Here in Puno, Peru, I´m taking a day off to rest before spending a night on one of the reed islands of Lake Titicaca. This morning, I wandered some of the Puno streets realizing that the shops were closed because of the early hour and also the fact that today is Sunday. Came to the Plaza de Armas and chose a nice sunny bench, planning to write a bit in my journal.
Up comes a little shoeshine boy of about ten years, wanting to polish my cloth-topped hiking shoes. I demurred, explaining the obvious and he said, “No problem!” and fingered the narrow strip of grey plastic that runs above my toes. Then, he pulled out a small bottle of clear liquid with which he planned to do the polishing for the bargain rate of one dollar or 3 soles Peruvian.
I´ve heard of other travelers who allowed this situation to progress and wound up with darkly-stained shoes, so I kept refusing and concentrating on my journal writing. At last, I had to walk away from my nice sunny bench when it became obvious that he wasn´t going to leave me alone.
There´s always the mental battleground as one makes the decision to refuse this sort of invasion. He was just a boy. He wasn´t begging, but wanted to work for his money. “Yes, yes…” answered I to myself, “but my shoes were not candidates for his sort of work. They might have looked very odd ever after if I had allowed him to impose his will upon mine out of pity, just because he was an urchin.”
He was very practiced in imposing his will upon tourists and was beginning to whine, as well as reducing his price drastically to fifteen cents. But, each time he succeeds in bullying a tourist, he will reason that he can usually get his way if he makes a pest of himself. The same goes for beggars.
Peru doesn´t have many beggars, but there are some who can make the most pitious sounds as you pass. Each one of us millions of tourists wrestles with the same moral equation every time we encounter a beggar or a shoeshine kid. In our guilt for not “saving them from this,” we review the ways that we might have changed their life if we had but dropped that coin: a square meal, freedom from having to sit on that cold pavement, a medical cure, a satisfied beggar´s pimp, a daily quota met….
But, the facts of the matter are so different. Our coins actually prove that this holding the hand out or shaking a cup aggressively, will work on a certain number of these rich visitors. And so, the beggar will appear the very next morning, and the next, in that very same place. This becomes the beggars´ trade and, maybe it´s meagre by most standards, but the odds are that enough of those millions of tourists will respond to make it worth coming back for.
We are part of the problem. We make begging a viable business.