the poor

i’ve been meaning to write this post for ages now cause all this has been weighing on my mind. i’ve kept putting it off an putting it off though, until now.

one of the most disturbing and difficult things about traveling in india is the sheer quantity of poor people here. everywhere you look there are people begging in dirty shabby clothing. you see old limping men, mother’s w/ sad looking children, hungry babies, and possibly saddest of all… the many many cripples. often times you see peope who are so severely crippled that it’s hard to even look at them without whincing and turning away. people w/ legs so absolutely useless, that they have to crawl along the ground on their arms and pull their lifeless limbs after them. i’ve literally had nightmares about these people.

seeing all this on a day to day basis is absolutely heart wrenching. it weighs on your mind and soul constantly and it’s often a battle to remain cheerful and enjoy your day when there are so many around you that dont have the luxury of a home, clothing, food, or even decent health. you want to do something… *anything* to help these people, but in another shameful and sad way, you often just wish that you could avoid them in order to spare you from the grief of witnessing their lives. it’s difficult for me to comprehend how these people live. just the few minutes of their lives that i witness seems so sad and depressing, and yet i only see the tip of the iceberg that is their misfortune.

so what can be done? it’s impossible to help every beggar that you see. if you even gave 20 rupees to each one, your money would soon be all gone. plus… well, there are many concerns about giving money to beggars. what will they spend it on? will they definitely buy food? or will the money be possibly be used on alcohol or even drugs? who knows where your money will go. so then, everyone says that it’s best to instead give to an organization. organizations have better resources and will be able to spend the money for a much better purpose than any individual. for instance, just by buying food in bulk, an organization can feed many many more people than if you just gave money to one beggar. but organizations have their downside too. organizations have their own costs.. they have to pay for advertising, pay their staff, pay rent, and all sorts of other administrative costs. how large of a percentage of your money will actually go to the needy and how much will just disappear?

so, what to do with your money is definitely a difficult dilemna. but there’s more dilemnas than just that. one thing that bothers me to no end is how much food gets wasted here. portions are often big… no, not big, huge! so many times when caryn and i have eaten there’s still tons of food left over. and, right outside the restaurant, there will be dirty kids begging. these kids will be yelled at, chased, and sometimes even hit with sticks by the owners of the restaurant to keep them away. it’s just insane to me that there are people… people who are just a few yards away who desperately need food… and right next to them is a heaping plate of leftover food that just goes into the garbage. the frustrating thing is that restaurants here dont really have “to-go” containers. there’s no way for us to take our uneaten food with us to give away later. instead it just gets thrown out.

i was sitting and eating outside at the omelette shop one day, when i saw some kids begging nearby. they looked all sad and distraught when they came up to people asking for money. but then, when they were alone they would start giggling, playing around, and smiling big grins. i started wonderring to myself as to whether these children really were as desparate as i thought. if they had such a hard life, how can they be playing around and having such a good time? maybe the sad face was all an act? but then my next thought was “sheeez. what the hell do you *want* from these people, vlad? you want them to be sad *all* the time? do they have to justify their poverty to you by never smiling? is that what you are hoping for?? if they have one second of joy, are they not worthy of your pity now??” and so it goes… the never ending internal mental debate. sadness and guilt, guilt and sadness churning around.

a few days later, caryn and i were chilling on top of a sand dune trying to watch a sunset. as i posted before, we were hassled every few minutes by people that tried to sell us sodas, chips, etc. we didnt want anything, but people just wouldnt leave us alone. we couldnt even get 5 minutes of peace an quiet. it was so annoying and i was getting so frustrated… and then i thought to myself, well, these people are just trying to make ends meet. isn’t this what people always want from the homeless? to “get a job”. well, these people found a job. they’re not begging. their selling soda. and yet, the sheer numbers of people forcing sodas etc on you is exhausting in itself.

i was talking to caryn and said, that maybe we should change our tactics. maybe we should give up our grand notions of donating money at the end of our time in india. maybe we should just give small amounts of money to the children we see begging instead? maybe hand out say, 100 rupees per day? but then caryn made the really good point that if you give to begging children, really you are just contributing to child labor. these kids should be in school. or they should be *playing* and enjoying their youth. instead their parents force them to walk around asking for rupees. where are these children’s parents? who knows… but i’m sure the parents realize that sad children will pull at people’s heartstrings. why send your child to school when you can force them to go earn you money? do we want to encourage that kind of thing?

plus, another suspicion is that i wonder just how much money these people make. how many tourists can a child talk to in one hour? 30 maybe? lets say one half of them hand over a meager 10 rupees (although i suspect many will give much more). thats 150 rupees per hour. more money than a waiter in a restaurant here would make. it would appear that begging could be a much more profitable job than doing real work.

all of these things have been whirling about in my head for the past month. so many questions, and no easy solutions. so i decided to poke around online for some thoughts on this issue. and i came across this post on lonely planet: read me!!. it’s a facinating read, and here’s an excerpt:

– Begging is almost always run by the local mafia
– Beggars have to pay a “license fee” to the mafia for the right to beg at popular joints (temples, traffic intersections etc.)
– The going license fee for the most popular spots in Bangalore (MG road, Domlur junction) is Rs. 600 a DAY per beggar
– The babies that women often carry are hired by the day (going rate Rs. 20 a day)
– These babies are almost always drugged with dhatura first thing in the morning. No wonder the child usually sleeps peacefully through the traffic noise and smoke
– The children are organized in ruthless gangs – the older boys are firmly in command, and “rule” with a heavy hand. The few girls that there are, are routinely sexually abused by the group of dominant boys, who in return provide them “protection” from adults and other boys. Younger boys are the most mistreated lot – they do almost all the work, and suffer the worst kind of physical and sexual abuse. The gang leaders collect all the earnings of the group and pay off the mafia and the police.

ugh. unbelievably disturbing isn’t it? unfortunately, i’ve actually heard this from some other people who live here as well. after reading this, i definitely decided that i wouldnt give to beggars anymore. my money would definitely help a lot more if i gave to an organization instead. i definitely dont want my money going to random mafia people, i dont want it used to encourage little children to beg instead of going to school, and i most definitely dont want it to be given to people who apparently are maimed *on purpose* so they can make more money by begging. so now, when i see beggars.. i keep walking and turn the other way. but it’s hard. really hard. sometimes i cave in and dig through my pocket for money even though i know that i may be causing more harm than good. but… i dunno… there are times i just cant bring myself to say no.

so, now we’re in mcleod ganj. caryn and i spent two days helping an organization that helps put homeless kids in school and gives them a place to live. it was only 2 days of our time, but it felt really good to be finally doing something to help. after our meditation classes next week, Jamyang wants some more help w/ stuff, and we are looking forward to helping some more. currently his organization (well, one of the many organizations he’s helping) is only housing 20 kids, but that’s a start and those 20 kids will now have a chance to grow up and lead a happy productive life. hopefully soon, he can make his organization even bigger and help more. as for us… we’re still going to donate some money before we leave india. we dont have much money to give.. but i guess every little bit counts.


5 thoughts on “the poor”

  1. You just said exactly what I have thought many times. Except I would add somethigg about about going back to the hotel and sobbing at night sometimes. Great post, hon.

    BTW, if anyone else wants to donate money to Tong-Len, the organization we’re volunteering for, please let us know. If you send us money via Paypal in the next couple weeks, we can give the cash straight to Jamyang.

  2. Hi Vlad,
    I am very touched by your post. We in the US are so sheltered from the harsh realities you describe! We hear stuff on TV or read stuff in the news, but it is impossible to grasp and also easy to put out of your mind without actually seeing it every day. I want you to know that I am very proud of you and Caryn.

  3. thanks, i’m glad you liked the post. poverty is definitely a huge issue here.. more so than any other country i’ve traveled in so far. or at least it’s more “in your face” here.

  4. Vlad, that’s sooooo saaaad. I dunno how you guys do it. I seriously lapse into a funk whenever I see some pitiful soul begging underneath the freeway – that would absolutely kill me. I can totally understand the guilt you’re feeling. Do you remember the crippled wretch at the bottom of the temple steps in Pai? I was so devastated when we saw him – and he was smiling, seemingly oblivous to his circumstances.

    *Sigh* We’ve got it SO easy here in the states. I realized just how easy we have it when I went to Costa Rica. I remember feeling sorry for all the dirty children playing in the street, the children who lived in one-room shanties, with tin roofs. And Thailand didn’t make me feel any better. I remember seeing this kid sleeping on the sidewalk in Bangkok, and he had a sign next to him that said he was a homeless orphan. I remember thinking to myself that I’d like to take him with me, but all I could do was drop some baht and go back to living my relatively carefree existence.

    Seeing the Philippines for the first time was an eye-opening experience, as well. Seeing the way that my family lived made me feel so blessed. And their lot in life is seemingly light years better than these poor Indian people.

    *Sigh* You guys are doing a REALLY good thing. I’m so proud of you! 🙂

  5. yeah,it’s really really rough. actually, it’s an *incredible* relief to be here up in mcleod ganj cause there is much much less poverty (at least to be seen). although, then sometimes i feel bad for being glad to just not have to see it. like i’m just avoiding it. *sigh*…

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