I was thinking about how when you first arrive somewhere, especially somewhere culturally different to home, you are wide eyed at the colours and noise and horns beeping and the markets. You are not really taking it all in. It’s all so ‘unreal’.
After a couple of days you see another layer. The people behind the stands, the children smiling at you, testing their ‘hellos’, the day to day routines happening around you. You begin to know where things are and the best places to eat and the people that surround you.
A few more days and the poverty, the begging, the pleading eyes seem to come out of the woodwork. The smells become almost overpowering. You see the animals lives in a different context from your initial excitement of the donkeys carting goods down narrow lanes, to now seeing them standing with their heads hanging, waiting with heavy loads on their backs. Dogs with a limp and gummy eyes. The children ferrying goods and trying to ‘help’ you for 1d when they are obviously not in school, playing in the streets with empty plastic bottles and a length of string. Then you’re not so comfortable as the tourist and you placate yourself with the thought that you’re supporting the local economy.
Stay longer and you chat to the lady selling bread and find out she has children she is trying to keep in school. A little one slips his hand in yours as you walk and smiles up at you only to run off at the next corner. The nice guy on the corner you stop for a bun at tells you a story about receiving an American hundy instead of a Turkish one and realising the difference is huge, sends someone off to bring the overweight and loud couple back who swap the notes and give him the equivalent of 20c as a thank you. You know that even tho these people dress, eat and talk differently to you they are of course basically the same. They want their children to stay safe, healthy and live better than they have.
On this trip we have been confronted with poverty several times and as you would expect the worst was in Istanbul and Morocco. I’m haunted by the Mother with a baby who approached people at a Cafe for anything. Left over food or money, anything. She was ignored and shooed off by patrons, not staff. It took me a minute to figure out what she was asking and then she was gone. I thought it was interesting that I never saw staff send beggars out of shops. It seemed as long as they accepted refusal and moved on it was ok and in fact sometimes I saw shopkeepers give to these people.
I gave to an old lady one day sitting outside a church and a day or two later passing that same church she was getting herself comfortable sitting down, laughing and talking and looking very plump and happy chatting with those around her and then put on a ‘haggard poor me’ face and her cup out, which made me smile.
Then there is the large number of ‘I’m traveling and I’m broke’ placards. Picture a young British boy. Card says’…travelling, broke, hungry.’ I looked at him and almost laughed. I said to Gilbert so if I give to him and he buys a coffee and bagel today how does that change his situation? Yet he just might be desperate, and what if this was my son. We saw these boys, not girls, often. Obviously traveling, with backpacks siting in the sun reading and a cup or bowl out. Just taking a chance on someone chucking something in.
Or the man who just walked up to us boldly at the bar and held his hand out. We were deep in conversation and I said ‘pardon?’, not understanding his words. He turned and went straight to the next table and the next table and each turned him away.
Then there’s the buskers who are dependant on a bit being chucked into their buckets as people pass yet they’re not technically begging are they? They are providing entertainment for a donation. Not a set fee. There were heaps in Barcelona. All lined up along the pavement. Here’s the one I liked the most.
“I’d rather give to him”, I told Gilbert as we watched them all doing their different poses. At least he’s entertaining, working the crowd.
There were also a group of boys who put out a canvas mat about a meter square and on it would be handbags, sunglasses or something else saleable. They had strings tied to the four corners which they kept taunt and if someone was looking at a bag they’d be showing them, but all the time watching nervously all around them. Gilbert thought they were ready to make a run for it and sure enough we came across a guy looking to buy a t-shirt when suddenly the seller ran and the whole lot pulled up behind him and two undercover cops who appeared from nowhere chased him down into the bowels of the metro. The guy was left holding the t-shirts in disbelief and a handbag went west and lay abandoned. We sat back and watched and the cops picked up the handbag and the guy just wandered off with the t-shirts, not sure what to do I guess.
I had thought about beggars and thieves before we traveled. Mostly from a security aspect but also from a giving aspect and the uncomfortable truths when you are confronted with someone in need. We have been warned to be careful where we give as we heard that some may maim a child early on so it can be a resource in the future. This sounds too horrible to contemplate and I haven’t seen that anywhere thankfully. Mostly old people or Mothers with children.
We spend most of our lives not having to face this question, what to do when faced with someone begging. When we did our trip to China we decided we wouldn’t give money and would buy an extra bun and give that to someone who was begging but on occasion received a refusal or face of disgust. They wanted money. Who knows where that money might go and I didn’t want to be paying for smokes or worse. Who am I to judge…
Here in Malaysia on Langkawi Island our biggest theft threat is the monkeys. The sign in our chalet says to keep doors locked as the monkeys will steal and mess with your stuff! In Morocco we hadn’t seen hardly anyone begging until Marrakech where there are high tourist numbers, but I suppose we mostly haven’t been in the tourist or affluent areas so you probably wouldn’t beg off your neighbours. Everyone is going about their business making ends meet by selling from a box or a trolley or cupboard, mostly the daily needs of one another.
It’s not always a comfortable position to be in, passing someone who is perhaps hungry after we have possibly spent their weeks food budget on our lunch. Going back to our safe clean bed and running water. Knowing that we will fly home to our family. That we have everything and more anyone could ever wish for. I am embarrassed at our wealth and ability to travel and see what we have seen. And yet if we can spend here in these communities rather than the city maybe that’s at least some distribution of our wealth?
And then we are in the position of compulsory donation. When someone helps themselves. So slick and practised you are completely unaware. You have to admire the skill base. Just wish it hadn’t been the new wallet.