Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Forgotten Questions

One question the Bonderman panel asked me was how I would handle my encounters with people who asked me for money since I would be traveling to many impoverished countries. I said something along the lines of focusing on the macro level and dedicating myself to something that would make more substantial change because giving money here and there wouldn't make a big difference. This was honestly one of the more difficult questions because it was one of the only times I felt like I wasn't speaking from my own mind, one of the only times I didn't believe my own answers.

I've been hanging out with different types of people in Bogotá, usually between couchsufers and human rights workers, but the one commonality I notice is how both will blatantly ignore, at times even laugh, at panhandlers. I could sense how uncomfortable it all made everyone feel, how it killed the jovial conversations about travel, how everyone just wanted it to go away. Yesterday a Danish traveler, Miguel, vehemently remarked how "he hated beggers". I wish I would have just asked, "Why?"

One thing I admired about my Guatemalan host brother Sergio was how he never turned down a panhandler. He always gave anything if he had it, but usually he had nothing. Miguel would change his accent to sound more like a foreigner when he said, "No entiendo Español," (I don't understand Spanish) but when Sergio would say, "Lo siento, pero no tengo nada" (sorry, but I don't have anything), he really meant it.

Sergio told me it wasn't his business what the person did with the money, didn't even care if the person's story was true, he just told me if he had something, he'd share it. It's funny because he was actually quite conservative, very supportive of the right-wing, "Mano Dura" ideology of former presidential candidate Otto Molina, yet he was more compassionate than these "liberals" I've come across, who could quite easily pretend the people who asked for spare change, didn't exist. Now some people would call Sergio foolish, an easy target for street-smart swindlers, but to me he just had a big heart.

Another friend I met in Guatemala, Alex, would tell me that giving away money was re-enforcing dependency, that giving money to kids would teach them to beg rather than work. From then on whenever someone would ask me for spare change, the two opinions would battle in my head, like the angel and devil on my shoulder, because I saw validity in both views, and because I never really knew which of the two was the "right" thing to do. But I've learned there really isn't one.

I remember one time Sergio and I were waiting for a bus and a young shoe-shiner approached us to ask for a Queztal, equivalent to about 13 cents. Lugging a backpack literally as big as himself and carrying a wooden tool box full of polish, it reminded me of how angry Sergio would get at the stories of young working kids getting robbed of their day's work due to their small size. Sergio had asked if he could get a shine to help earn the kid some more money. He didn't actually have the money, but he looked over to me and I nodded in silent understanding. Exhausted with face and hands covered in dirt and shoe polish, the young boy search vigorously but eventually told us he didn't have the right color. He looked like he was about 9 years old.

I kept thinking that he shouldn't be working, shouldn't have to do this. He should be out playing, at home studying, in bed sleeping, should be anywhere doing absolutely nothing like 9 year olds are supposed to be doing. I gave him the Quetzal and he used it to buy a bag of water. I wish my friend Alex had been there so I could have asked him, "You think that kid won't learn how to work?"


Jen said...

Funny, because I've been grappling with the same devil/angel pair for a while now, but especially in Africa where there seems to be an EXPECTATION of getting something for nothing. People are angry if you don't give them everything you have, including your shoes. And I can't blame them for asking! I thought I had resolved my philosophical understanding and approach towards panhandeling in India, but no way! It'll never be sorted!

I read an interesting book about Latin American children while I was in Brasil that is relevant to your post as well. The book explained that our discomfort at seeing kids working on the streets is largely a result of being brought up in the west--our notion of what childhood should be like is a western construct. Often times the kids working allowed them extra money for their family (obviously) as well as for themselves and gave them a greater sense of responsibility and independence (depending of the nature of the work, as some is hazardous!).

Thanks for the post. It's good to know you are grappling with some of the same complexities of travel as me.

P.S. Nice photos!

Anonymous said...

yeah, i often hear people say things like "well if you give them money they might buy drugs or alcohol with it." i say so what? there is another layer to this topice and that is of 'choice' if you are poor you are denied your right to chose what you do with what you have or given.

and yes, while giving money to someone on the street may not solve poverty, it may be just what that person needs at that point to live or get through another day and that in itself is valuable. or it may be just what you need to do.

isn't there a saying "there is no act too small or too ordinary."

I will never forget a time when I was eight years old and the church gave my family a box of gifts during christmas. I remember I got a a small, wooden jewlery box that to me was the nicest thing I ever had. a simple act of giving made a lasting impression through adult hood.

I too know Sergio and he is one of a few men I have met in my life where I have thought "wow, what a decent, good human being."- tiana