Poverty and travel

I’m reading a book at the moment, ‘Little Princes’ by Conor Grennan, about an American who (as a prelude to his round-the-world trip) had volunteered in a Nepalese orphanage. Initially it was to impress his friends, but as he became emotionally attached, he was involved in rescuing children from the ugly world of child trafficking.

It’s making me think about my own experience encountering poverty in various countries around the world. There are many reasons to visit countries considered ‘poor’, for cultural interest, adventure, partying, nature and animals, or just relaxation.

Hindu shrine, Kathmandu

Often we will witness hunger, homelessness and people affected by war, shake our heads and donate some coins and decide that something simply must be done about this.

Then when the holiday is over, we go home and tell the story of what we’ve seen to our friends like it’s just an interesting or shocking anecdote, leave it at that, and carry on drinking and spending our disposable income on shoes and iPads and all that other stuff that really, isn’t necessary.

In Zambia a few years ago, J, W and I stopped our car at a tiny wooden shack just off the highway in the middle of nowhere, in a dusty clearing. As W went inside the store to buy some water and snacks, J and I played soccer with a large group of kids who were kicking around a ball of what appeared to be old newspaper, bound with a fishing net.

The kids in Zambia

What if somebody could buy them a soccer ball for twenty bucks? What if we had only packed a spare one in the back of the car? I’ve blown that kind money at KFC to get through a hangover. What a waste! Maybe the more we travel, the better we can appreciate the value, or rather, the power of a dollar.

C and I visited an orphanage in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We found out about it from a flyer handed to us as walked down the street, as you might be handed a coupon for a Big Mac deal.

On the weekends the kids receive tourist visitors and put on a dancing stage show. We arrived by tuk-tuk a bit late, hoping we didn’t miss the performance. As we turned up just before dark, we realised we were the only people who had come, and the kids and teachers flocked around us, most of them thrilled to have the chance to perform that night.

With a kid hanging onto each hand, we were given a mini-tour of the orphanage. The kitchen, the workshop where they learn various crafts, and their shared bedrooms, scant more than a sleeping mat and a few hand-drawn pictures of Buddha.

The boys showed me their rooms and C had the tour of the girls’ dorms. They performed their dances, we cheered and clapped, donated to the orphanage, had a dance and a conga line with the little ones, and generally just a great fun evening.

Now this is a grey area; weeks later in Phnom Penh we spotted posters around town saying ‘Our children are not tourist attractions’, accompanied with a photo of a child displayed in a glass case like a museum exhibition. Was our visit a help or a hindrance? Were they truly orphans or did our donations go to some greedy man at the top?

It made me think of a guy we spotted at Choeung Ek outside of Phnom Penh (AKA the killing fields), who was unashamedly snapping photos of a begging child, reaching a skinny arm through the outer fence.

He was snapping portraits quite literally inches from his face as the kid continued to plead for food. I’m sure he got great photos to dazzle people back home with. His friends probably felt stabs of pity and decided that something should be done. But he didn’t do anything, he didn’t help.

What about me, am I just a hypocrite? Is it my duty to do something, to sponsor someone or join a charity group? Is that our obligation as the ‘guys with the money?’ I guess that depends person to person. I gave empty water bottles to kids in Malawi who treasured them like i was giving away bars of gold, and it made me feel good, but I’ve never given any real aid to someone.

There were a lot of questions in this article that I don’t know how to answer.

Maybe it’s time to put my money where my mouth is, find a charity of some kind, and try and help.

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