Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

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Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

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We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!



When buying an airplane ticket to India a few months ago, I had a difficult decision to make: should I pay $200 less and endure an 8-hour layover at the Doha airport on my return? Normally, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I was tempted by the location of my layover, and the idea of getting out of the airport and exploring a new country during that time. After all, Qatar isn’t a place I frequent regularly, nor one I anticipate visiting anytime soon.

I conducted some preliminary research on possibilities. Would I even be able to leave the airport? I learned that visitors could buy a visa at the airport upon arrival and it seemed that the city center wasn’t too far.

So in the name of “saving money,” I took the ticket with a long layover, even though I knew I might end up spending what I saved on financing my little adventure. A few days before leaving for India, I searched some more, and I made a plan. I would buy a visa upon my early morning arrival, take a taxi to the city center, get breakfast somewhere (hopefully along the coast), take the Doha hop on/hop off bus around the city, and then get a taxi back to the airport. I started to add up the costs and realized that the expense was getting more extravagant than I had anticipated. And yet since I was carrying my violin and laptop, I knew I wouldn’t want to roam the city on foot for hours. So the day before leaving India for my return flight, I decided to google “Doha city tours” just to see if I might come up with a better option. The result was an unexpected surprise: Qatar Airways offers Free City Tours to Transit Passengers.

It looked too good to be true. And why didn’t I see it earlier? Aha – the article was published just last week, when I was already on my way to India. I found the press release on the website of Qatar Airlines but there wasn’t a whole lot of information there. What time were the tours? Would I still have to buy a visa? Was it really free? I figured that it was worth a try. This service appeared to be new, and it seemed official enough.

I was pleasantly surprised on all accounts. I arrived in Doha at 6:30am and quickly found the “Qatar Airways Doha City Tours” counter. They took my passport and boarding pass, registered my information and told me to be back at 7am for a 7:15 departure. Just enough time to use the restroom and get a little cash out of an ATM.

There were only eight of us taking the tour on this cool morning and we were shuttled to the arrivals terminal and given a card to present at immigration. There our passports were stamped with a 24-hour visa and we paid nothing. Then we were escorted out to a comfy mini-bus where we had more than enough room to spread out. We were told we could leave our carry-on items on the bus whenever we stopped; they would be looked after.

An English-speaking guide led us through the city on a nearly 3-hour tour, and in the end we took the same route as the hop on/hop off bus that would have cost me $50 for a one-day pass. We stopped many times along the route to take pictures and walk around. The brisk morning air and opportunity to walk without carrying my luggage helped to combat the fatigue I was feeling from losing a night of sleep. They even provided us with cold bottles of water. Extra points, Qatar Airways!

Doha was impressive. Most of the city has been built in the last couple of decades and the architecture is fascinating. It’s the most modern Arabic country I’ve seen. At the end of the tour, we had 25 minutes to explore the souk (market), which I found to be very chic compared to what I have seen elsewhere. Also more expensive. The dress is different here, too, with men wearing a white thobe (a long white gown) and the women in all black, sporting a shayla (headdress) and abayha (long dress). The coast was especially beautiful, and when I saw people out running it made me feel nostalgic for the Chicago lakefront. Our tour guide also told us that 75 percent of the population in Qatar is made up of ex-pats that have come to work, and only 25 percent is women.

He also told me that these special transit tours have only been operating for a month, and that sometimes no one shows up. However, even if only one person signs up they will run the tour. The most they have had so far is 22 people at a time. They are hoping that it generates more interest. Other passengers told me that they had discovered the tour by chance, as they wandered the airport trying to kill time. I think that Qatar airlines needs to increase their publicity for this service, both on their website and in-flight. Maybe that’s coming. The press release was already a good move, but not everyone researches things like I do.

So, hats off to Qatar Airlines. This tour was perfectly planned for transit passengers with a 5-12 hour layover at the Doha airport. The convenience and ease that they offered would have totally been worth a fee of $50 or more. I felt like a VIP customer when in reality the free tour was available to me because I opted for the ticket that saved me $200. After the tour, I was happy to settle down for two more hours at a coffee shop where I took advantage of the airport’s free Wifi.

If you ever have the opportunity, don’t miss this experience! Thank you Qatar Airways!

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Unsettled, bothered, disgusted, saddened, struck, angered, outraged, confused.

This just begins to describe how I feel after spending a weekend in the Red-light district of Amsterdam. I stayed with an inspiring inter-faith community that strategically lives in the middle of Amsterdam’s sex scene with the intention of being a light in a spiritually dark place. From a window I could see sex theatres advertising “live porn” shows and the street lined with prostitutes posing in windows, and sidewalks swarming with tourists. There were an uncomfortable number of groups of men on the streets. If you only saw the tourists and nothing else, you might think you’re in any major city. However, many tourists on those streets were there for porn shows instead of museums and were buying sex instead of souvenirs. I didn’t take any pictures. I couldn’t.

Disturbed simply to be there in the midst of the scene.

Unsettled because this is not the way things are supposed to be and I don’t feel like I can walk down the street and accept any of this as normal.

Bothered at how “legal” seems to usher in “acceptable.”

Disgusted at the way the men gawk at the women, objectifying God’s beautiful creation as a quick fix for their lust.

Saddened, because the glass she stands behind looks to me like a prison wall.

Struck, because I don’t want to accept that this scene is a reality.

Angered at the distortion of God’s creation and his good gift of sex.

Outraged by the knowledge that most of the women are not there by choice.

Confused because I don’t know how to swallow this and move on. My heart cannot understand.

I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I first entered the red-light district of Chicago to walk the streets and minister to the women. I came home to my dorm in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping and sat in the lounge for hours trying to process what I had just seen. I never became comfortable in that context, but as I heard the stories of women and encountered both police and pimps, I felt like I started to understand the horror and slavery of their lives. It was a very dark place and there was a certain secrecy to all that was happening. What I didn’t realize at the time was the way in which the darkness reassures you that what’s happening isn’t right. In the midst of so much heartbreak, the darkness brought a strange sense of comfort, because when light shone, it rebuked the deeds of darkness and they fled.

Now on the train back to Paris, I find myself again trying to process what I have experienced, although it feels like a completely new experience, primarily because of how everything is done in broad daylight in Amsterdam, as simply another tourist attraction. Even the darkness of night is shooed away by the many streetlights and red lights in the windows. People swarm the streets, laughing and joking and getting wasted. Prostitution is part of a big party scene, and because it’s legal, no one is hiding. All of this disturbed me. Deeply.

I don’t have a personal solution for my reaction, and in fact, I hope it doesn’t go away. Instead, may it motivate prayer for God’s Kingdom come and action for justice. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!