It’s the middle of the night – about 1 am. I am tired and I don’t feel well. I have just stammered off the bus to use the bathroom at this rest stop during this break on a night bus. Groggy, I then made my way back to the bus. The bus is locked up. This usually happens. On long distance buses in Southeast Asia, at least once, the whole bus stops for about a half hour so the driver can eat. Since no one is at the bus, the whole thing gets locked up and everyone waits outside until the driver is ready to go again.
Not having my glasses on and bemoaning myself for how I felt, I could not see very well. I had walked over to sit on this curb near to what I thought, in the darkness, was a pile of trash waiting to get picked up in the morning. In the shadows, all of a sudden I could see a small girl quietly emerged from under the card board.
She came out and just stood there. My eyes adjusting slightly, I could she was wearing blue and white polka dot pajamas. I realized what I thought was a pile of garbage was her home. The girl simply stood there. We stared at each other. She didn’t put her hand out, ask for money or say anything at all. It was just this moment in time when as I, a traveler, was passing through this unknown point on a map to use the rest stop, and here, this young girl, lay under a pile of card board.
The driver soon came back and everyone moved to get on the bus. The girl coughed and crawled back under her pile of card board.
Her image remains in my mind. I can still see her shoulder length hair, dark, slightly wavy and parted more to the right side of her head softly glowing in the moon light. Her blue and white spotted pajama pants went down half way to her calves and she stood there barefoot. What is that girl going to do? How can you break the cycle of poverty, if, at that age, that is your world? Will she ever know any differently? Can she read? Does she have more family living under that pile too? How can these situations exists in our world and what are we to do about it?
I thought about the hundreds of people who will pass through that rest stop and probably never even know there’s a small girl sleeping under that pile of card board. My mind is moved by so many extreme emotions of wanting to just give her the clothes off my back to wanting to just get to my comfortable hotel room with wifi and pretend I never saw it.
Whether I am traveling in the USA or third world countries like Myanmar, whenever I see homelessness and poverty, it strikes a cord in me, as I think it does with most people. I get asked often the question of how I deal with aspect of humanity.
When I come face to face with these types of situations, this is how I think and what I have to say:
Stay hungry for life and never let the self-defeating thought that, “Oh I can’t do anything nor fix everything” every stop you from feeling emotion and acting on it. I strongly feel it does not help end the cycle of poverty to ever give money out to people on the street. (This is a sensitive topic. My understanding and thoughts have changed so much since I started traveling. For starters, please read this article and see the notes below.) Instead, take power in knowing that by thoughtfully traveling in a developing country or local community you are helping to redistribute wealth, particularly when spent at small businesses.
Stay hungry for life and never let a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable ever stop you from treating another fellow human being with as much kindness and respect as you would if you were meeting the Dali Lama or the Queen of England.
Stay hungry for life and never believe that you are powerless to affect the world around you. Every single day you can use your purchasing power to support businesses and organizations that make an impact in the world and align with fair values.
Stay hungry for life and never let yourself think you don’t have the highest right to strive to achieve as much success as you can to better yourself. What none of us have the right to do is to strive to achieve success at the expense of others.
Stay hungry for life and never judge someone else for their misfortunes. There is no difference to a child born in the USA, Ghana, Iran, Australia or any other place. The opportunities that will either be afforded to us or not, depending on which patch of land we were born on, will in turn greatly play a role in the probability of you either being the one under that card board or the one getting on that bus.
Stay hungry for life and never forget that we all share this world together. For reasons that have no good explanation, I was the one climbing back on that bus and not underneath the cardboard.
Stay hungry for life and never forget that you have been given some special gift to help this world. Use it.
Action Steps you can take to help reduce poverty:
Buy fair trade. We have visited farms in third world countries that produce coffees, teas, etc. and ask the workers if the fair trade certification actually helps them earn a fairer wage. It does. Here is the international site and the USA site to learn more.
Buy local. Anywhere you are on this planet, if you can put money more directly into the hands of someone who has made a product or grown a food item, you are in turn helping them sustain their lives and have a better able to pay it forward.
Volunteer. Chris and I spent about a year volunteering for national service with Americorps at the Mile High Youth Corps in Denver, Colorado. That program had a huge impact on our lives and we saw aspects of society we had never seen before. It saddens me to no end because currently Americorps is on the chopping block. To present another idea, if you have trouble finding an “official program” to volunteer with, you can create your own volunteering projects anywhere you go! Chris and I pick up trash along beaches. We can do this anywhere, anytime and just on our own. There’s always creative ways to think of solutions to issues that confront us every day.
Support conservation efforts. If some of these countries can keep the wildlife they have from going extinct, in the long run that has the potential to bring in a lot more sustainable tourism than the fast cash of cutting down forests. All throughout this trip across Southeast Asia we have we seen the logo and projects that are a direct result of collaborations with World Wildlife Fund. I have spoken with so many different organizations and parks and over and over World Wildlife Fun has played a hand on helping to preserve species, land and support people. I have been really impressed with their active presence here.
Cape Town, South Africa is a city that has taken proactive steps to work to eliminate begging in the streets and poverty. For a long time I didn’t realize how handing out money could be doing more harm and encouraging a dead end cycle until I started traveling and learning from other organizations. This is a well written article covering the subject. One travel leader we experienced this with was Intrepid Travel. I was really impressed in all aspects with Intrepid Travel’s philosophy, role modeling and encouragement of how to be positively impactful travels.
In general, be a kind, generous, compassionate, caring person.
We are all this together and our actions and thoughts matter.