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Giving Can Be Dangerous

By: Derek McIver
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

In most of my travels trying to blend in hasn't been much of a concern for me, so long as I keep my mouth shut. As a white-skinned American it is easy enough to look like the natives of most places in North America and Europe. When I travel, I tend not to wear flashy clothes during the day, and I try to speak with a soft tone so that I don't stand out as a tourist while walking about. But in India, being a white-skinned American might mean automatic trouble for someone venturing through the streets there. I knew that I would have camouflage problems there, and I wanted to do any little thing I could to help conceal my foreign identity. During the few weeks before my trip I grew a beard, which managed to cover most of my lower face by the time that I arrived. But it was still very obvious that I was from the West. A beard didn't make me inconspicuous at all. I'm just thankful that I don't have blonde hair.

Indian cities are very unique, but like all other cities in the world, they are filled with people from other places, whether they are tourists or people who have moved in. Seeing a white person in a city there isn't usually much of a big deal because the people living in the cities are used to seeing people colored differently than they are. But few Westerners go into the Indian countryside, so leaving the cities becomes risky. People there are a hundredfold more curious than in the city. Some people are so curious that they'll feel very honored to get a handshake from us or to take a picture with them.

Most Indians suffer from poverty, and in the villages the conditions of the poor can be seen much more closely than in the cities. To them, white skin means money and wealth and a life that many of those Indians will never see. We are judged upon first sight, no matter who we are or what we do. White skin is where the money is, and the beggars know it. In villages the number of beggars is much fewer, which means that they will spend a lot more time along our sides if we aren't aggressive enough.

Our first stop after Delhi was Rishikesh, a small town located in the foothills to the Himalayas. It is a spiritual mecca, because many of the people who go there go to spend lots of time meditating, doing yoga, and practicing Eastern prayer methods. The town is packed with temples and yoga centers, and people wearing robes of all colors walk barefoot through the streets. We arrived late in the night, so we had to find a hotel with some haste and check in. We were all thrilled to be in Rishikesh, because our lungs needed a break from the heavy Delhi air that we had been breathing during the previous days. Plus, Rishikesh promised to be a much more relaxing place than Delhi, which is overcrowded and sprawling with activity all the time. I personally looked forward to sitting along the Ganges to reflect on life. I wanted nothing more than to sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery.

Our group did the usual educational routine during the day. We went in an out of temples while learning stories of the Hindu faith and we ate, like usual, on the floor of an ashram. But when evening came we were on our own, so while some were off to browse the shops, I went to write postcards while sitting before the Ganges River. I found a comfortable spot on some stairs and started to write out the postcards, which bore vibrant images of Hindu gods on the front sides. Soon after, Emily and Diana, two friends with whom I was traveling, sat down nearby so I joined them to breathe in the late afternoon air of Rishikesh.

Sometime when I was in India (it was before Rishikesh, I think), I thought that I came up with a wonderful and magnificent idea. I thought that I would give my baseball cap to a child in need and I wanted a picture taken of me doing it. I envisioned a National Geographic-type photograph. Both the child and I would be sporting a gigantic smile - so big that had they extended any further, we would have exploded into a fit of riotous laughter- while I was placing the cap on the kid's head. The lighting would be perfect and therefore a sparkle would flash from the child's eyes, which, of course, I would be looking directly into. Also, the picture would be in black and white. Black and white pictures always seem classier than color ones. The picture would make me look great, of course. The lighting and tricky camera angle wouldn't show any of my scratches or dents and the action I was performing would make me appear to be a good hearted person. What a stupid idea.

As we were sitting by the river that afternoon we were approached by a small group of beggar children. We were used to this, of course, but at the moment we didn't want to be bothered by young children nagging for money. At first we said "No, no" to dismiss them, but they wouldn't go away. They held out their hands and put the look of hungry puppies on their faces. It didn't take long for more kids to show up, enough to make us outnumbered by at least two to one. The relaxing spirit we hoped for was going down the tubes. Emily's frustration was growing quickly, but the beggars wouldn't take "no" as an answer, so we had to do something fast. This was my time to shine. My hat was in my backpack, so all I had to do was take it out and put it on the head of the cutest of the boys there. There was too much chaos for a photo op, but at least I would feel good afterwards and the kids would go away once they saw that our donations were exhausted. Right?

My grand idea was full of flaws, and the way in which I carried it out was even more flawed. Because my backpack was so stuffed, I sat down so that I could have a better handle on it in order to get the hat out. So, I sat down, unzipped the backpack, and started digging for my hat. If I had remained standing, I ran the risk of having the contents of my bag fall all over the place, but at least I could have kept it above the eye level of the kids. Everyone saw what was inside my backpack - a camera, a sweater, books, pens, and probably even some rupees peeking out. I removed the hat quickly and managed to zip my pack up, but the children weren't blind. They knew what I had. I singled out the little boy who would get my hat and put it atop his head. I smiled, and he grinned, but there was definitely no sparkle coming from his eye. He wanted more, and everyone else wanted something, too. The others couldn't have been too happy that only one of their competitors got something. They got even closer to us than before and cried "Please, please" faster than ever. It was then that I realized that I made a mistake and that I should never have given my hat (or anything at all) to any of the boys there. Emily, Diana, and I should have walked away when the first of the boys came. That would have been an easy escape.

The tensions grew and we could do nothing more for the children. We started to shout our "No"s and fight our ways away from the kids, a difficulty when you're not supposed to touch them. We eventually freed ourselves from the ring of beggars around us and walked away, going in the direction of where we would meet the rest of the group later on. The boys followed us for a little way, but soon diminished as we got further away.

Discretion is important when traveling, because standing out will cause people to judge us before they have even met us. Especially in India, where an American stands out like hay in a needle stack. The poor will instantly associate us with wealth and will work to take a small part of that from us. I make a conscious effort to remain discreet in my travels and I'd like to think that I am pretty successful in my efforts, but on that one afternoon in Rishikesh, I attracted attention to myself. I should never have even made a gesture indicating that I would give anything away, and I especially shouldn't have made all of the contents of my backpack visible to the begging children. Now those children might see all Americans (or maybe even all white people) as self-righteous tourists who give perfectly good items away to make themselves feel better, rather than to help those in need. I put myself in a bad situation, and may have upset a group of boys, which was never a part of the grand plan I formulated in my head. I should have walked away at the beginning, or, if I had chosen to stay, I should have abstained from giving away anything at all. Helping those in need is always a good idea, but it has to been done under proper circumstances.

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