Some days I wonder if this blog shouldn’t be renamed Hicks from the Sticks.  The old saw that travel broadens your outlook is true.  Coming from NZ where we have virtually no beggars the vexed question when away is often what to do about begging? Its just not something we deal with on a day to day basis and therefore  we have no experience in how to handle it gracefully. Beggars made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and awkward. However, travel nearly anywhere out of NZ and there they are sitting in front of supermarkets, fast food restaurants and visitor attractions. Waiting….

For a long time I was pretty staunch about the matter. I didn’t give money to beggars and that was that. They should go out and get jobs and not hang around and make me feel uncomfortable by wanting my hard earned money. Considering I’ve long been a left wing liberal voter that didn’t quite make sense.  Several incidents stand out in memory:

  • Being chased lickety split down a footpath in Italy by an elderly lady with a walking stick who’d previously hit up a couple of locals for money by hobbling up to them hardly able to walk. She could sure move when she wanted to.
  • Demands for money from self appointed “door openers” and “shoe minders” at religious sites.
  • A guy in a wheelchair in Tangiers struggling up a hill in a marketplace.  He  surreptitiously rejected help from locals because he could see a likely bunch of tourists at the top of the hill to tap for cash.

These moments,  plus stories of deliberate mutilations and “Mr Big” operations harvesting the cash added to my cynicism.

Recently I’ve softened my attitude considerably.  It’s taken some time but I’ve reached a compromise that I can live with.   A discussion with a lovely gentle friend back in New Zealand who’d spent some time in India made me think twice.  She considered it her little piece of social service (as there was none provided by the state) and gave to the beggars at the end of her road whenever she went out.  So did seeing our driver (who had very little of his own) on a trip in Myanmar give to a begging couple when I’d refused.  THAT made me feel SO ashamed.  I discussed it with the tour guide at the time and his advice was to give from the heart.  Just don’t give if you don’t feel you want to.  Wise advice.

Now I do give to some beggars.  I don’t know if I’m doing the “right thing” whatever that is, or if I’m supporting a local crime ring.  The only thing I know is that I have more than those people sitting on the street in all weathers.  And I can afford to give them something even if its only a couple of coins because that’s all the change I’ve got today.  Hopefully they get to keep something out of it all.

There’s a lady locally who sits outside the supermarket every day with her sign and a paper cup.  She has the face of a Madonna and always smiles and says hello and wishes me a good day.  A friend who’s lived here for some time tells me that this lady inherited the “job” from her mother.  I’d never thought of begging as a job to be inherited before.  I certainly wouldn’t like to do it.  Whenever I come out of the supermarket I give her a few coins and she wishes me a good day.  It’s a pleasant interaction – much better with the money-with-menaces approach of shoe minders and door openers.  I enjoy seeing her and I like to think that she enjoys seeing me, despite her lack of English and my small amount of Spanish.

I think that there’s so much going on behind the surface with begging that we can never really know the truth of the situation.  All I know is that I look at these people and think – do I have more than you?  The answer is inevitably yes and that I can spare a little.  Some may consider this a sop to my white liberal conscience but who knows what the “right thing” to do is?

All I know is that Mr Win of Myanmar gave the best advice of all:

Give from the heart and only give when you want to.




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