly realized that he was not very happy or friendly. At about that time my research team started yelling back at him. Then about three of his friends showed up and started yelling too. The only thing I initially understood is when one of man’s friends yelled “white man you are a bad man, a very bad man, a wicked man! How dare you use our water without permission?! You are white satan!”

After they argued for a few minutes the men finally left and I asked what had happened. They told me that the men just wanted money because we were using their entrance to the lagoon to wash our samples, but they had already spoken to the local chief and paid our dues so we could do so.”

All in all, Ghana has taken some getting used to, but has been a blast so far! I have learned a lot – like how tiring it is to wash all your clothes by hand and that not all street food in developing countries will make you sick, but needless to say, I am excited for the rest of my stay!

Agriculture Buzz Word: “Water”

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What is it? 

Agua, water, H20… No matter what you call it, there is no doubting that it is essential to life on planet earth. However, sometimes there is not enough when and where we need it, and sometimes there is way too much! Currently, the midwestern United States is experiencing the worst drought in the past 50 years, while the southeastern United States is soaking up lots of rain from hurricane season. Whether you believe in global warming/cooling or not, it does seem as if the global climate is changing and that it is creating some big water problems for the global agriculture industry.

Why is it important? 

Consistent and efficient agricultural production is a must for global markets to remain stable! The USDA’s Economic Research Service is predicting the annual corn crop yields from the US to fall about 27% from the predicted yields at planting. That is roughly 4 BILLION bushel’s of corn less than what the global markets are ready for and what farmers were expecting to produce. This sharp decline of production in many different crops across the country will no doubt significantly raise food prices and put farmers into a hard spot. The current drought in “America’s breadbasket” will certainly influence international agriculture trade, global poverty/hunger, and American agricultural techniques and policies.

Now what?

There are several ways that this issue can be addressed. 1) Increased Agri-science research in drought resistant crops, more efficient irrigation techniques, and other efficiency based technologies and techniques. We need bright and innovative agriculturalist to continue to lead the way in global agriculture production. 2) Review current US and international agriculture policies to ensure that governments are working together to overcome the obstacles of drought and flooding, and to continue to focus on our overall goal of feeding the world.

 

 

Agriculture Buzz Word: “Food Security”

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What is it?

When people say “Food Security” they are not talking about locking the door to the grain silo, but the “security” that a person has the food that they need to live a healthy life. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the following: “Food security refers to a household’s physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that fulfills the dietary needs and food preferences of that household for living an active and healthy life.”

Why is it important?

Currently, worldwide about 925 million people (almost three times the entire United States population) are living in chronic hunger due to extreme poverty and up to 2 billion people lack food security on occasion due to seasonal incomes (most of the time related to farming seasons) and growing conditions according to the FAO.

This lack of nutrition can have a severe negative affect on global health!

The worst part about food insecurity is that as people become food insecure, they have less energy to invest in becoming more food secure, whether that is through increased agriculture production or other business ventures.

Think of what you would do/feel like if you did not know where your next meal was coming from? What about if your entire family did not have the food they needed to live a happy and productive life?

What can you do about it?

There are lots of organizations around the world that are attempting to increase global food security. For example, Feed by Seed (the organization that I manage) has a partnership with an organization based out of Somotillo, Nicaragua, where we help manage an 18 acre demonstration and research farm. Through these efforts we have been able to help improve agricultural productions techniques and yields, while also decreasing “hard labor” on the farmers of the region.

I would challenge you to first learn about different organizations who are fighting global hunger, and then think about what ‘you’ can do to help others be more food secure — no matter if it is in your hometown, or in Somotillo, Nicaragua.

Final Thoughts on a Semester in Switzerland…

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Four months ago, I had no idea what to expect from a newly formed Virginia Tech program  called “Presidential Global Scholars.” I can now honestly say that it far exceed my thoughts, exceptions, and dreams! It has been a semester full of wonderful professors, incredible travel, and unforgettable experiences.

There were a few rough moments and a horrific tragedy, but Hokies have a unique way of staying strong, of building community, and of turning bad circumstances into the best they can be (given the current circumstances).

One of the BIGGEST things that I learned was how to “tell my story,” without worrying too much about how it may “look” to others. Studying sex trafficking in Europe was way outside of my comfort zone! I even had several people express concern about “how it might look to be ‘studying sex trafficking,'” but I quickly realized I did not care what others MIGHT think about such a topic, because sex trafficking is something that I strongly believe HAS to be STOPPED!

In the end, I found myself having a wonderful new group of friends, a better understanding of how the world works, and a great new perspective on life. I wish the Presidential Global Scholars program the best of luck and hope to help it out in anyway possible. 🙂

Just Don’t Hurt, Forget About Helping

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Professor Elisio Macamo, from the African Studies department of Basel University, recently told me “Sometimes the best way to help people, is not to hurt them.”

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and laugh at this comment that was clearly beyond cliché. As Professor Macamo continued elaborating on this point all I could think about was that I truly had a passion for helping others and there was NOOOO way he was not going to convince me differently.

Five minutes later my entire thought structure was broken. I felt like all of my thoughts on development, humanitarian aid, and compassion for others had shifted slightly. But how? I had only met Professor Macamo a few minutes prior to our discussion, so how had I let him turn me upside-down so quickly?

He basically said something to the extent of, if you want someone to have a better life it would make sense to help them right? This is true, but only if what you are doing is actually helping them. However, a tremendous amount of people get hurt through development programs, humanitarian aid, and “compassion.” It must be something far beyond “helping people fix their problems,” if you ever actually want to solve any of the worlds problems.

So what does this mean? Every action has an reaction. It is as simple as that.  If you buy a chocolate bar, it very well could have been produced by trafficked individuals, thus incentivizing the cycle of poor labor standards to continue. If the United States gives immediate food aid to Haiti it may help in the short term, but that action can also put local agri-businesses out of business which in return increases the local poverty rate. On the other hand, if we take no stance at all, this inaction can also have serious negative consequences as well (something that I have really learned by living in Switzerland for the past four months where neutrality is key to life).

An example of how inaction on an issue can be just as damaging (if not worse) can currently be seen in Syria. No matter if you believe the US should be involved in stopping this matter or not, almost everyone agrees that a country intentionally killing its our citizens is despicable, even if it does fall under the countries right to sovereignty. So the international communities inaction has the effect of “hurting” the people of Syria by letting them to continue to die every day that we, as a planet, just sit and watch.

So what is the solution? If we really focus on “not just helping people, but just not hurting people” then they will be able to better help themselves. People are, for the most part, willing to put in the hard work to better their surroundings if they know that what they are going to do is going to “make a difference.” Of course their are exceptions (like Syria to some extent), but it is the unnecessary harm that developed societies and their people put on less developed societies that seems to causes the most harm in this natural development process whether it is directly or indirectly, intended or accidental. If we switch our focus to just not hurting these other societies or people, not out of a selfish desire to only focus on our self’s, but out of a desire to do more than just “help” or to “just fix their problems” we can all share a much better world with a higher quality of life for everyone.

The way I now see it, thanks to Professor Macamo, is that not hurting people shows more compassion and dedication than the traditional sense of “helping people.” The only way to “not hurt others” with your day-to-day life is to be informed, care about yourself, your community, and the consequences of your actions. I know that I am no longer only going to focus on helping others, but take it one step farther and focus on “not hurting others” from now on and I challenge you to do the same!

The Weight of Lies…

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For the past three weeks or so I have been listening to The Avett Brothers pretty much everyday. A song that in the past I always skipped over was “The Weight of Lies” just because it was sad and slow pace, but recently I decided to listen to it all the way through and totally fell in love with the song… The lyrics are below.

“Disappear from you hometown

Go and find the people that you know

Show them all you good parts

Leave town when bad ones start to show

Go and wed a woman

A pretty girl that you’ve never met

Make sure she knows you love her well

But don’t make any other promises

The weight of lies will bring you down

And follow you to every town

Cause nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there

So when you run make sure you run

To something and not away from

Cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere

I once heard the worse thing

A man could do is draw a hungry crowd

Tell everyone his name, pride, and confidence

But leaving out his doubt

I’m not sure I bought those words

When I was young I knew most everything

These words have never met so much to anyone

As they now mean to me

The weight of lies will bring you down

And follow you to every town

Cause nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there

So when you run make sure you run

To something and not away from

Cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you down”

This has really gotten me thinking about “The Weight of Lies” lately. I think that The Avett Brothers are really onto something with how big of a burden lies can be. We have ALL lied in our past, but how often do they turn out well (even if the only consequence is the weight on our own moral standards)? I would love to hear your thoughts about the song/lyrics/and even the band in general!

Friendship in Marrakesh

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Back in February I learned that just like the currency exchange rate, one can easily leave Morocco with much more than they went with.

On Thursday, February 8th (after sleeping on the airport floor), I left Milan-Malpensa Airport with Michael Morrison and Daniel Smalls heading for Marrakech, Morocco for our first of our two mini-spring breaks. The original plan was to go to Marrakech for two days and then move onto either Rabat or Casablanca for a night, before training to Tangier to cross the Straight of Gibraltar into Tarifa, Spain and then bus onward up to Seville in order to catch our flight back to Milan.

However, the trip did not turn out quite like the original plan (Travel Tip #1: Always be ready to be flexible when traveling internationally, especially in underdeveloped countries or regions), but it ended up still being fantastic!

After getting off of the airplane in Marrakech, I quickly realized how cold and dry the air was and that it smelled of a mixture of dust and various spices. Another near instant observation was how friendly, yet cautious everyone seemed to be when interacting with “Americans”.

After getting on the number 19 bus that took the group to the closes bus stop to the “Jamaa El-Fna” (also know as “the Fna), we headed through the utter chaos of the Fna and its weaving pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, trucks, donkeys, snake charmers, musicians, and shopping stands (at this point I found it very interesting to consistently watch Michael and Dan’s faces since it was the first developing country either of them had been to). Although I must say that for being in Africa, it was much more developed than I had expected, even though the rural outskirts of the city did seem much less developed than the Fna district.

As we walked through the crowded Fna staring at everything we passed with curiosity we noticed that the locals became curious as well. I will admit that we were probably pretty easy to pick out since we were three young, white males with English text on our clothing, carrying suitcases and backpacks through the streets turning our attention to almost everything in sight for at least a couple of seconds. We quickly learned that when the Moroccan people become curious they take that as a prime opportunity to sell something, anything! We had people trying to show us to our Riad (basically a traditional hostel) for a small fee, to sell us street-crafted food, traditional Moroccan clothing and goods, sunglasses, postcards, snakes, pictures with monkeys… They were trying ANYTHING that could possibly make them a dollar! It was a bit overwhelming at first, but easily controlled after the first hour or two in the city. The strategy that seemed to work the best was to wear sunglasses and ONLY use our peripheral vision, look slightly upset, and to walk with purpose. This worked especially well when we were in denser areas and there were weaker looking pray around (as bad as that sounds).

The streets were chaos! A narrow alleyway could at any point have hundreds of humans, motorcycles, cars, horse-drawn carriages, and various other roadblocks that had to carefully be maneuvered around to reduce the risk of being hassled by store owners or by getting hit by the irresponsible and almost always speeding motorcycles that plagued the city.

One afternoon Michael and I were walking around just exploring and found a small music shop that was owned by four brothers. As we explored the shop we knew that we had to bring Dan, our groups musician, back to the shop. So a few hours later, with Dan, we went back to the shop and once again started talking to the brothers who were extremely nice! After several minutes of looking though their shelves of drums, stringed instruments, and novelty instruments they offered to make tea for us, which we gladly accepted. We then spent the next couple hours jamming out on instruments and talking about the differences (and similarities) between Marrakesh and our hometowns. At the end of the evening Dan ended up buying a traditional Ghanaian instrument that slightly resembles a bass guitar and one of the brothers named Chafiq took us to his favorite local restaurant for dinner where we could get “real Moroccan food.”

Me, Chafiq, Dan, and his Chafiq's Brother

The Music Shop (Chafiq is between Dan and I)

This got me thinking …

We all knew Chafiq was a business man, and that by being nice to us his chances of a sell increased exponentially. However, we are now Skype friends and we have shared several e-mails full of pictures from our trip and kind regards. So at what point was this kindness his marketing strategy versus his sincere kindness/interest towards us? He had been taking English classes and said that talking to us helped him with that, but I guess this asks an even bigger question; what is friendship (I know that this question is much bigger than I can possibly answer in a couple hundred words, but it is still worth discussing)? How self-centered can friendship be, and still be a “true friend?” Even in the states this seems to be a colossal issue! So many people network for the sole purpose of self-interest, but where has the compassion of friendship gone, or did it ever leave? Is this just the nature of friendship and an acquaintance only turns into a “true friend” after the long process of developing  mutual compassion and respect for each other? That is what I am currently leaning towards, but that means that most of the time that people become friends it is because they ask “what is in it for me to become this persons friend,” and find something worth while even if the product they desire is only knowledge. In Chafiq’s case, or anyone else’s in that matter, can they be blamed? If they are just trying to earn a dollar, whether they want to be friends or not (although, in this case I honestly think he did), to support their family; Is there anything wrong with that? These thoughts, over the past few days, has really changed they way I have been interacting with people, although I am not fully confident that it should…

What are your thoughts?

Slovakian Dreams Never Realized

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Welcome to Slovakia

The other day in Bratislava, Slovakia (we went just for a day trip) Michael, Dad, and I were riding the public bus and started talking to the girl sitting beside me. We started out by asking her for a recommendation on a good restaurant near the city center. She ended up suggesting a Japanese place, after which we continued talking. After a couple of minutes of corny jokes, Dad asked her if she was a student and what she was studying. She giggled slightly.

“I am studying Japanese language” she said.

After a few more jokes someone asked her how she has decided to start studying Japanese and her answer was shocking. She said, “one day my father asked me what my plans for the day were and before I could respond he told me I was to start studying Japanese. So I did, and I have ever since.”

I could not understand this! Guessing by her age, her father probably grew up in a young post-World War 2 Czechoslovakia that was all about harsh control and “community”, but 20 years after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and almost 70 years since World War 2; how could this be? Who was to blame for this, her dad, culture, or society? What effect had this philosophy had on an entire generation, almost 70 years since it was “main stream”? What was her dreams? What would she have chosen? How many more generations will this ideology still be a major influence?

This really hit me hard because of our research project on human trafficking. Even though she was not being trafficked, her freedom to choose her life path had been taken away. Sure, it was taken by her father (who hopefully had her best interest in mind) rather than a pimp, or slave owner, but it was still not in her hands. At what point does this become a serious crime against freedom?

Later in our conversation with this young lady, she went on to say that at first she had hated Japanese, but over time she really developed a love for it.

Was this really her passion? Or was it something she had just developed a respect for over time? Is there a difference? I guess I will never know her thoughts on the issue…

I may be over thinking this particular instance, and the work on our human trafficking project may have made me overly sensitive to womens ability to make decisions for themselves, but it is something to think about! Either way, I would love to hear everyone else’s thoughts, so please post a comment with what you think about the issue.

The farmer and his plough…

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Yesterday, as part of the PGS program I was traveling through Naples, Italy and went to an ancient Roman theater on the edge of the city. There I had the opportunity to read the following poem on the main stage…

Georgics 2 (lines 513-522)

“The farmer cleaves the earth with his curved plough

This is his yearlong work, thus sustains

His homeland, thus his little grandchildren,

His herds and trusty bullocks. Never a Pause!

The seasons teem with fruits, the young of clocks,

Or sheaves of Ceres’s corn; they load the furrows

And burst and barns with produce. Then, come winter,

The olive press is busy; sleek with acorns

The pigs come home; the arbutes in the woods

And high on sunny terraces of rock

The mellow vintage ripens.” – Virgil

This was a pretty amazing moment of my day! Knowing that as a participant of this program, I was at least partially removed from my normal thoughts of agriculture production, education, and development, but that what I have been learning as part of this program is relevant to my future career and has proven to be full of wonderful experiences in general. I needed this reminder of how SPECTACULAR agriculture really is!!!

On the Red Light District…

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Before the adventure of this semester actually began, my research group and I were working hard to develop a plan to investigate Human Sex Trafficking in Europe. For several reasons, this has NOT been easy! Narrowing down our topic enough so that it is specific enough that we can actually do research has been difficult, finding past research on sex trafficking has been extremely difficult, and not letting our emotions effect our decision making has been nearly impossible. However, the rewards of our efforts are starting to pay off. We are starting to get into the loop of anti-sex trafficking contacts in Europe, we have had several extremely educational experiences, and we almost have a plan outline for the rest of the semester!

We have learned a tremendous amount about this degrading and absolutely unnecessary industry. Below is an essay I wrote about an experience I had related to this project… I would love to hear your thoughts!! If you find this as upsetting as I have I encourage you to find out more! www.polarisproject.org is a great site to start!

On the Red-Light District

Sitting at a brewery under the most famous windmill in Amsterdam, the “De Gooier,” my stomach begins to feel nauseous. It built slowly at first, but increased with intensity as the minutes passed by. After taking only two or three sips of the locally brewed amber ale, I decide to give it away and head back to the far side of the city to the cramped and dirty hostel I was residing at for my stay in The Netherlands.

Upon arriving at the hostel, I grabbed a heavier jacket and anxiously wasted an hour pacing the floor and conversing with my roommates. Then, almost robotically, at 6:45pmI exited the hostel, took a left unto Frans van Mierisntraat and caught the number 10 tram to the city center.

Stepping off of the tram, I felt my stomach twirling so violently that it felt like food poisoning could be a possible diagnosis. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I am NOT comfortable with this situation I am about to enter into! Is this really an undergraduate research project? I really hope this helps me to make a positive difference in the world around me, but does not scar me too much by doing so.”  I walked up the street, praying for strength and scanning the old brick buildings for where my group and I were supposed to be meeting Saskia, a friendly twenty-two year old Canadian native that now lives in Amsterdam so that she can work for a non-governmental organization called “Not for Sale.”

Finally, we found the trendy, upscale bar on the left. All of us took a deep breath and slowly walked into the excessively loud bar where we were immediately greeted by a slightly pale, long brown-haired woman, who was roughly five and a half foot tall , had Ray Ban glasses and a contagious smile. She prompted us to have a seat and quickly told us that she needed a moment to finalize what she was currently working on and then we could begin talking. As she finished responding to a couple e-mails, I tried to recall the conversations we had the day before at her office on the edge of the Red-Light district and halfway succeeded. I remembered looking out her office window at the Oude Kerk (the oldest church in Amsterdam) and all of the window-based prostitution directly surrounding it from all sides. I remembered the conversation that we had about how she lived off of tea and cigarettes and how she was attempting to cut her caffeine and nicotine addictions for lent. I certainly remembered our in-depth conversations about how Human Sex Trafficking in the city was slowly changing shape into a much more complex and difficult issue.  Unsurprising for a city known for its abundant lust and tolerated cannabis.

Saskia then interrupted my thoughts by swiftly closing her laptop with a thud and asking the group if we had any questions to ask her before she took us on a tour of the Red-Light district. My head filled with all kinds of different questions. How many people are directly involved in prostitution in Amsterdam? What kind of safety precautions are there for the women? Of all the legal prostitutes in the city, how many of them are considered “trafficked”?

Someone asked if women were ever allowed out of their “situation” if they decided it was no longer a life style they could live?

Saskia explained how almost all of the women, some of whom were in their sixties, had “lover boys” who were essentially pimps. Each girl reports to her lover boy before and after each “transaction” and almost all of the lover boys use physiological and/or emotional abuse to convince the girls that prostitution is their only viable option. Not only do the lover boys use mental warfare as a tool to “keep business going,” but they also sometimes physically threaten the women and their families (although this is starting to happen less). With all of this in consideration, Saskia had some good and bad news for us. The good news: lover boys were starting to let the women go much more freely than they ever had in the past. The bad news: by allowing the women to leave much more freely than they had the opportunity to in the past, it is much more difficult to actually convict someone of human trafficking charges, even though it was still happening. The worse news: even when women leave the industry to try to better their lives, a vast majority of them end up being trafficked at least one more time in their life. This is seemingly due to the fact that when women are subjected to this horrendous abuse day-after-day it reduces the occupational opportunities the girls are prepared to enter into. Many of these girls do not even finish high school before entering into the world of trafficking, and I could imagine that trying to leave a trafficking “situation” without a high school diploma would be incredible difficult, especially in such a competitive economic market.

This answer instantly made me recall a discussion I had with my group the week before arriving in Amsterdam about the real definition of “sex trafficking.” We also questioned how one could define what was human trafficking in a prostitution type situation. We tried to say that it was just being forced into prostitution, rather than it being free will, but there are many complications to this definition. Some women do it under their own free will, but only because they see it is the only way to support their family or because they cannot get another job. Would these people still be considered trafficked? I don’t think so, but if not, then where is the line? There seems to be a gray area between being “trafficked” and being in that industry for sheer survival.  This conversation made me realize how insanely complex and complicated the issue really is. I knew that sex trafficking is a $20 billon dollar a year industry, that holds over 27 million people in its tight and unforgiving grasp. I knew that Amsterdam is famous for its legalized and regulated prostitution. I knew that this was going to be a challenging night, but I had no idea how perplexing it would really be.

Saskia then again asked if we had any questions before heading out to the district, but we all reluctantly bit our tongues and refrained from asking any of the countless other questions we were currently think about.

Leaving the bar down a side alley towards the Red-Light district, I began to notice the skunk-like smell of cannabis (a very new smell for me) as we passed several “coffee shops” (the well-known places that are “allowed” to sell marijuana).  As we rounded a street corner, a tall black man bumped up against me and casually offered me cocaine through a fairly loud whisper. I took that offer as a sign of the moral environment I was about to enter into.

With the Oude Kerk back in sight, Saskia stopped us for a moment to let us gather our thoughts and informed us that we were about to see some very disturbing things.
We walked up to the next block and took a right down a small alleyway. The famous church on one side of the alley and four plumb African women in lingerie standing in front of full-length glass doors motioning for us to come over and talk to them on the other. I thought they looked “normal”, besides the lack of clothing. They even seemed happy. But how could they be? I assumed they were just acting, but I don’t think I could even act If I was in there, nearly naked, for the world to see. Maybe it is something that one can become callused to?

We kept walking down several similar alleyways as Saskia reaffirmed to us that not everyone there was trafficked, but many of them were. Instantly, I remembered reading an article that in 2009 a woman tried to make contact with every woman in the district and roughly three-fourths of them told her that they were being trafficked. This made me want to blame policy and the ignorance of the general public. I already knew that human trafficking was something that is taboo to talk about, and that I myself had been ignorant to the issue until starting a research project on the subject a few months prior to this experience, but after learning about sex trafficking I did not understand how anyone who knew  anything about it could be quiet.

Then Saskia said we were going to walk down another street that at first glance did not look any different from the others. As we took a right hand turned I noticed this one was different. What was happening? There were hundreds of people, mostly middle aged men, packed into this extremely narrow alley all staring at the glass windows that lined the entire path. Was this part of the same things? It sure was. Personally, this was a first for me. I have been very blessed to have had some amazing travel opportunities, even if on occasion they were a bit dangerous, but I had NEVER seen anything like this before. We slid through the crowds to get a better look at what was happening. We saw that the girls in the windows were dancing, smiling, and even laughing, although I was VERY careful not to look any of them in the eye. How could this seemingly happy life be that of a prostitute? Let alone a prostitute that was being trafficked? This is not what human trafficking was depicted as in the blockbuster movie “Taken” or the average American television show that depicts all prostitutes as uneducated drug addicts who just don’t care about life.

As we reached the end I was in totally shock!

We walked down another street and saw the same thing, but this time I did not look at the girl’s actions, but at the crowds of people. There were groups of teenagers (including girls), middle aged couples that appeared to be married, and even senior citizens peering into the windows. They were almost all doing one of two things: 1) staring with their jaws dropped out of amazement, or 2) laughing and making jokes about the girls and the place they were in. People were acting like they were at the circus watching a sideshow. It was disgusting! I knew that I was in the modern version of the biblical cities of Sodom or Gomorrah.

This made me furious! How could people do this? Even if the public did not know human trafficking was happening here, how could they be so “okay” with women selling sex? I was not okay. I felt my clipped fingernails furiously digging into my palms as my clenched fists got tighter and tighter. I think that making jokes about the situation may have been some people’s way of dealing with the discomfort of the harsh environment, but even that does not come close to justifying making such a disgusting and horrible thing into another dirty joke.

Then I started listening to the people around me, something that I had been neglecting to do. I heard a middle-aged man say “look at that piece of ass!” and a group of about six college-aged girls giggling after one of them said “so are we going to have some fun tonight? If you know what I mean.” I just could NOT understand…

Down the next street I made a commitment to myself to make eye-contact with one of the girls. I was not sure why I felt the need to do this. The only answer I could come up with was because it was so uncomfortable and that maybe if I built of the courage to look one of the girls in the eye it would make it more “real” than just an uncomfortable nightmare to try to forget about. So after several failed attempts I took a second to focus, unclench my fist, and remind myself that I was there to uncover the truth and share that truth with as many people as I could. I looked up and the first thing I saw was a tall, slender blonde girl who was smiling at a man walking by. My stomach turned. She looked as if she very well could have been from Eastern Europe (where Saskia said most of the trafficked victims were from).  She too seemed happy, but how could she be? Then it happened. She moved her focus to me. We made eye contactI froze. I did not know what to do or how to feel. What was I supposed to do? If I showed the emotion I felt, she would easily be able to see that I was, in some ways, judging her and her situation, but if I smiled I would just be another immoral ass-hole walking by. I decided to try and keep a straight face and just look away. Did I do the right thing? I am not sure. However, I am sure I will never forget her face covered in make-up with a seemingly sincere smile on her face. I will never forget her blue eyes attempting to judge whether I would be her next customer. I will never forget her red lipstick covering her pursed lips. I will never for her and the situation that she might be in…
This led me to start thinking about the societal acceptance of this business. I have no clue what her name is, what her “story” is, or even what nationality she is, but society deems it acceptable for me to buy her? She may not have been forced into that position, but there was a pretty good chance that she had. How could anyone take that risk, morals aside?

After another half an hour, Saskia started walking us back to her office. I was pleased to see that she was talking to Karli, the only girl in our group. I had not even considered about how horrifying it must feel to be there as a girl who knows that many of the women we had just seen were being trafficked. I had not thought of how disturbing it could be for Karli to be roughly the same age as many of those women. Was it just luck that Karli was born in the United States and that she herself was not being trafficked? What had these girls done to deserve this lifestyle? Absolutely nothing!!

Once we arrived, Saskia told us about how EVERYTIME she walks through the alleyways, especially at night; she becomes a complete emotional wreck.  I understood this; the part that I did not understand was how someone could not be a wreck after what we had just been through.
Saskia then prayed with us. She prayed for the women, for the lover boys, for the lost souls who were “window shopping”, for the city of Amsterdam, and for us… How did we deserve prayer after we saw what these women were going through? Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciated the prayer because I knew I was going to need strength to make it through the rest of the night, but I thought the women needed divine strength much more than I did. After the prayer ended I kept thinking about this. I finally came to the conclusion that we did need prayer. We needed to vividly remember those experiences, not in a lustful way, but a way that broke our hearts each time we thought about it. We needed a lifelong burden for those women, because not too many other people seemed to! I cannot help but think that at least a few of these women are holding onto hope that someday they will be able to get out of this wicked industry.

Soon after Saskia left, we just stood in a circle staring at each other. I started to tear up as I silently asked myself a million questions. Then I thought of that girls face again. I knew I was going to throw up. My stomach could not keep that thought down. Where was her family? What were her dreams as a child? How did she view life now? How did she end up in that window? Who determined her faith for her? What was going to happen to her once she got old and her body began to age? Would she even live that long due to the health concerns that come with prostitution?

As the group stood there staring at each other I tried to hold it together. I couldn’t. I started walking through all of my thoughts out loud hoping that someone would have answers. No one did. Then as we were talking, with the edge of the district to my back, I saw a camera flash. This normally would not have been something to push me past the tipping point, but I didn’t know what the picture was of, but I could just imagine people bragging about being there. I could imagine some immature teenage guy’s Facebook profile picture being him standing with the Red-Light district in the background and him being proud of that. I also thought the picture could have been from a tourist trying to foolishly take a picture of one of the girls, not knowing that was the only taboo.  I got angry again. Then I remembered what Saskia had said earlier, “Try to not be mad at the people, but at the situation, at the devil for making this situation tempting for some people.” After remembering this, I tried to not be mad at the guys in the street, at the lover boys standing casually off in the distance, and at the government for letting this happen, but it was really, really hard! I am still struggling with this.

As I thought I had just about become as broken as I could be for the night, I saw a mother with her two daughters go stop at the apartment beside us. One of the girls must have been less than a year old, and the other could not have more than five. My heart totally melted as I looked at the young girls while the mother unlocked the door. Then the older of the two girls turned and made eye contact with me. I froze. She was smiling from ear to ear; her bright blue eyes looked at me with curiosity. I started crying! I could only think about what her future might hold. She tilted her head at my awkward stare and started laughing so innocently at the tears on my face. Before I could even react she ran inside to her family… I will never forget her face!

It’s All About the Climb…

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On January 21st, I and several other students here in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland set out on a journey, one that many of us underestimated. This expedition started early in the morning and took almost the entire day. Our goal: to climb to the top of Mount San Giorgio. This goal seemed like it might be a relatively quick hike with slow gradual slopes winding up to the top. However, that assumption was wrong! I left the villa with a camelback water bottle, a jacket, and a book bag full of food, assuming that would be plenty. Shortly after leaving I noticed that our group was moving at a staggering speed through the flat streets of Riva, but assumed that we would slow down by the time we reached the edge of the mountain.

Unfortunately, this assumption was also false. As we started to climb the extremely steep path to the top we saw a sign that suggested it would be roughly three hours and forty-five minutes to the top, but with the rate of speed at which we were going I could not believe it would take anywhere near that long to reach the summit. After only an hour and a half I was dripping sweat, already drank almost all of my water, and discovered how in-shape everyone else there was. It ended up taking three and a half hours to reach the top, and a lot of perseverance!

At points we were climbing a forty five degree incline all while there was a rock wall to your right and a vertical drop of to your left, but that made making it to the top that much more spectacular! Climbing the last few hundred feet and looking off the edge over the steel blue lake was an incredible feeling! That feeling was phenomenal, because I rarely push myself  physically that hard, for that long, to see something that marvelous!

After a few minutes in quiet reflection while eating my lunch at the top of S. Giorgio, I just stared off into the distance imaging what the region must have been like 400 B.C. (which happens to be when scientist think the first men inhabited the area).

This entire experience taught me several different things: 1) research is important, 2) take plenty of water where ever you go!, 3) perseverance really pays off, and 4)  it is really powerful to have people push you way beyond your perceived ability, because without the group I went with there is not way I would have made it to the top. Know, I knew a lot of this information before this experience, but I and human nature in general seem to forget lessons learned if we are not reminded on occasion.

Luxury Lake Lugano…

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Map of Lugano (Top Center) and Riva San Vitale (Bottom Center).
Map of Lugano (Top Center) and Riva San Vitale (Bottom Center).

 

Riding on the train at 7:45 AM this morning with the locals as they commuted to work in Lugano was very interesting. I quickly noticed the quietness of the train, with the exception of our group. The Swiss people on the train were almost without exception reading a newspaper or very quietly looking out the window. After a few minutes on the train (about a 15 minute ride), I noticed a few Swiss start to stare at our group and begin to look slightly annoyed, I assume this was because the volume of our conversations and casual laughter.

Stepping off the train into Lugano was refreshing. The bustle of people moving and the crisp morning air was a refreshing way to begin a new adventure. We all met at the Cathedral of Lugano(also known as St. Lawrence Cathedral) which is perched high on top of Lugano (near the train station). A church has been at this location since 818, but was not converted into a cathedral until 1888. After taking a group picture and setting a meeting time and location, I was off in the city on my own.

Lugano is a city, about the size and population of Roanoke, Virginia, that the Romans settled back in the first century B.C. Lugano and Lake Lugano have always been very important in the region because of the lake and the several crucial Alpine passes that are so near. With this extreme importance came conflict. Since, the foundation of Lugano was set over two thousand years ago, many battles have been fought on its soils including soldiers from several different armies. In current times, Lugano is the third largest banking capital of Switzerland, with over 100 banking institutions, and is, as stated above, known for its tourism.

One of the first things that became obvious was that Lugano is not a normal Swiss city. Being the 9th largest city it Switzerland, it is also one of the main vacation spots in the country leading to the development of a tourist culture as well. At some points in the city the local culture and the culture that had been established for tourist seemed to fuse together into an unidentifiable product of commercialism and authenticity. Walking down another street I began to notice the window advertisements, way beyond my price range, showing fancy name brand watches, designer tobacco pipes, and diamond encrusted clothing. It seemed as if the town was compiled of almost only retail stores catering to the rich and the exclusive retired businessmen whom happened to be vacationing in Lugano . These luxury goods were also owned by most of the residents and workers who call Lugano home.

As I continued my walk, I found a pedestrian area, near via Piazza Alighieri Dante, which had a great view of a modern shopping mall. Intermixed with this background was also S. Antonio’s church, which was built out of dark red brick in 1633. I found this mixture of extremely modern polished steel and 17th century brick architecture to be fascinating and even found a small café to grab a cappuccino at, almost for the sole reason of having an excuse to just sit down and observe the local atmosphere and its people as they traveled to work, school, and to go shopping.

Interesting enough, contrary to the average American, the Swiss seemed to look happy, content, and in deep thought early in the morning. However, as the day went on this happy mood changed at a staggering speed, because by mid-morning a large percentage of the population that walked by seemed slightly annoyed, tired, and frustrated. I am not sure why this was, but this did start to happen as the when younger people started showing up on the streets. Even with this minor look of discontent, if they heard “buongiorno” (good morning in Italian) they would give a slight smile and return the favor. One can only guess that the business class may have mixed feelings about the next generation of Swiss? Or that the new reports released this morning did not look very positive for the Eurozone’s economic crisis?

Some more of my observations found that there also was a large population of older women in Lugano. They almost unexceptionally were wearing expensive looking full-length brown fur jackets and two to three inch heels walking around on cobble stone in groups of two or three. On the other hand, almost everyone else who was out was quietly walking in conservative blues and blacks with the occasional red scarf or maroon hat. Everyone, including the older ladies, moved at a relaxed faster pace until lunch time where people casually strolled the many piazzas in conversation with each other just as it has been done for hundreds of years. Around lunch, the air began to fill with the smell of sweet tobacco from different sections of the world. With Europe’s persistent fascination with tobacco, and smoking in general, I could not help to think what might have been the scene in Lugano in the early 1800’s at Virginia tobacco first made its way into what we now call southern Switzerland.

Today has been a wonderful experience and a neat journey. Sitting at the café enjoying life and enjoying the clean crisp air and wonderful mountains made me miss home, although this experience thus far as been nothing short of incredible! Can’t wait for more!

Milano… As in cookies?

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On Sunday, January 15th, was a day of Italian culture and adventure. As I traveled to Milan (Milano in Italian) on the train we went through Como, Italy (one of George Clooney’s residents) and continued to Milano. Upon arriving we toured some architecturally rich sections of both old and modern Milan and then proceeded to “Sforzesco Castle“. The castle was started in the 1300’s and has been an important Milanese monument since then serving as an important defense and cultural center. The castle is full of wonderful art, history, and gypsies… no seriously. The local scam was that the gypsies tried to tie a really cheap bracelet around your wrist for free after asking for a high-five, and then bugging you until you gave a “donation”. After carefully avoiding this for several minutes we left the castle and headed to a local antiques market, that operates on the weekends, which sells old books, paintings, and other memorabilia of times past.

Then I moved to the “Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II”,  the second modern shopping mall in all of Europe. Built in 1865, it allowed the upper class to shop and gather all of their luxury products and services in one place. If you like going to the mall you can thank the developers of this historical Wal-Mart, because although it was the second of its kind it was the first to really catch on. Today, it houses stores like Gucci, McDonalds, Prada, and Swarovski.

Afterwards we went to the Milano Cathedral (also known as “Duomo di Milano”), which happens to be the forth largest cathedral in the world and took almost six centuries to complete. Just walking in the doors transforms ones perspective of Milan and the history of northern Italy. The immense size is astounding!

After visiting the Duomo di Milano, a few other people and I sat down at a street side café and just watched people walk by for nearly an hour. The amazing thing about this is that nearly everyone seemed happy!

The following morning we made the trip north to Bellinzona, Switzerland with the director of CESA (Center for European Studies and Architecture), Daniela.

There we toured “Castelgrande” and “Castel Montebello”, which since 2000 has been considered an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Castelgrande was phenomenal! Wonderfully preserved, the castelgrande (and the other two castles) is a main focal point in Bellinzona, even today since that are situated on a central hilltop. The castles were made at a critical travel point in-between three main passes between the alps. These passes were critical to travel and trade throughout the early history of Europe.

Afterwards, we traveled down into Bellinzona and ate went cross the small valley and then climbed up to the higher “Castel Montebello”. The view was even more spectacular, but the castle itself was about the same.

Both days were amazing and wonderfully informative about the region in which I am living for the next few months.

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3 Days and a lot of numbers…

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In the past 3 days, a lot has happened! I said goodbye to everyone at home, arrived in Zurich, Switzerland, completed 3 flights (by the way United airlines was horrible on 2 out of 3 of my flights and also lost my luggage), 4 train rides, and got moved into my new apartment in Riva San Vitale, (where I will be living for the next 3.5 months) and have already eaten my way weight in homemade pastas and fine cheeses.

Arriving in Zurich was much different that I was expecting. Having always been told that the Swiss people are very introverted, techonology-based, and strict, I was surprised to find Zurich was loud, somewhat flashy, and not near as cold as I expected. After meeting up with the rest of the group we headed off for the train station. The ride was beautiful and snowy at times. We transferred three times and eventually arrived in the small, but incredible town of Riva San Vitale. Then our group was given a tour of the villa Maderni (an elegant 3 story 18th century building) which is the home of Virginia Tech operations in Switzerland. I have to note that this building was the center of the Republic of Riva San Vitale, an extremely short-lived country that was declared in the early 19th century that lasted a mere 25 days before being overtaken by the Swiss-Germen authorities.

I then went to my apartment which is about a three minute walk away, through gorgeous narrow alley ways. After moving my stuff in, exploring for about forty-five minutes, and a wonderful traditional swiss dinner, a group of us then bought some fresh Gruyere cheese and played cards until midnight.

Today seemed to come quickly. As soon as we all arrived at the villa we started a couple hour long orientation and then had a spectacular pasta dish for lunch (which I had four servings of). Later today we plan to take a walking tour of Riva with Danielle, the director of The Virginia Tech Center for European Studies and Architecture and finish the day with a few more hours preparing for the rest of the semester.

More to come soon!

Ciao!

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Bubbles, Islands, and Other Distractions…

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Jennie Morris, my youth pastors wife, always told our youth group the same quote before every service project or mission trip that we participated in. She said “A change in place and a change in pace equals a change in perspective”. Now I am not sure if she heard this else where or if this was wisdom that she converted into text over the years, but it has really stuck with me!

Now as I prepare to travel to Riva san Vitale, Switzerland for the spring semester I have been thinking about that quote a lot lately. The program that I am participating in is called  “Presidential Global Scholars” and is ran through a special partnership between Virginia Tech University President Steger’s office and University Honors at Virginia Tech as a way to develop well-rounded global citizens. While there we will be studying about leadership in a global world, the scientific and social importance of geography (specifically volcanoes), Greece and global economics, among various other topics. However, one of the most important parts of the experience will of course be the experience itself. Traveling through Europe eating Swiss chocolates, skiing in the Alps, visiting the coliseum in Rome, exploring Prague, developing “street smarts”, or just enjoying life in a different place will also be very important! The only problem with “Study Abroad” trips, according to past participants, is that it is very easy to stick to “American Islands” while abroad. No this does not mean Hawaii, it means that when American students travel together on study abroad programs the vast majority cling together to stay in their comfort zones. While these “bubbles” of friends can make the trip easier, there is no way you can get the same education or experience out of the program. Just as Jennie said, it is much easier to develop a new perspective by not only changing the place, but also changing pace. With this being said, I might add that changing the “people” you are around is also just as powerful.

Now the question is how do I plan on fighting the “American Islands”? Well, although I plan on making new American friends and keeping up-to-date with the newest Ke$ha songs, I also plan on really taking in the experience as a whole. This means I wont let my colleagues distract from the experience, but use them as tools to enrich it through thought provoking discussions and the sharing of resources and ideas. I will make the most of this phenomenal experience, avoid “American Islands”, and develop new perspectives even if this means I have to get out into the world by myself, be uncomfortable, and even get lost. The good news is that hopefully the result of all the awkward moments being lost and expensive lonely train rides will be being able to enjoy a new perspective on life, culture, history, and the classics. I can not wait!  😀