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 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.

Community Mapping

Feed by Seed Community Map
(To find the image please just follow the link above)

In class on Friday of this past week Dr. Carlson discussed community mapping and challenged each of us to make a community map for a community that we were involved in. With this challenge on my plate, I quickly decided to do my project on Feed by Seed.

With Feed by Seed being a new organization this map still has plenty of room to grow and develop but seems to be a good start. It covers some of the main themes Feed by Seed is dealing with currently, but did neglect some of the minor details to save time time and space.

This assignment was helpful in helping me to see the “big picture” for the organization. With it being such new organization, with so much going on, it is sometimes hard to see everything that is happening.

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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About Me

As a sophomore at Virginia Tech dual majoring in “Applied Economic Management: Community Economic Development” and “Agricultural Sciences” with a focus in ”Leadership and Social Change” and “Crop and Soil Science”, I hope to continue using my strengths to work in the field of global agricultural education and development to fight world hunger and poverty.

Having grown up in rural southwest Virginia on a small farm, I am very passionate about agriculture, its importance in society, and the continual education process needed to maintain agriculture production for the future. Now at the age of twenty, I have started a non-profit organization called “Feed by Seed” which strives to make advancement in the fields of global agriculture education, development, and advocacy (The starting of this organization was help made possible by the generous support of the Pamplin family and University Honors at Virginia Tech).

All of my respect for agriculture came from my father, Gary Larrowe, and The National FFA Organization. Starting out as an FFA member in the 8th grade at Carroll County Intermediate School, to serving the Virginai FFA Association in 2009, to being selected as a 2010 National FFA Officer candidate, to being a member of the first FFA GO: Africa program; the FFA has a very significant positive difference in my life and afforded me many perspective developing opportunities.

Being extremely blessed and having been supported by my friends and family, I have traveled to roughly 23 different countries to experience: culture, food, agriculture, diversity, poverty, hunger, beauty, and people. All of these experiences listed above have contributed to my current perspective on life without a doubt. Now, I am just looking for how I can uses these experiences to help others improve their quality of life, especially  through agricultural and economic development.

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!  😀