*** I’m catching up on blogging & posting stories. They are a bit out of order and I’m not currently in Asia. This particular post was written while I was there though.
Today we arrived in Siem Reap at around 3pm. After a dip in the hotel pool, I headed out to explore a bit of the city. I followed the map to the market area, stopped for a cold smoothie at Blue Pumpkin and then wandered around a bit more. People were out and about doing chores, selling fruit or street food and massages were being offered everywhere. Not to mention the plethora of drivers trying to get you to take their tuk tuks.
After a wandering around for about an hour, I headed back on a slightly different route through the side streets.
A little girl, who was about eight years old, walked up to me and touched me on the arm.
“Lady, I don’t want your money” she said in a soft voice. I looked down at her and she was carrying her little sister who seemed to be about a year old.
“I just want some milk for my sista. Can you buy some milk?”
I never give children on the streets money and I rarely buy anything from them unless I really want it. I know it is a different way of life in other countries, but I don’t like that kids learn to beg for money from tourists because they assume we are rich and that their parents force them to do this. I am, however, more than happy to give a child or family food instead of money.
I agreed to buy the little girl milk.
She quickly took me by my hand and led me in the direction of the nearest grocery / convenience store which was about ½ a block away. Along the way she held my hand tight and helped me safely cross the street, assuming that because I was a tourist I wasn’t familiar with the crazy traffic and lack of driving laws. It was really cute that she was insistent that I not cross before her and that we do so safely.
As we got closer to the store, the girl explained that she wanted powdered milk … Similac, as it would last for a long time for her and her two sisters. Her English was really good for a child of her age. She obviously must be attending school for her English to be so good.
We walked into the store and she took me directly to the powdered milk section, pointing out the exact kind of Similac that her sisters needed (for 6 – 24 months). I asked her how much they cost and she didn’t know, so I took one to the counter and asked the staff. The can that she had pointed out was $23 US.
I turned to the little girl and sadly explained that it was too much and that I didn’t have that much money. (I only had a $20 bill on me) I asked if there were smaller cans, but there were not.
The little girl pleaded with me as I put it back, saying that it would feed them for three months and that it was not too expensive. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t have the money, but she did not seem to accept this answer.
“How much you have?” she asked.
I wasn’t going to play that game with her. They are taught well to try and get every penny from you. Nor was I going to take my wallet out and show her.
“I’m really sorry, but I don’t have enough. If they had a smaller can I would buy it for you, but they don’t.”
The little girl continued to argue and plead with me, so I began to leave the store. She grabbed my hand and forcefully pulled it, begging once again for me to buy it for her. When I firmly said no, that I could not, as I did not have enough money, we continued out of the store with her saying “Give me $5 then and I can find money from someone else to buy it.” (Not a bad suggestion from an eight year old, but I only had a $20 bill)
As I headed to cross the street, the girl grabbed on to my hand with all her strength, it actually hurt a little bit! She continued to plead with me. I continued to say no.
She yanked on my hand and I stopped in my tracks as it honestly hurt and surprised me.
“I come with you to get more money.” She suggested.
I said “No, I’m sorry. I can’t. Will you be here tonight? Still on the street?”
“No. no. no. I won’t be here lata. Everyone says they will come back lata and no one ever does.”
Her English really was quite amazing for a young girl and she certainly knew how to shame you into helping her.
Still tightly gripping my hand, she again insisted on helping me cross the street. As I continued to walk away, she continued pleading with me, repeating everything that she had already said. Her new tactic though was to also pinch me to try and get my attention. She had let go of my hand after crossing the street but had begun pinching my arm and begging. In fact, she began to get very angry with me.
Getting increasingly annoyed at being pinched by a little girl and not wanting to cause a scene, I stopped and looked at her.
“Why won’t you help me? You said you would buy me milk.” She whined
“It is too expensive. I do not have enough money for it.”
She pinched my arm again to which I said “You were being nice and now you are not. I’m sorry, but I do not have the money and pinching isn’t helping.”
Finally, the little girl stopped pinching me. She didn’t stop whining and she let me go on my way.
I felt absolutely horrible about walking away. I truly had wanted to help the girl and her sisters. I had no idea how many tourists she convinced to do this on a regular basis, but buying them milk was so much better than giving them money.
So many tourists give into the pleading eyes of these children. I’m not at all saying it is wrong to help, but just how much money are you willing to give away and not know what it is being spent on or who the money is going to. These children learn their way around the streets and make a living for themselves and their families by begging on the streets from ‘rich’ people like you and I. What kind of life is this for a child?
I want to help them. Their pleading eyes cut through me too, but I try to see the bigger picture. Instead, I try to give them food or water. I try to support fair trade organizations or not for profits who teach or employ children and youth. There are so many ways to give back without giving money directly to a child.
In Cambodia alone, I’ve already eaten meals at two restaurants that support youth. Veyio Tonle and Friends, both in Phnom Penh. I also have purchased souvenirs and gifts from a couple of not for profit organizations, including Friends who have a great store with many recycled items, hand made by the children and youth that they support. You can also have a $3 – $5 manicure or pedicure at the Friends store and spa where youth are learning skills that can help them earn money.
The next time you travel, source out some reputable organizations to support, be strong and don’t give in to the children begging on the street. Rather, give back to an organization that teaches skills so that the children can earn a living and hopefully make a change to end the vicious poverty cycle that they currently live in.
Giving money to one or two children in the street may feed them for a day. Supporting a not for profit organization or charity may not help that same child, but it will help many children have a better life by gaining skills so that they do not have to live and beg on the streets.