As we all settle into the new year and some of us share our reflections, here’s mine. I have worked on this blog post for quite a while, dithering whether its okay and made sure this blog post remains that of my own thoughts. I don’t expect you to agree with everything I write, I also don’t expect this blog post to change things.
As I type, I have been travelling Latin America for almost 6months. I am typing on a portable keyboard with my iPad that I purchased in Mexico after my old one broke. I was rather torn in deciding what to do when my old mini iPad just would not charge, and after some hesitation I headed to the Mac store in Puerto Vallarta and looked at a range of models before deciding to buy a new one. It was about £375 in total plus the new blue plastic cover too. I bought the portable keyboard earlier on in Los Angeles.
To be able to purchase these, I am a lucky guy. I was able to use my savings from selling my car and my Apple Mac, also from a long time saving up too. I don’t believe I realised just how lucky I was until later in my travels.
Poverty frightens and saddens me. Of course, I have come across poverty before especially when working in charities and communities. There are many definitions of poverty that will lead to how a country, a government or a person judges the extent of being poor. But poverty in countries where there is little or no welfare benefits sickens me. It leaves such a mess, it leads people into desperation, crime, poor self esteem and devastation. Prostitution too. It also leads people who are not in poverty into “privileged/power positions” e.g. acts of grooming, bribery, paying people to do things that they don’t really want to do.
On my journey I have seen/experienced the following:
– A young lady in Armenia with torn clothes, little or no teeth, no footwear, running after me as I was waiting for a taxi to take me to the bus terminal. She was spouting something in Spanish, looking at me angrily, wanting money badly and almost about to tug my manual rucksack.
– About 20 tents on a disused part of a highway, filled with Venezuelans who had run away from persecution into Pasto. With no benefits, no support they have just had to live this way and try their best to get minimal income from selling trivial things. The “campsite” lacks hygiene, there is nowhere safe. Kids are running around and the adults look extremely tired and frustrated at their misfortune. What did they ever do to deserve this?
– Incredibly tired looking people walking around in Medellin with huge bags collecting whatever waste they can find. There is a financial incentive depending on how much plastic etc has been collected, but it is so minimal.
– In every country I have been in, I have seen a number of people sleeping on the streets, looking so worn out and in bad health. I have seen people with huge open scabs on their bodies, pouring water on their wounds. It is beyond belief.
– Christmas Day in Medellin, walking on the street towards a restaurant, I saw several families just lying on the streets, so tired and evidently hungry. They looked disillusioned, they cannot understand the injustice in this world.
– In Arequipa, Peru – a boy of about 5-7yr old, looking so depleted and not at all enlightened when I gave him my left over food in a box from a Mexican restaurant – they had given me too much. It is too easy to assume they want food, or to think its better to give food, when it can be much more that they want; a home, a bath, a family, an education.
– Eating lunch in a park in Quito, a nice guy sat on my table and flirted with me. He turned out to be living on the street and wanted me to pay him to have some fun. He didn’t even look scared, it was a job to him. Of course I said no. This was not an isolated example, it has happened so many times, in bars, in bus stations etc.
– I was asked in a large hyper-supermarket with Mexican friends, to contribute a large amount of money towards a new tumble drier to help them. I had to decline after having already been very generous with food and drinks.
– Stayed in family homes where showers simply do not work; low electricity means
low lightning, no hot water. No toilet seats. No bathroom door, just a pinned shower curtain. No washing machine, everything hand-washed. No wifi or very slow speed.
– Saw a child sunbathing with his family, making a sandcastle and drinking a can of coke, totally ignoring a similar aged child next to him, begging for money and looking worse for wear.
– Met women and men approximately aged 16-30yr who have a “rich uncle” in the Western world, paying for their needs in return for sexual demands. Prostitution is disguised here both for the predator and prey.
– Saw so many people attempting to sell minor items e.g. pens, rulers, plastic toys, mints on the bus and train. They stand up for about 5mins talking loudly about their item and then they pass one to each person, walking to the end of the bus/carriage and then return to either pick them up or receive money. This is obviously all in Spanish but the passion and energy in them to try and sell is strong.
– I was asked for £20 by a friend just to help him get by.
I have found myself in the following situations/dilemmas:
– Having to restrain myself after one friend assumed I was happy to pay the bill for the group we were eating with.
– Being so unsure about buying my host family a slap up meal when they probably needed the money rather.
– Spending £100 for 5 nights in Medellin thinking it was a good deal and then seeing my friends’ faces in alarm as if I’d spent a fortune.
– Wanting to get away from my deaf hosts to be able to go shopping without feeling guilty in front of them. To buy a branded ice cream, a top-notch meal rather than the cheaper version.
– Insisting on paying the food/drink bill when my host or friends want to pay – I just know they cannot afford it.
– Agreeing with my Ecuadorian friends after I paid for dinner, that they could buy coffee afterwards in return. But then to realise they only bought me a coffee, saying they were too full up. I sensed they wanted to spend as minimal as possible.
– Collecting some of my worn out or no longer needed clothes together and giving it to poor people on the streets, yet knowing they would much rather money.
– Buying street food from poor people and realising I only had large notes, and them trying their best to find change. It was so embarrassing.
– Really wanting to go to a bar for drinks and then realising my friends just can’t afford it hence buying from supermarket and drinking in the streets.
– Looking for a café that sells proper coffee whilst passing poor people for whom the price for proper or even normal coffee could do so much for them
– Wanting to scream at a “Westerner”for trying to haggle a price far too low
– Seeing large numbers of local “comfortable” families having meals outside restaurants whilst poor people are around staring hungrily.
– Saying no to buying another bottle of rum in Bolivia, when I had bought the first one for a birthday party, and then they all collected money themselves to buy the second one. I was very tired but with reflection it was not expensive and I could have saved them money.
– Always trying to not spend more than £5 on dinner as it just feels so wrong to spend more relatively.
– Spending £3 on 2 laundry loads by hotel reception and knowing my local friend thinks its way too expensive.
– Spending £90 to do the world’s most dangerous road bicycle ride in Bolivia – such a brilliant experience but the money could have done so much for my Bolivian host family.
Each day of my travels I have battled with my frustrations. I have tried to raise £1200 for Starly to reunite with his parents but only managed £470. I am truly grateful to all who donated though and totally understand not everyone can donate every time someone raises money.
I think by the time I go home in March I will have spent approx £14k in 7-months (flights included). I could have ended my travels much earlier and given the rest to the poor. Sadly in Latin America and other parts of the world there is too much corruption to know what best to do to support poverty issues. Of course there’s Fairtrade and Oxfam etc, but these have been around for years. We need more solutions but the issues seem prevalent.
For deaf people in poverty, I do not know how sign language recognition has supported them, if any. In Colombia, sign language was recognised in 1996 and yet so many are unemployed and struggling. The same goes for Chile and Argentina. In the UK, British Sign Language is still not legally protected and recognised yet we have so much access etc (see my previous blog re employment in Chile for deaf people). I think poverty overrides the positive benefits from sign language recognition, its just too powerful and dominant a barrier itself.
But what are we meant to do? Do we walk past, ignore, say sorry? Do we stop buying privileged things such as iPads and portable keyboards? I could avoid paying for taxis, avoid buying coffee in nice cafes, and give the money to local poor people. But then what about supporting local employment? People are trying to make a living to get out of poverty.
Is the thought “Why can’t this government help them? “ a convenient excuse not to give?
But then giving money would encourage greater begging?
Each time I explain to new deaf friends in Latin America that my travels are within a limited budget and that I have saved hard etc, I wonder what they really think. Do they, as they say, admire me for working so hard and saving money and taking this plunge? Do they think its so unfair? Some of them have told me in reflective discussions that by travelling I am spreading the word, making their challenges and unfairness known to my friends and family.
It was UN Human Rights day on December 10th – I don’t know if I am alone in my thinking, but I have no idea what it means? Its just not working? There is so much poverty and war related poverty. How can we say “Happy UN Human Rights day” when we know of these terrible things?
As we head into 2019 with our own individual thoughts and reflections about what we have done in 2018, and what we want to experience in the new year, I am sure that many of us have our own conscience-related questions that will remain unanswered.
Travelling insofar has been a wonderful privilege and I am grateful for all the support I have received from family, friends in the UK and also friends across Latin America.
Happy New Year to you all.