Last night, Carol and I were discussing our vacation over dinner, and the subject of poverty came up.
Trinidad & Tobago is not a wealthy country. The median yearly salary for men is $12,000; for women in comparable jobs, it is only $5,500, an amount and an inequity that still astounds me. We saw many signs of poverty there -- from the tin-sided shacks lined up one against the other on the waterfront at Port of Spain to the clapboard boxes people were living in along the south coast of Tobago.
And here we were, obviously wealthy tourists, coming into the islands to enjoy briefly their beauty, like hummingbirds flying in to a feeder to sip the nectar, then zipping off.
I'm of two minds about this. Probably more than two minds. On the one hand, I can make the claim that the influx of money from people like us benefits the islands. We bought things from street vendors, spent money in shops, even paid travel taxes into the governmental coffers. We asked our driver, Dale, if he thought that the locals resented tourists, and especially, expats who moved there primarily from the US, Canada, and Germany.
"Of course not," Dale said. "They bring business to the islands. Why would we resent them?"
They drive prices up, so native Trinidadians can't afford to buy property. They flaunt their affluence, without even meaning to, sometimes. The cruise ships docking in Scarborough and Port of Spain represent an expenditure of money on a single vacation that most Trinidadians won't see in a lifetime. They use up far more than their share of resources while they're there.
Who can blame the locals for any resentment they feel?
While we were in the islands, we were approached twice by beggars. We'd been warned against giving money -- that many of the beggars were alcoholics or drug addicts, and that giving money to them only encourages them to become more aggressive toward other visitors. The first time, a man came up to us while we were driving through the little town of Plymouth, and claimed to have no money for food.
"Only twenty dollars," he said. "That's all I need."
Twenty Trinidad dollars -- a little over three dollars US.
I told him we didn't have any money to give him. A lie. I knew it was a lie, and so did he. He persisted, and we drove off, with him still clinging to the car until he couldn't keep up.
Why didn't I give him anything? I could have given him ten times that amount and it would have done me no lasting financial harm whatsoever. All of the rationalizing that "he might use it to buy drugs," or "it will only encourage him to beg more," or whatever, sounds pretty hollow.
Should I feel guilty simply for being affluent? By American standards, I'd say we're solidly upper middle class; a teacher and a nurse, we own our own home and have two cars (both paid for). Our gains are hardly ill-gotten; both Carol and I inherited some money from our parents, and this has certainly helped us, but we work hard for our salaries.
But the fact remains that we are more wealthy than 90% of the people on earth.
We talked last night, over our t-bone steaks and fine red wine, about poverty. Carol pondered the establishment of a "guilt fund" -- you could pay into a charity when you travel to a poor country, to buy off some of your guilt feelings for being lucky. It's kind of a funny idea -- it reminded me of the medieval Catholic practice of buying indulgences, of paying the church penance money ahead of time so you could sin without fearing retribution from god. Still, it's a nice idea. Perhaps picking a charity that directly benefits the country we visit might help us to be more aware of our being so fortunate, and not taking for granted how easy our lives are when compared to most of the world's inhabitants.
If this idea appeals to you, or if maybe you were just looking for good charities to support, here are two to check out: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement, which supports environmentally-sound practices and small, locally-owned businesses in poor countries, and Doctors Without Borders, a group of volunteer medical professionals who bring health care to areas ravaged by war, poverty, and natural disasters.
In any case, I doubt I'll stop traveling. I also doubt I'll stop feeling guilty about it. But at the same time, if the practice keeps my eyes open, keeps me grateful for what I have and more willing to give from the bounty that I enjoy, then it's not altogether a bad thing.