On Helping Others

Trip Start Feb 20, 2008
Trip End Mar 05, 2008

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Where I stayed
Posada de Dona Clara

Flag of Guatemala  ,
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

One of the things I've noticed this trip is how difficult most people's daily lives are. Here I am in Antigua, paying the same for my breakfast (about $4.00) that a typical coffee harvester makes in a day. Then I start to see the craziness -- the policemen who give Nelson a $35.00 parking ticket even though there were no "No Parking" signs, then offer to take it away for a $30.00 bribe; the stories of a friend's employee, after having been caught stealing money, trying to kill him with an evil spell; the public hospitals where people who should have been cured die having to wait for a doctor, who more than likely hasn't been sufficiently trained. (I didn't actually see the hospitals myself, but one of the other tourists on the Semuc Champey trip had been doing part of her residency in a the capital. Her advice after three months? Never go to a public hospital in Guatemala if you're sick!)

Nelson deals with the craziness by trying to help people whenever he can, and I try to follow his lead. In the market one night in Santiago Atitlan, we're approached by a sad-looking little girl who stands a few feet away and stares at us. Nelson sees her and shows her his drink. "Do you want one?" Shyly, she nods. Nelson orders a drink in a glass and gives it to her. She takes it, but doesn't drink. She doesn't seem to know what to do. "Do you want it in a bag instead?" (That's the Guatemalan market version of take-out.) She nods again. The market women pour the drink into a plastic bag and tie it in a knot. The little girl takes the bag and vanishes. It's not long before another girl appears -- her sister! We laugh and give this one not only a drink, but some tamales as well.

The next night we return to the market. Sure enough, one of the little girls walks up to us again. Nelson orders her some food, which she promptly takes away. Yet when the second girl appears, Nelson sends her away. "Why did you do that?" I ask, surprised.

"You see how they always leave with the food? I bet their parents make them come over here and beg for food, then bring it to them," he explains. "They're probably drunk. Sometimes parents have money for alcohol, but no money to feed their kids."

I'm skeptical, and we spend a few minutes searching in vain for the parents. It's true that one of the girls had bruises under her eyes, which does make me suspicious at the care she's receiving -- that and the fact that she's out here in the market alone. She can't be much more than six years old, if that. Upon returning to the market, we see the girls standing by another group of tourists. I feel better, figuring they'll get something. Still, the experience brings up a tricky question: how do you know if your kindness is really helping? Nelson prefers to give food rather than money for that reason -- he doesn't want a beggar to go hungry, but neither does he want him to go off and buy liquor.

I guess one thing we tourists/ travelers can do is make sure we're not stingy, so that our being here really does bring some good to the country. An indigenous woman with a young child at Semuc Champey watched our belongings while we went rapelling, yet it didn't look as if our guide paid her anything; so, a number of us bought homemade chocolate from her. I've taken to rounding up the bill even at restaurants where a 10% service charge is included; after doing this once, a friend told me he could tell that I'd be welcome there any time! And, though often it's necessary to bargain to make sure you're not being cheated, there's nothing wrong with giving a little more than was asked for and calling it a tip.

Is this enough? In a country where over half the population lives below the national poverty line, surely not. But the little things do seem to spread goodwill, and in a place where poverty leads people to kill for a few hundred quetzals, that goodwill may be more valuable than we think.
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