"Hello sir, how are you? Where you going?"
These lines were those of a little boy, one of many who have learned English from the same book of "things to say when a couple of paler than paper foreigners crosses your path" (in truth they speak very good English here). The path on which we were crossing was a one from Damside Pokhara to the World Peace Pagoda on the western side of the lake. It started just as any of these encounters, a child comes to say hello and shows interest in us. Happens all the time, only this time it didn't stop there. After we had informed the kid about our intentions about going to the pagoda, he knowingly announced "Yes, it is this way". We were on a path with no turns…
The boy started to walk with us, not really talking to us or anything, letting us follow him from a few meters away. Every once in a while he would look back to see if we were still following. It seemed pretty obvious that he was in it for a small price that we would pay after he had showed us the way. We didn't need him to do so, so we thought it best to stop for a while to take some pictures and what not. The kid went on without looking back and we felt as if we had misjudged his intentions. However, as we started walking again and turned the next bend, the boy was doing the same thing we had done to him: stopping for some excuse. And then we were unwillingly following him again. It started to get a little odd. He was small, maybe 10 years old or so, and walked pretty slowly so we decided to walk past him. Only to find him again a short time later, as he had taken a shortcut.
This game was getting a little frustrating. It became something else entirely, when we found an adult man walking some distance in front of us, looking back. We had passed the same man at the same time the boy first came to us. The plot seemed pretty clear from there on: the boy pretended to do us a favor, which we didn't need, and the man would soon demand a payment for that. A con in the forest where no-one else was there to see it done. We decided not to fall into that one and took the next small path south, when our goal was to the west. The boy shouted "You're going the wrong way" back to us. We were just glad that we finally got rid of him.
This story might not be all that interesting, but it brings us to the topic of charity and on a broader perspective, being a "wealthy" foreigner in a poor country. We meet beggars every day and everywhere, some are hungry looking children, some are missing limbs, some are poor old refugees from Tibet. The question is what to do when they come asking for money? It's quite straightforward when a child with horrid teeth comes asking for "bonbons", you simply don't give them! You wouldn't give candy at home and you'd probably teach your children not to take any from strangers. But the money is another thing entirely. That could be used for something good, like schoolbooks, pens and paper, maybe a hot meal the person desperately needs. But it might as well end up being collected by someone else at the end of the day. And even if that doesn't happen, what difference am I making in the life of the beggar by giving alms? They live to beg another day?!
Our so-called plan for the 'round the world trip doesn't involve charity work or volunteering, not at least right now. Does that make us bad people? Based on no actual study at all, I've heard that the ones who do volunteer to work with schools etc. might in some instances actually leave at the end without leaving any money behind. The money which they have paid (and there is a good deal of it) could end up in the pocket of the person or organization behind the volunteering program and not in the community. Helping out in a third world school is great, but which do the students really need more: a Dutch woman teaching them somewhat okay English, or money in their community, which in the end leads to better infrastructure and improved quality of life? I believe, again based on nothing at all, that as just ordinary tourists we can also make a difference in the lives of those around us. We eat at local restaurants, we sleep in locally owned guesthouses, we pay for activities that bring work locally. As we do that, we pump our first world currency into the systems of the third world, who may then choose what to do with it. Setting aside all the environmental issues etc. involved with tourism, our money builds infrastructure in the long run. It creates jobs. Our money helps people stand on their own two feet, if they are willing to do so.
Returning back to the future con artist we met in the woods, what good comes out of giving him money for his "troubles" in "showing us the way"? He learns that he can guilt or threaten people into giving him money. Same applies, at least to some extent, to the other children walking beside us with their palms facing upwards. I am not the person to judge them individually, nor do I have an answer to what to do with the crippled beggars, but I can share the policy I have on "giving back". I give to the people who work for their money. As we were renting bicycles, I didn't try to haggle (in Finnish/suomeksi tinkiä) the price of 400 NPR lower even if I could have, because it was reasonable to begin with. As the guy on the top of the hill we were climbing wanted 50 rupees to watch our bicycles, even though a while before we had seen motorcycle parking for as low as 30 rupees, we paid gladly because in our money it's only about 0,40 €! Finally, on the same hill, the woman we bought water bottles from was smirking as she was clearly discussing her friend how much she could charge us. The going rate is 25 rupees per liter almost everywhere, but she wanted 35. That was completely OK. She lived on a hill!
Giving back, for me, for now, means supporting local businesses when and where we can. It means bargaining so that we don't pay stupid amounts of money for nearly worthless things, but only to the point that the seller still makes a reasonable profit. That's capitalism 101. It's worked pretty well in our neck of the woods. Maybe someday it will have a positive influence on the woods leading to the World Peace Pagoda.