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Give Us Your Poor

9 September, 2008 (20:15) | Travelogue

Tibetan prayer flags flutter on barbed wire, indicative of the mix of peace and reality in McLeod Ganj.
For more poignant photos of India, click here.

The beggars come at us from all angles. They’re waiting outside our hotels and stalking our destinations. They come up to us at tables while we drink and catch us as we run to the bathroom. They’re drawn toward our glow, our Caucasian pallor marking us as the night sky marked Jesus for the wise men. Perhaps we’re merely dollar signs to them, but they act as though we’re their savior.

After a while, all the beggars start to blend in my mind. They all have the same dirty clothes, the same broken smiles. They carry the same bare-assed infant and suffer the same deformities. They make the same motion with their hands, pulling imaginary food worthy of the Lost Boys from their empty palm and shoveling it into their mouths. It feels as though I’ve been turning a blind eye to these people for ages. I’m not sure I can stop.

In the Philippines, I was warned these beggars are professionals. At the end of the day, they plug the holes in their teeth with dentures and drive their cars back to their homes where they watch cable until the next batch of marks come across the water. I find it hard to believe, but answering the incessant requests seems to only attract more. Frederick gave a cookie to a hungry boy and soon found himself out of cookies. He bought another package to keep on giving and had to be escorted away from the mob that formed.

When I was little, if we had spare change, we’d gladly pass it to a random beggar on the street in the US. It’s simply how I was raised. I’m not sure the ideal was ever stated clearly, but at the very least, I learned by my parents example.

At some point, things changed. Giving money meant feeding a drug or alcohol habit more likely than not. If I wanted to help, I should buy the poor folks food, volunteer my time, offer them shelter or work. My friend Stout took a homeless man in off the streets during the coldest days of winter and let him sleep in his tiny apartment. We spent hours one evening playing poker for pennies. It was clear the man wasn’t completely there. After a few days, the smell, the madness, and the company at all hours got to Stout. With the worst of the cold gone, he sent the poor man packing. “You offered him more than I probably would have,” I told him.

Rupees are happy money, complete with thumbs up on them. They don’t indicate the tough times in India.

A few years back, as my wages sunk and my hours dipped, my money barely keeping me afloat, I began to need every spare coin to buy myself dinner off the Wendy’s 99 cent menu a few nights a week. I would dig through the couch every few days, hoping for enough for a baked potato and a cup of chili. I began eating whatever leftovers were offered and joining extra clubs at school just for the free pizza. It was then that I stopped giving.

Though I was warm and clothed, in a good school and had good friends, I was barely scraping by. I was too proud to ask my parents for money unless it was an issue of rent, in which case it didn’t just affect me. I know I could’ve kept giving, donating time or food or money, even if it was only a few cents here or there, I didn’t feel like it. I felt I was too close to screwing up my own life to be responsible for saving another.

Last winter, I got a raise and steady hours. I saw a marked increase in my income, enough to live comfortably, and, as I had before, I became loose with my money. I would cover friends when they were low on funds. I would float dinners and offer rides. And, most prominently, I would give my spare change to the homeless guys outside of work as I left each afternoon. It felt good to give again.

This morning, I was accosted by a throng of beggars just walking from my cheap hotel room through the back alley to the front of the hotel and back. Since leaving the Philippines, I haven’t given any money to any beggars, though I did give food a couple times.

Gina is beginning to feel overwhelmed by their numbers and I understand the feeling. She grabs a bag of cookies for the children she had passed on the way. I don’t see any children begging right now, but they’re always the most difficult to deny. I can see the pain in her eyes as she shakes her head and turns them away. I hope the same pain is still reflected in my own eyes.

Matt and I stand on the edge of a wall, looking down 15 feet into a cement soccer field that marks the playground for one of the schools. A young boy walks up to us.

“If I jumped,” he says, staring down the drop, “everyone would die.” I’m startled by the though, wondering if he’s imply that the entire world exists only in his head, an intense philosophical prospect for a 10 year old.

“What?” Matt and I say.

“If I jump, they’ll think you pushed me.” His English is good and clear. Matt’s eyes widen. We’ve been impressed. That’s not easy.

“Yeah,” Matt says, “they would. They’d come after us and probably tear us to pieces.”

“Yes,” says the boy. “Buy me some food?” Now we’re laughing. We glance at each other. It’s clear that Matt’s as tempted to do so as I am.

“No,” he says smiling. “Good try, though.”

“Please buy me some food?”

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Suraj. What’s yours?”

“I’m Ben and this is Matt.” We shake his hand. “We won’t buy you food, sorry. Our friend Gina is more likely to buy you food than us,” I tell him.

“Where is she?”

“Just over there.” I point her out at the shop down the street. “In the orange jacket.” Suraj runs over. It takes a few minutes of asking, but the girls buy him some food. I wink at Suraj as he zips up the bag in his jacket. I feel good that he got something out of it, though I’m a little guilty for sending him to Gina.

“That was cold,” Matt says, “sicking him on her like an attack dog.”

“I didn’t lie to him. She was more likely to buy him food than us.”

“Yeah,” Matt agrees, smiling. “But if there’s one way to get me, it’s to engage me in a philosophical discussion.”

After dinner, while relaxing in their hotel room, the four of us have a long and winding conversation. I find myself on the defensive most of the time, my explanations poorly formed, my stances hard to fathom. I misuse terms and end up in semantic wars arguing ends versus means instead of the philosophies in question. I feel inept, disliked, and cornered, but it’s my own doing. I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Matt thinks I’m laughing because I believe I’ve won. There’s never a winner in these sorts of discussions anyway. The one theme that comes through clearly, though it takes a while to get there, is my belief that it’s never enough.

Gina smiles at Cafe Coffee Day in Delhi while Emilie picks a vegetarian dish.

I try to explain to Emilie that I think vegetarianism for moral reasons is silly. Animals will still be slaughtered, their flesh left to rot when the vegetarians turns their heads away in passive protest. She argues that if everyone were vegetarian, there would be no meat produced; that her being vegetarian has influenced friends to do the same. I say that just being vegetarian is not enough.

“What is enough?” Emilie asks, the correct response to my mantra of cause.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “Vegetarianism isn’t my cause.”

I try and argue with Gina that giving money to beggars only supports their habits and makes being a beggar a lucrative pursuit, the coins we donate being wasted on booze and drugs more likely than food. I say we should be volunteering our time, buying them food.

“Giving them money is better than doing nothing,” Gina says. I spend several moments trying to come up with a half-hearted response I don’t truly agree with.

“Not if it hastens their death,” I finally say. It’s a weak argument, but it’s all I have. “Just throwing money at the issue isn’t enough.”

“What is enough?” Gina asks, echoing the biggest flaw in my mantra.

“I don’t know,” I respond. “Beggars aren’t my cause.”

I try and argue with Matt that religion can be good; that believing in something that can’t be proven isn’t necessarily evil. It’s all part of my Polymonoatheism, which states that God is a man-made construct and people only have one god at any given time, even if they technically worship a pantheon. Matt responds by trying to prove that belief in an unprovable idea is inherently a problem because the idea is wrong. I counter that we can’t say that unless we know it’s false, thereby making it a proven idea and evidentially sound. The argument circles around itself like two dragonflies viciously butting heads as they fight for their lives. Eventually, it comes to a standstill.

“What is your cause, anyway?” asks Gina.

“There are too many things I want to change to choose just one.”

“So you just do nothing,” she says accusatorially. More often than not, she’s right. I feel driven toward inaction by the incredible breadth of the world’s problems. But I’m too embarrassed and incensed to admit this.

A woman sits dejectedly in a playground in McLeod Ganj.

“I do what I can,” I steam, bending the truth as much as I think I can without lying, “but it’s never enough. No matter what the cause, no matter how much you do, in your mind it should never be enough, even if it’s as much as you can do,” I say. “It’s never enough. If you think it is, then it’s not important enough to you.”

“So you can never have personal satisfaction?” asks Emilie.

“No. You can never be satisfied.”

“Then you’re going to live your life angry and bitter,” says Matt. Gina’s nodding in agreement.

“To an extent,” I say, knowing how unhappy I am with myself and my actions. I’m certainly pleased with many of the things I’ve accomplished, many of the differences I’ve made, but I’ll never be satisfied and believe I’ve done enough.

“You’ll never be happy,” they’ll tell me.

“No, I’ll never be satisfied. I can still be happy.” It’s semantics again, and a new round of arguments has begun. We’re getting nowhere and it’s frustrating for all of us. Eventually, the night collapses in on itself and Matt and I slink back to our room, the argument unresolved and barely even partially dealt with.

As we walk through the streets, I can’t help but envy them. I wish I could feel satisfied with what I’m doing for whatever cause I pick up. I wish I championed a cause strongly, started a fund or worked to make the world better. Instead, I bounce from cause to cause, staying only as long as it takes for disillusionment to set in. I find investing myself in a single person, trying to make a difference in his or her life to be the most fulfilling. I know I can make a difference somehow. I wish I believed I made a difference now.

Gina is extremely intelligent and well-read. Emilie is much like her sister, though the 9-year difference in age is the equivalent of a lot of experience. Their compassion and caring is clear and beautiful, and it’s something I worry is slowly seeping from my own personality. Adding in Matt, there’s no chance I can compete with their combined intelligence. His skill with puzzles and math can latch on to any mistake I make, be it linguistically, semantically or logically and turn it into multiple leaks in my argument faster than I can plug the initial hole. I feel proud that I was able to stumble my way to apparent standstill, though I’m sure each of them believes they came out ahead tonight. In all honesty, they probably did.

There are no beggars in the dark on the way home. The entire city is shut down and the stars are shining brightly. I tepidly stumble down the stairs into our alley and find my way to the door.

It’s not a good feeling that, of the four of us, I’m the bad guy; the divisive force in the group’s happiness. If this were sesame street, I’d be the which one of these that doesn’t belong. I want to fit in and make everyone happy, but deep down, no matter how hard I try, I know it’s never enough.

[ed. – Ben is a lot better than he makes himself out to be here!  I mean, there’s a REASON we are friends and traveling companions and it is surely not that he’s an imperfect human in a harsh world! Ben achieves a smart blend of kindness and criticalness that brings a mature, worldly view to our wonderful travels! Don’t let him put himself down in a note like this. -Matt]

The sun attempts to break through the Himalayan clouds, but can’t quite manage to.