Twelve trench coat-clad UC Irvine students pour into the unusually warm streets of Amsterdam’s Red Light District in search of Hotel The Globe. Through the cobblestone streets of the District, the wheels of our baggage click between stones and our eyes wander between old architecture and the streaming canal. It is March 20 and finals week exhaustion can barely penetrate the excitement of travel as we arrive at the hostel and recuperate for half an hour and reassemble downstairs.
Daytime in the Red Light District reveals an odd array of Dutch architecture and sex shops, co-existing in the gray and tan hues of an old city. Wafts of weed reach us from the opening and shutting doors of coffee shops and men on the streets whisper “ecstasy” as we pass through the crowded alleys. It is clearly the tourist area of the town, with foreigners’ eyes observing attractions while women walk with their children past empty windows, normally lined with prostitutes by night.
We reload with cheese quiche and Dutch waffles for the much-anticipated European shopping, which ironically begins with H&M, an American apparel shop, and ends with approximately ten shoe stores. Darkness folds over and faint signs that lined the streets are now vibrant neon, matching glowing prostitutes strutting in the windows. Old, young, plump and frail, they are beckoning a crowd in which we are not included. We walk along the canal, caught between cultures and enclosed in an old city where the starry night can hardly be detected past bright lights.
On Saturday morning we venture into the cultural hub of Amsterdam by way of the flower market where bulbs the size of fists spill over buckets and a sea of bright pink tulips tease us. In town we split, some to the Rijks museum and half to the Van Gogh Museum, excited to see the “Starry Night.” With less than an hour left, we realize the “Starry Night” is still hidden somewhere in the depths of the museum. We run up stairs, questioning museum guards and counting down the minutes. Finally, we arrive at a sloppy-looking starry night, with brushstrokes uncoordinated and lazy. The one painting that guided our decision to see the Van Gogh Museum is on lease in New York, and this one is not the original.
After visiting the museums, a flea market and Anne Frank’s house, we are swept into the Stille Omgang, or the Silent Procession, a Catholic holiday commemorating a miracle from the 14th century. Thousands of people silently walk and pray throughout the dark alleyways of Amsterdam. A strange juxtaposition has taken us from 21st-century cultural amusement to an age-old, spiritual tradition. The night becomes colder still and a splintered Travel Team eventually finds a path back to the hostel by way of Rene’s Bakery, where warm waffles and strawberry croissants distract us from the cold and the pain of hours of walking.
The following morning we repack our bags and head to the station, only to have a security guard approach us at the station to tell us how easy our group is to pickpocket. A 40-minute train ride and we are in The Hague, making our way to our bungalows in the boondocks, close to the ocean but far from the center of the city. Exhausted and anticipating the next day’s conference, we collect wood, light a fire and relax. Outside, the sky darkens and trees are barren with sprouting green tips as yellow flowers emerge from the gray of last year’s dead foliage.
When Monday morning arrives, twelve business-clad UCI delegates make their way to the Model United Nations Conference at the World Forum, hosted by Harvard University. By 9 a.m., committees are in session and we sit amongst 2,400 university students from around the globe. Time between committee sessions is spent in the Hague Centrum, posing outside of the parliament and Department of Justice, snapping photos in a costume shop, and appreciating the coveted International Court of Justice. Outside, our food search divides the team — McDonalds for some and paninis and Illy coffee for others. Cries for Starbucks are left unanswered as we instead scout out local venues; where globalization fails, there is always a local, and culturally superior, answer.
For three consecutive days I preoccupy myself with gaining entrance into the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Admittance is exclusive and difficult. It is only on the final conference day that the guards admit a German delegate and myself, and from there we plead to receive the remaining two seats to listen to the hearing of the Lukic cousins. They are accused of brutally slaying Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s and only panes of glass and a security guard separate us from them, while earphones allow us to hear the proceedings. At the judges’ discretion, court is adjourned early and we are led out of the observing quarters and released back into the crisp air of The Hague.
The fourth day of the conference is short as the afternoon is reserved for a day trip to Amsterdam. Upon arrival, armbands allow us to board boats on the canal at any point in the city. Through archways and past vintage shops we weave through the city singing *N SYNC, Queen, and other sufficiently loud songs. The 12 of us boldly provide the globalization soundtrack for the duration of the ride. We decide to continue our journey on land and eventually arrive at the venue of the evening’s dance where the cordiality of committee disintegrates with the bass of European techno.
Day five culminates with the closing ceremonies and the team stretches across two rows, guessing the committee winners of the coveted delegation awards. “Austria, University of California Irvine,” is called across the packed auditorium and the team is simultaneously out of their seats, congratulating Patrick Le and James Cameron for their awards achieved through a combination of European charm, intellect, and diplomacy skills akin to the two. Celebration of the winnings includes “The White Party,” thrown at a venue on the beach under the black lights and sea breeze of The Hague’s ocean assets.
Night falls, the week closes, and we find ourselves creating a fort in the living room of our bungalow, rearranging mattresses and pillows, giggling and joking. The floor is cool, the ambiance warm, and we slowly fall asleep toward the early morning hours only to be awakened by an urgent alarm. It is urgent only because it is the morning of our flight, and the European daylight savings time has stolen a precious hour from our departure plans. Down with the fort, out with the bags, off to Schipol Airport, past fields where tulips sprout and into the international airport. We recount, retell, recall, as the flight is dedicated to reliving the common moments of youth and camaraderie, until the team slips into a sleep induced by a nine-day marathon.