Saturday, May 8, 2010

I'm so embarrassed.

Since I'm out of the city and allowed to pursue a tiny bit of adventure, I went for a walk when I got back from work today. It started out lovely. I found the seafront where I saw couples watching the sun's last rays on the palm-lined port and men sitting around chatting. Then I walked inland through a very simple neighbourhood where the people were friendly and gave me directions to town. The smell of sewage was always with me, but so were the smiling children trying to make me laugh and smile back. I passed youth walking from or to work, teenagers playing football on the street and old women sitting in front of their homes. The ever-endearing village life.

Then I turned onto a main street and headed into town. I was enjoying the sense of freedom and the sun on my back. I passed a little girl of 7 or 8 and then - BANG - I felt a solid bump on my arm. Remembering my last weekend in Indonesia, a shiver passed up my spine. I looked back and saw that it was the little girl who had quickly reached out for my arm, apparently in hopes of making some contact with a white person. I decided I couldn't hold that against her.

I kept walking and after a bit, a young man of say 17 or 18 came up to me with his hand outstretched and the begging look on his face. I quickly thought and realised I didn't have any small change with me so I put my arms on my chest and said in my horrid French, "I don't have anything." Of course, I meant, "I don't have anything simple or small enough that I feel comfortable giving to you nor do I know why you young healthy individual are out begging." But I only told him I have nothing.

Before I could finish this short sentence, though, he cried out in English, "But I'm hungry!"

How does one respond to a pleading face saying that? Naturally, I kept walking. He was already well past me at this point anyway. But then I caught sight of the main target of my walk: a supermarket. I'd come to stock up on some food supplies before settling into my hotel for tonight and possibly all day tomorrow. How could I possibly go into the supermarket after just declaring I had nothing to someone who declared his hunger to me? He'd see me go in, I should buy him some food, I didn't know what to get him and wasn't confident enough with my French to discuss this with him. All these thoughts added up to a good set of excuses to not buy him food, and to a sense of guilt which led me to decide not to buy food for myself either. Never fear, I thought, they have some food at the hotel. It's overpriced, but I can manage.

As I walked on past the supermarket and turned the corner to return to the hotel empty handed, I realised just how horrid this experience had been. I had successfully evaded a chance to interact with a Haitian by avoiding another form of contact with a Haitian. I had opted for the isolated life of the aid worker lodged in a nice hotel who receives a per diem. I had increased just a tad to the distance between the world around me and the world I live in.

As I continued my walk, a few other people attempted to make contact. Mostly they were ridiculous attempts at intimidation, like bikes swerving in front of me or a young boy doing a little karate dance as he walked by. Even so, be evading their glance and refusing to shop in their stores or play their games, I realised that I'm taking more from them than they are getting from me. I expect to walk on their streets and see their way of life and tell stories about them when I leave. In exchange, I give them nothing. Sure, my organisation does great things for the people in this area, but must think the money spent on my hotel and per diem would be better spent by feeding a few hungry boys on the street.

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