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Transforming Third World begging

Transforming Third World begging
Jeff Greenwald
Summarized from New Age Journal (March ’93)

I have witnessed case after case of well-meaning Westerners blowing into far-flung villages, attracting local children and doling out handfuls of sugar candies and coins. This kind of behavior turns kids into beggars faster than you can say “Hello, mister” as future travelers to those areas quickly learn. Even a humble Bic pen is a rich prize to a kid whose family earns forty cents a day, and it takes no time before anyone wearing RayBans or rip-stop nylon is viewed as a potential mark. Generosity is not a habit we want to cure ourselves of. Despite our sometimes better judgment, we will give things away. But is it possible to do this without transforming the places we visit into shark dens?

I think we can. There are dozens of ways to express good will and geniality without cultivating greed and dependency. With imagination and a little advance planning, it’s possible to make the process of gift-giving one of the most pleasurable parts of a trip or trek – and one of the best opportunities for engagement with local children and adults.

First off, though, I want to emphasize that gift-giving does not always have to entail giving away things. Sharing a bit of one’s self, a part of one’s life or personal history, is often enough. During my career as a travel writer for instance, I’ve discovered that adults and children all over the world – from Bali to the Bronx – have something in common. They all want to know about your family, and about the place that you come from.

Among the most useful items a person can pack on a trip to the Third World, I’ve found, are family snapshots and postcards of one’s hometown. Recently, assailed by a cadre of ten-year-old beggars in northern India, I sat down and pulled out a cheap inflatable globe that I sometimes carry around. What had begun as a feeding frenzy transformed instantly into a geography lesson. The boys, who could barely read, threw themselves into the session with devotion. They immediately began matching the bits of news they had been hearing on the radio – about Germany, the United States, and Russia – to the appropriate countries, and argued heatedly about why India and Russia were pink, while Pakistan and the United States were green. True, they finally demanded the globe itself; but my firm refusal, on the grounds that I required it for future such encounters, was met with agreeable wags of the head.

When trekking above 8,000 feet, my bag of tricks includes other, equally entertaining, props. A simple magnifying glass, powerful enough to burn a tiny hole in a dry leaf, seems miraculous to people who see it for the first time. The same can be said for a small kaleidoscope, or even a telephoto lens. When I stop for an extended break – and find myself surrounded by local kids – I’ll often pull out a set of colored pencils, and let them take turns drawing in my journal. Some have turned out to be quite good artists, and their uninhibited sketches of animals; flowers and beefy Westerners in blimplike parkas are among my most prized souvenirs.

Although I’ll frequently stop, chat, and spend time demonstrating a prism or kaleidoscope, I very rarely give anything away to people along the trail. Often, though, after a memorable stay at a cozy lodge, I’ll have developed a warm relationship with the owners and decide to give a small gift to them and/or their kids.

For these situations, I offer two rules of thumb: First of all, it’s unwise to distribute money or candy. There are countless other gifts that are less dubious and genuinely expressive of one’s personality. Picture postcards, mentioned before, are light and cheap. They make excellent tokens and are usually displayed and cherished by the people who receive them. Incense, good matches, a reliable pen, or a disposable lighter are also much appreciated.

Kids are much easier. I recommend balloons, plastic rings and magnifying glasses, prisms, tops (stock up on those little plastic Hanukkah dreidels before your trip), colored pencils, pens, crayons, little plastic animals or dinosaurs, or even those cheap foil hologram stickers that are sold by the dozen in many toy stores. All of the above make fun and educational presents that kids can share and that can help them unlock a few secrets of the universe to boot. My second rule is to avoid giving children gifts directly. Hand the present over to a parent, or an older brother or sister, and let them make the actual presentation. Such a gesture is a sign of respect and reinforces the endangered notion that family members – rather than wealthy Western tourists – are the ones to turn to for gifts and rewards.

One very poignant situation, which I encounter more and more, is children and villagers along trekking routes begging for basic medical supplies. Simple first-aid items such as bandages, iodine, aspirin, or Tums are hard to refuse, especially when the person doing the asking substantiates the request by clutching his or her head, doubling over, or displaying a gaping wound.

My personal feeling is that one should help however one can, short of dispensing drugs. I will not, needless to say, leap to the aid of anyone with a scrape or splinter, but if the situation looks potentially threatening I usually try to deal with it. Sometimes it’s even a good idea to find out where the nearest health post is, and, in extreme cases, give a relative or porter enough money to take the sick or injured person there.

The bottom line, though, is that begging has become a kind of game, and a genuine nuisance – one that Westerners have helped to create and perpetuate. Unless we make an effort to deal mindfully with the situation, what is now an irritating habit will become, for many Third World villagers and their children, a way of life.

Jeff Greenwald, PO Box 5883, Berkeley, CA 94705, USA (tel and fax 00 1 510 653 6911).

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