Most Unforgettable Character Bronze Winner: Siete Sur

by Justine Hanson

“Please can you help?” One woman tries to make sense of her response to people begging on the streets of Nicaragua and Cambodia.

“Soy Churequero. Trabajo en La Chureca,”he said. La Chureca is Managua’s giant city dump, where hundreds of people live and work as freelance garbage pickers, amidst acres of smoldering, untreated waste. He was one of them, and he had stepped into my path.

His skin was dark, almost black, a strike against him in color conscious Nicaragua. When I walked down the street, men would hiss and call out “chelita,”slang for “milk,” or “little whitey.” Dark and light, we stood next to each other in front of the gas pumps at the Esso station.

He opened a worn manila folder. Carefully, he took out clean white typewritten papers that showed he was a university student. He couldn’t pay the fees. In a soft voice he explained that if he did not pay them by 8 pm, he would have to leave.

¿Ud. me puede ayudar? He said it gently. Can you help me, please, with all due respect?

It was lunchtime, and I was on my way to buy a sandwich. I wanted to eat lunch in the cool air-conditioning and then return to my intellectual labors in the library around the corner. I was a graduate student; how could I possibly be his savior?

I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. I wanted to give him all the money in my wallet, but I couldn’t. It was easy to let myself think my way out of any obligation. How do I know this is not an elaborate scam? What good is it to give money to one man, a stranger whom you meet in the streets and will never see again? My income hovers near the U.S. poverty line. But not the Nicaraguan poverty line.

Feeling heavy, I reached into my wallet, knowing I had a $20 bill, but handing over only 20 córdobas– barely $1.50 – and walked away.

When you travel to developing countries, the conventional wisdom is: Don’t give money to people begging in the streets. Don’t buy from children selling in the streets. It only encourages the parents to send them out on the streets, not to school. It’s better to give money to an organization that does Good Things. But these sensible guidelines don’t tell you how to deal with the flesh-and-blood person in need who is standing in front of you.

I lived in Nicaragua for over a year. I developed relationships, I donated money when I could, I tipped generously, and tried to buy locally. But every day, I was confronted with my own inadequacy, with the basic, irrevocable inequality that my American body represented on the streets of Nicaragua, and the enormous gap between the two worlds I straddled. Every day I was confronted with my own powerlessness to make any kind of dent in the giant chasm of inequality. Every day I re-lived the accident of birth that put me on the path to one kind of life, my Nicaraguan friends on another.

Three years later, I went to Cambodia. One evening, I walked down the middle of a rutted road heading to a corner store. From half a block away, I saw a young boy approach a couple at the store’s entrance. My first instinct was to give him a wide berth and cross the street, to avoid the encounter.

I could have kept walking. But I didn’t. As I approached the door, the small boy came closer. I saw he was holding a chubby baby in his arms, dressed in a small off-white T-shirt.

“Please, milk, for him. For him.” He gestured at the baby. “Milk. For him.” The words grabbed me. “For him.” He gestured again. “For him.” He was insistent, like it was an emergency, like he didn’t do this every night, like he wouldn’t be beaten if he went home empty handed.

Wordlessly, I nodded and followed him inside the store. He led me down the aisle, to the powdered milk, and stepped aside, looking up at me, encouragingly. I looked at the different brands and then at him. He pointed to one, and I pulled it off the shelf, picking the largest size. We didn’t talk, and now I wonder why it didn’t occur to me to ask his name. Inside the store, under the lights, I felt mortifyingly self-conscious, like everyone in the store was witness to my vulnerability, my inability to say no, and perhaps, the act of being taken advantage of.

We made our way to the register and I paid: $12. The boy stood aside as I completed the transaction. I handed him the large cylinder and we walked out the door together. He must have said thank you, but I don’t remember. He went one direction and I went the other. I’d like to think I somehow repaid a karmic debt, but I know this kind of calculus exists only to make me feel better, to absolve me of our collective burden to take responsibility for the world we live in. Both he and I know it’s not that simple.

Justine Hanson is an anthropologist and writer who has lived in Nicaragua, Spain and Ireland and visited over 25 countries. She loves the feeling of the first day in a new place, setting out to explore in the morning air. Her favorite way to travel is slowly and by water, and her ambition is to travel as much of the world’s coastline as possible.

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