If you decide to travel to certain economically challenged regions, you will not only witness the effects of inequality, you will temporarily become part of that world, at least for the duration of your trip. Such experience could be a rather harsh reality test for some travellers, especially for first-timers. One way or another, the situation will require you to find a way how to deal with the effects of poverty from an emotional as well as practical point of view and that is what we’re going to talk about in this post. So what 99%?
While for some of us, poverty is sad but distant fact, for others, it’s an everyday reality. People who are directly affected by some of the most negative effects of the global distribution of wealth are often forced to find a way to survive. Those ways vary a lot, ranging from honest work, through opportunism, selling own body, up to various illegal activities. And your trip brings you right to the middle of it all, and whether you want it or not, you will represent the possible source of income.
What 99%? Tip the scales
This piece is therefore not exactly about the “We are 99%” thing from the 2011 protests. It’s more about being confronted with own privileges in contrast with the everyday reality of those living in poverty. Even though many of us rightly consider ourselves as not rich in our own countries, when we travel to some regions of Africa, Asia or Latin America, we are no longer the 99% from the protests’ placards. That figure just doesn’t really apply here.
Well, let’s be honest here. Just being able to travel for pleasure is something that a really poor person wouldn’t even dream of. That fact alone already makes 99% a rather deceptive figure in this context. OK, in an overall contrast with the top 1%, we are all in it together but when it comes to living standards, we all know that some of us do have it way better than the majority of our fellows from the bottom 99% of the economic ladder and that is something you will be reminded of during your trip on an everyday basis.
So in such context, rather than being part of the 99%, in economically challenged countries, you represent more of a top 10%. Just as there’s a massive difference between the top 0,01% and the remaining 0,99% in the richest 1% of the global population, equally, there’s a massive difference between the top 9% and the remaining 90%, from the poorest 99% of the population.
As a consequence, it is therefore natural for the locals to assume that if you are coming from a First World country, you will have more resources if compared with their compatriots, which makes you a potential customer of whatever they are selling. And because a lot of business in many economically challenged countries is conducted on the streets, you’ll be approached by people selling their products or services on the streets.
In some places, the volume of random purchases offers a traveller faces on the street could be a rather overwhelming and unavoidable experience and one has to find a way how to deal with it. From my own observation and numerous conversations about this subject, there’s a variety of approaches.
Variety of approaches
Like everywhere in the world, in economically challenged countries, there are also all sorts of businesses: honest, opportunistic or even criminal. The same variety of approaches however applies to us, travellers. Not every tourist is your stereotypical bracelet wearing compassionate person, the same way like not every street vendor is an honest person.
I mean that I’ve faced dishonest street vendors lying to me about their products or fake beggars lying about their situations, the same way I’ve witnessed many holiday goers abusing the fact that they are better off while acting the way that was – let’s say – not exactly aligned with the best moral values a human can uphold…
I have massive sympathy for honest vendors as they are genuine and hard-working people. However, you quickly realise that you can’t help everyone. I mean you can’t buy 300 scarves, 1 000 bracelets and several hammocks, can you?
The trouble is that the nicer you are, the more hope of a possible purchase you produce. So you are forced to be a bit of an arsehole because one nice “no thank you” often isn’t sufficient enough. So you caught in this terrible situation of drifting between being a bit of a strict, seemingly cold-hearted arsehole or you’re nice but then you’re never left alone because the vendors would smell a possible purchase.
I’ve spoken to a few fellow travellers about how they feel about being forced to be more strict when saying “no thank you” only to find out that my experience of feeling a bit shitty about it at all is not so unique. Some people choose to ignore the whole thing, some say shout NO straight away upon approach from a distance and some of us just need to find our own way how to deal with the unprecedented level of approaches by street vendors.
Because if you’re a compassionate person, and, you know, you sit there with a coffee or a beer, enjoying your First World privileges and people, some of which are genuinely hungry approach you to sell you something (you most likely don’t need) to get money for food… I mean that your beer suddenly doesn’t taste that well when you think about it from this perspective then…
If you’re travelling in Latin America from the south, I believe that Bolivia will be the first country where the reality hits you a bit harder. You do see signs of poverty on your way north from Tierra del Fuego throughout the continent (except the rather rich Patagonia) but here it becomes a bit louder and the closer you’ll get to Venezuela, the more heartbreaking it will get.
How to deal with all that?
Well, there’s no manual on how to deal with the results of poverty if you are surrounded by it. The individual responses range from pretending not to see it, through helping a wee bit here and there, up to volunteering or helping as much as possible. One thing is for sure, whatever you do, if you are an emphatic person, it’s never easy to witness extreme poverty.
Speaking for myself, I’ve decided to do a few small good deeds per day. Because I can’t fix the whole world and I don’t have enough to give something to everyone who asks, I resulted in a solution of helping three people a day. Whether it was a bit of money, food or a couple of cigarettes, I did support three people a day a bit, because I believe that small things, or let’s just say small good deeds matter.
I admit that such an approach felt somewhat “alibi-stic” because it is just a pseudo solution, to keep my soul out of complete darkness – but hey – better just some than none 😉
Flip side of the coin: dishonest vendors and various opportunists
However, not everyone who asks you for help is really desperate. Sometimes, some of the most friendly “people in need” are very good con artists, who might be even better off than you. How do you know who is bullshitting you? Well, I stuck with my guts.
There isn’t a universal formula to distinguish between an honest person and an opportunist, unless you deploy stereotyping, which is not exactly the most scientific method, nor it is an open-minded way to judge the situation. There are numerous tricks the street vendors use, some being just scam and dirty business tactics but some of them go further and try to make you feel guilty about their situation so you buy something.
For me personally, when emotional blackmail is deployed, that is the limit, the boundary not to cross. I personally hate it and it makes me angry, to be honest, because it is dirty. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens when you demonstrate empathy in front of an opportunist ):
The shitty part is that if situations when you are emotionally blackmailed or when you’re lied to by some people repeats all the time, it could switch you into some sort of defensive automatic “no” mode. Such a thing happens, when when the frequency of being approached by opportunists is high, which is often the case in busy touristic areas.
It then could feel twisted when you get engaged in a conversation with a person who doesn’t want anything from you, while you keep expecting to be asked for a favour during the whole conversation. It is therefore important, to stay nice because assuming that everyone is an opportunist is not really good for anyone…
You know that you can’t change the world but you can make someone’s eyes shine for a second, if you do buy something off them or if you just do one nice small thing. Sometimes it’s all in the small things, those do make a difference.
A chicken story
I had a conversation about this subject with a well-travelled dude I met in Antigua, Guatemala and he told me a great story. His way to help was supporting a few people he kept meeting frequently. That dude kept buying chewing gums from a lady who sells them on a street corner every day. He didn’t even like chewing gums that much, he only wanted to support her a little.
They become somewhat friends and he found out that she’s been selling those chewing gums there for 7 years. On the same spot. But that’s not all. Her mother was also selling chewing gums on that very same corner for the duration of 15 years before her.
Before leaving the town, the dude once asked her what was her ultimate dream. What would she want if she had one wish? She apparently rolled her eyes and said: “Chickens”. She wanted chickens. Not to eat them, she wanted them so they would provide them with eggs, which would cut down the food expenses for the whole family by what was a considerable amount of money for her.
Now, think about that… What are your ultimate dreams?
Love, peace and understanding ;jb