The reason for the season

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IT’S an uncharacteristically cool December Sunday afternoon and I’m toasting the festive season with some friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley at a leafy, outdoor bar when we’re approached by a woman asking for money. Two things strike me about this woman: she appears intoxicated and she’s with a group of friends when she asks whether she can have some change for a phone call. Whether she is genuine or otherwise is not for me to judge. Rather, it’s our reactions that interest me more. We’re all awkward and embarrassed. And frankly, don’t really know how to handle the situation. I look the woman squarely in the eye and say: “No, sorry, thank you.” She pauses for a brief moment, as if she’s comprehending her next move, then she simply looks back, and says “Have a Merry Christmas” before moving on to the next table.

The uncomfortable situation sparks a conversation among us. Did we do the right thing? Should we have handed her money? Would she have actually used it on a phone call or to buy alcohol? Australians are about as comfortable with begging as we are with tipping. Both scenarios are not part of our vernacular and we are clumsy when presented with them.

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A few years back, I wrote a story about confronting poverty when we travel for The Australian newspaper in which I stated: “Many tourists, with just a few short days to experience a city, grapple with ways in which to address the issue without making situations, like begging, worse. Few things test your character and mettle more than being exposed to extreme poverty, and the way in which you handle it can linger long after your plane has departed the impoverished land. At best, many travellers feel ineffectual and embarrassed, and at worst, some transform into the uncaring, ‘ugly Westerner’.”

At the time, I quoted a travel writer mate of mine Kristie Kellahan, who regularly volunteers in orphanages throughout south-east Asia, who suggested contacting aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, to assess the needs before you visit a country.

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Kellahan, who works with a Buddhist orphanage in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, advises travellers to think about what they are giving and avoid pushing Western values on to different cultures.

“People come to visit the orphanage and want to give the children reams and reams of toys and lollies and coke and ice-cream,” she said.

“What would be useful would be to turn up with medicine for baby formulae. But that doesn’t seem very exciting to those giving.

“You would prefer people bring educational supplies, things like blank exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and things like nappies for the babies.

“By supporting kids selling post cards and chewing gum, it encourages families to send their kids to the city and they may be missing out on essential services back home like education.”

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In my article, and with the advice of some incredible people working in the field of responsible tourism around the globe, I penned a list of things which travellers might consider before they arrive in a country and are confronted with the ugly truth of poverty.

 These include:

  •  Where possible, eat at locally-run restaurants and order local dishes, made from local produce
  •  Support local performances – many of which are held for free – and drop some money in the donation box at the end
  •  Buy locally-made souvenirs, straight from the source
  •  Speak to local charities before you go and ask the people-on-the ground best ways to make small differences when you get there
  •  Leave a tip for good service – it’s appreciated world wide whether you are rich or poor
  •  Donate an afternoon to read or speak English to local school children
  •  Continue to visit impoverished countries. Tourism is one of the greatest employers world wide
  •  Ask questions. Where is this money going? What are the benefits of donating? Become educated on the issues
  •  Tread carefully. Wait, watch and observe before you act

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So, what does this all mean back in Australia, the relatively Lucky Country?

Australian comedian Corinne Grant recently penned an excellent post “This Christmas We’re All Human” on The Hoopla in relation to this issue much closer to home.

“Any one of us could find ourselves in a difficult situation—a catastrophic illness that bankrupts you, a bad marriage break up that leaves you without a cent to your name, an undiagnosed mental illness rendering you incapable of making the sorts of decisions necessary to fend for yourself effectively. Becoming homeless is, frighteningly, far easier than many of us think,” Grant wrote.

In a timely reminder, Grant talks about the impact the sparkles and baubles must have on people who have nothing. Heck, I’m intimidated every time I see a Christmas advertisement from a major grocery chain in which (a) everyone appears to be middle-class and white (b) there’s an over-representation of white linen frocks and boat shoes and (c) everyone seems to be loving every other family member sick. I suspect, like me, that’s not the reality for many Australians. And, I imagine, even more devastating, if you are poor. (And let’s not forget if someone hadn’t loaned a certain young couple a barn in which to birth their baby, we may not be celebrating December 25).

VietnamCambodia2012 134“This time of year is miserable for the homeless. Many of the services they rely on close for Christmas or run on limited staff. Not only that, but everywhere they look are the cheery, tinselly reminders of a happy world full of food, family and love that is out of their reach. It must be crushing,” Grant wrote.

But what I took most away from her thoughtful post was her advice: “Next time someone asks you for change, look them in the eye. Give them money if you like but if not, smile at them and say, “Sorry, I can’t today.”

On Sunday, with Grant’s advice fresh in my mind, I looked that woman outside the bar squarely in the eye, and wished her a Merry Christmas back. It doesn’t solve the world’s issues, far from it, but for a brief second, we connected as fellow human beings. And surely, that’s really the reason for this season.

To read Corinne Grant’s post in full, please go to www.thehoopla.com.au. There’s a host of wonderful charities who assist those less fortunate at this time of year, including Vinnies – www.vinnies.org.au; The Smith Family – www.thesmithfamily.com.au; and Lifeline – www.lifeline.org.au.

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5 thoughts on “The reason for the season

  1. mike larder says:

    …nice one Miss Chris. I’ve oft been caught in the same dilemma; especially when wandering around ultra poor countries. Once;up in Laos, a dusty road side Hmong family offered to share their last BBQ’d rat with me. It would have been very rude not to accept so took a minute bite (not too bad actually) and gave the rest back (these guys were seriously on their uppers)..then rooting through my camera bag I found a couple of pencils and small note pads you get off some airlines-and a packet of AA batteries. (To offer them money would have been deeply demeaning.) I gave ’em to the families kids. They were chuffed chanting Cob chai…cob chai lai lai (thank you, thank you very much) and I was humbled. I asked them for a photo and they gladly obiged. I showed them a battered pic of my family-they were awed as one of my daughters is a blonde. I was then handed a very fly blown and smelly baby to hold).One of my best Lao pics. A similar experience happened in Timor Leste about a year after the Dili slaughter. I hit up the local Bi Lo for any exercise books and pencils they might have had laying about unsold. I got a great big box load so took them with me when I went up there on a humanitarian yarn. Someone else came up with a box of tennis balls. For the next couple of weeks in the terrorised and shattered country those tennnis balls, note books and pencils became my passport around ET. The kids would go nuts for a ball or a HB pencil and something to write in. One other night in Luang Prabang I spent a magic evening when I wandered into a temple where a few young novices warily approached. Where was I from. Australia-the Akubra ia always a giveaway) I replied “yep,g’day mates”.
    “AHHH Bangaboo”, they chortled and began kanga hopping about the Wat’s lawns. I spent the rest of the evening trying to teach them Australian vernacular and then slowing the drawl down to proper english as a full moon rose over the Mekong (really). I had four very willing and engaged students.They bought me some odd snacks and sticky rice.They were trying to be english students. No good trying to teach ’em Shakespeare.An unforgettable evening. As travellers we are also voyeurs and it is so difficult not to patronise. It’s not hard to give back. As an end point; while playing word and action games with these early teen novices I formally handed out my business card to each. Later I recieved an e-mail from one of them thanking me for that evening. He told me that he had been accepted into a foriegn language course somewhere-can’t remember. He wants to be an engineer.
    Oh..and I have to tell you this…when in hot and dusty Sayaboury,Loas recently for an elephant festival,i found myself tounging for a slurp of red..ANY red. Difficult to procure in western Laos. I did what I always do when in need and stood in the middle of the main street and did my ‘Lost Puppy’ look. A policeman covered in gold braid and a public official. aproached. I thought I was in trouble but explained my mission as best I could useing a lot of mime. It worked. I was officially conducted on a search for a bottle of red wine which we eventuallly unearthed in the basement of an abandoned ex French restaurant. I bought an old and dusty bottle of excellennt wine for a couple of dollars. It could have been vinegar…but it wasn’t. Tasted great with some road side bbq’d chichen and rice and the sweetest mango I’ve ever tasted.

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