A dilemma of the heart: beggars while traveling abroad

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Traveling has the power to change you on so many different levels. I just got back from Disneyland and I couldn’t help but think what the average person from India would think. Would it be amazing? Repulsive? Outrageous? Wonderful? Ridiculous? Absurd? Happy? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I did see many Indian families who were visiting, many in traditional dress speaking Hindi wearing the Disney hospitality button which marked them as a “first time visitor.” I wanted so badly to ask them what they thought of this. Of course, India is no stranger to opulence and luxury. And the families visiting Disneyland are most likely those who can afford it and are accustomed to a certain standard of living.

But to the children I saw living in garbage piles, and the stick thin people bathing at the side of the road…..what would Disneyland seem like to them?

I had the same thought when I went shopping at Costco after I had been home a few weeks. I thought of the women I saw, squatting by rivers to handwash clothes and sweeping front walkways of their one room huts or shacks made of bits and pieces of cast offs. What would Costco seem like to them?

The standard of living for many who live in India is vastly different than what we have in the United States. What we would consider “poor” here would seem like wealth to many in India.

Before traveling to India, we were advised by some wise friends to decide in advance what we might like to do for people while we were there. Because if you have a heart at all, you will feel like you should do something. As a tourist, you are approached by beggars and touters constantly. Some of the beggars look truly starving; others look healthy and well fed. Begging is a huge problem in India, and the government would like it to stop, but they seem to be doing very little about it. Some people beg because they are truly destitute, and some beg as a profession. Some of the beggars, especially children, are compelled to turn over their earnings to beggar masters. And most tragic, sometimes children are maimed by parents and beggar masters in order to engender more sympathy and increase profits.

I talked to one of my travel companions a few weeks after returning, and he told me that he had not been sleeping well. He felt like he was still trying to process all that he saw. I experienced this myself. Once while I was waiting at a train station, I felt a tug at my pant leg. I looked down and saw a mangled and grotesquely thin young man laying on a homemade skateboard like contraption. It broke my heart. Who takes care of him? Who loves him? The enormity of it all was overwhelming, and as I tried to sleep I had a difficult time digesting it. It is as if my brain was unable to process it all at the time and had to keep bringing it up when it was supposed to be at rest.

So what can a traveler do? It is a simple question, but not one that is answered easily. You can take money to give away, but that can be a little hazardous. At one temple I found myself with some smaller bills, and I started to give them away, but I was quickly surrounded with clamoring people all trying to get my attention. They came in so close I could not even move and security had to come and break it up. One of my friends stopped offering money when a fight broke out over the bill right in front of him.

I had a friend suggest that you have something to give away. So I took a case of granola bars and pencils. To people who asked for food, I was able to give them something. Some people seemed genuinely happy to receive them, especially children, and some ate the granola bars on the spot. A group of children I gave pencils to carried them around like they were the best thing ever. Some of the beggars seemed disgusted because what they wanted was money.

Another possibility is to scope out different charitable organizations and donate to them directly. It takes some footwork, but you can find wonderful people doing amazing things in India. I plan to highlight a few I was introduced to in later posts.

Some people believe that we have enough problems here on our own turf that charitable donations should be kept close to home.

So, the question I want to pose in Cyberspace: in your travels what have you done? What are your opinions about giving while traveling? What have you done that is effective? I know I have readers out there who would have some amazing perspective. I would love to hear from you.

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One in our party being shadowed by a young touter

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5 thoughts on “A dilemma of the heart: beggars while traveling abroad

  1. I loved my time in India and especially the people who were warm and friendly ( we were there for a wedding and met people from all walks of life ) but I found the poverty devastating. We paid men to carry our bags when we could have quite easily done it ourselves. We were told by our hosts not to give money to beggars, but did so when they were not looking. I went back to Australia and sponsored a little girl in India and we still do 10 years later.

  2. This kind of thing breaks my heart. It is one reason I would be reluctant to move there. I would always be wanting to do more and more but never be able to touch the root of the problem. It’s so sad. How do you know, without going there, which organizations are reputable? I have heard that so many out of country organizations that “help” are scams.

    • I am not totally sure. Debra has had success with World Vision. I also know of a few charities. Probably word of mouth. I wonder if there is a “better business bureau” of charitable organizations.

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