Poverty: A Traveler’s Guide

Photo credit Ben Ridge

It’s time to talk about poverty.

As a typical resident of a “developed” country, I’ve been able to avoid it most days, except in my role as a teacher, where I have special access. In a school, it’s not easy to tell from just looking where poverty resides, but walk the halls and work with students and you fast learn the long way home that many of them must take. We have resources in our schools to help support students from poverty, like free lunches, bus passes and teachers who care, but there’s not much we can do about the barriers to access that many of the “have-nots” will have along their way. Still, the hope is that several possible pathways exist, and while the route may be steeper, longer or more fraught with peril for students of poverty, our educational system is a crossroads at which any direction should be possible.

Poverty in some countries is a lot less avoidable.

To tiptoe around the danger of a single story, I’ve tried to avoid writing about the poverty I see (though would never claim to understand) when I travel to countries with a much larger majority of “have-nots” than “haves.” To do this, however, is to draw an incomplete map which leaves out one of the critical experiences that traveling can, and arguably should, expose one to. For travelers making their way through the great, wide world of the human experience, guidebooks need instructions on how to navigate the right course of action towards extreme poverty

The young mothers at the train station…

Sure, the baby could be hers, or just borrowed for the day from a collective group dedicated to professional beggary. You hope this is true because she can’t be more than 14 and you don’t want to imagine the course of events that lead her to this busy train station to sit in rags each day and beg for salvation. When you give money, she asks for food instead. The next day when you bring her food, she takes you by the hand to a shop that sells rice by the kilo and charges much more than the stall by your house. You wonder what transactions will take place once you leave. The baby is small and never cries. If you go through the other entrance tomorrow, you will not have to think about this on your way through the city.

The children at the juice stand…

It’s hot, you’re sweating and a cold glass of fresh juice sounds like the perfect way to keep yourself hydrated until the sun relents a bit. There’s six of them. You see them here occasionally or down the road dragging bags bigger than they are, picking up bottles and plastics. They touch the tourists on the arm, some foreign, some domestic, and raise their hands to their mouths. “Khaana, khaana.” The words mean they are hungry. One brushes the crumbs of samosa off his face from the last successful attempt. He has legs that show signs of rickets and the dark, dusty hair on all of their unkempt heads is tinted orange. You thought this was from henna, but it is apparently a symptom of malnutrition. You had to look that up. Buying them a cold juice on a hot day is easy, something you would do for your niece or nephew and not think twice. All six should be in school right now and the teacher in you wants to ask them why they are here instead. The government schools are free, and though they are poorly regarded, are a better alternative to poverty, right? To a child, cold drinks and snack food do sound better than a hot, crowded classroom. You remember you have a cold water bottle back in your room.

The old woman on the doorstep…

She sits in the sun and you wonder if it feels good on old bones or if she knows she will be chased away from the shady spots as people come out to sit. Her hand is folded over in a way that she might have been born with, but that might be the result of a lifetime of struggle. You see your mother’s face and wonder where her family is. Maybe she was cruel, a tyrant to her children, who are finally shut of her. She needs a shower and it would be easy to lead her up your stairs and let her wash. Your landlord would think you were crazy and what if she refused to leave. You bring her some bananas, knowing one meal or one bath will do nothing. Like the children who are hungry and the young mothers with no place to go, the government has failed her. Policies exist, but implementation and corruption make your neighbors, who are locals, feel helpless. There is no safety net here other than the NGO’s, which the young social scientist next door blames for further government inaction. Your hand hesitates on the doorknob. If she is there today you aren’t sure what you will say, even if you knew how to translate it.

Photo credit Ben Ridge

Poverty is complicated…

…especially when you are an outsider. As a traveler, you hope to leave a place better than you found it, but could not possibly hope to understand all the nuance and causation. If the conversion rate is good, money can be an easy way to assuage a moral dilemma every time it faces you with an outstretched hand. Does this help, or does this hurt more, in the long run? You won’t be here long enough to find out, and that somehow makes it worse.

A guide for travelers…

There is no one right response to any of these situations. You have no way of gauging if you’re supporting a long-standing beggar gang or the long-term effectiveness of a non-profit as a casual visitor. Oftentimes, the longer I stay someplace, the more complicated the issues become, until I’m led to the dead-end of inaction through the belief that the only real and lasting change must come from within and I have no part in this. This might inspire me to return home and do the right thing, but that doesn’t fit nicely into a backpack to be pulled out each time I feel a slight tug and look down to see someone starving. There are many roadmaps out of poverty created by local, national and international experts that we can use as a guide for the long haul, but none of them guarantee we’ll reach the destination of no more destitution, and few provide guidelines for the short road trips we do through places that are less fortunate than home.

My only advice…

…is to see it. Sometimes I give money, sometimes food or toys. Sometimes this is the wrong thing to do. I’ve joined mailing lists and watched videos local youth have captured on small phone screens. This feels better. I turn away still, or take a different route, because that day I just can’t, knowing this, too, is a luxury some can’t afford. I know that whatever I am giving, small and insignificant in a huge pit of need, I give to make me feel better, not because it fixes anything. Sometimes it might, though.

There’s this great quote about how the tourist sees what he came to see and the traveler sees what he sees. Poverty needs to be seen. It does not define a place and all the people in it, nor does your reaction to it always define who you are and all that you will contribute to the world. As in every other aspect of traveling, what you see will change you. These things, slowly, change the world.