Let Kids Be Kids
Childhood is special,
keep the spirit pure
or me, one of the most appealing things about touring in other countries is having the opportunity to meet the children of other cultures. When on a long tour, every day brings something you have never seen before, and so in that respect I often felt like a child again myself. My own sense of wonder was usually matched, and often exceeded by the actual children I met along the way, however. As I approached a small village, shouts of "Malai!!", in Timor Leste; "Mzungu!!", in Zambia; "Vazaha!!", in Madagascar; or "Gringo!!", in Bolivia would be heard even before their initiators could be seen. In those cases, I knew that before long I would be mobbed by young versions of myself eager to see something new and different roll though their community. Most of the time it was easy to see that my sudden appearance had been the most exciting thing to have happened that day.
Usually, just exchanging a simple Hello, especially if spoken, even poorly, in the local language, is enough to entice screams of excitement in the crowd. Many young folks will proudly show off their linguistic skills, which are usually much better then mine, and make sure I have heard the well-rehearsed phrases they have learned in some mainstream language. Frequently, "Bye Bye!" is used as a greeting in such cases, but I can easily ignore that error. Now and then, the level of enthusiasm exceeds what a tired cyclist can easily endure, though I always attempt to overlook that, as the alternative would be much less engaging. On such occasions, the energy of youth may result in new friends running along behind the bicycle of a passing tourist. I have had that occur to such a degree, from time to time, that the entire population of a village, under the age of twelve, gleefully ran behind my bike for what seemed like a kilometer, or more, with little indication of just how long they planned to continue the chase. Those instances always made me feel a little like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
It is a rather unfortunate circumstance that, for the most part, this sort of situation is confined to the parts of the World that have not yet been overdeveloped. In a few countries of the Tour, notably Australia, but also, to a somewhat lesser degree, Argentina, Chile, certain parts of South Africa, and a handful of other localized areas, children have been raised to hold a Don't talk to strangers mentality, which has resulted in them being isolated most of the time, for their own "protection." This has also eliminated any chance for enriching encounters between children and outsiders, such as me. In the other countries of the Tour, however, children lead less regimented lives, and are used to roaming their local environs on their own, experiencing new things, looking after one another, and developing intimate knowledge of their own communities. Those explorations might include meeting the odd-looking cyclist who just rode up, covered with dust and grime from a week of remote cycling.
To me, that is what childhood is all about, and they way it should be spent, once the required educational needs are met. I personally, think that I would have benefited a great deal had my own upbringing included a little more of this sort of structure, or, I suppose, lack of structure. In fact, this type of societal arrangement is one of the main reasons that I increasingly prefer the so-called "Third World" over the wealthy parts of the World, such as the place where I am originally from, both as a touring destination and in general. Many Westerners, however, see only the tremendous gap in material items and access to industrially-produced products between the places they visit and their home countries. This, I believe, has led to a somewhat unfortunate circumstance easily seen by long term travelers, especially cyclists.
Girls in Nobding, Bhutan
Kids on the way to school in Quito, Ecuador
As I have already mentioned, cycling through small towns in out-of-the-way countries is a great way to meet other peoples, especially kids, who continuously amaze me with their curiosity, humor, and energy. That is, until one rides into an area where tourists go, normal tourists, to be more precise. In such places there is a distinct and unavoidable change in the behavior of many, or most, of the local children. In fact, one can easily determine when a major tourist spot is forthcoming by simply noticing this change. It is most readily recognized by a change in the exclamations of the young people in the area, which invariably change from something like "Sawateee!" (Hello, in Laotian, for example,) to a much more blunt, greeting like, "Give Me Money!" (no translation needed.) Minor variations on this same phrase can be heard in many countries throughout the World, but is most noticeable in places that have been on the tourist map for many decades, especially parts of Asia. Sometimes, enhanced versions are even more frank, as in Nepal, where I first heard the appeal, "I am very poor! Give Me Money!" Presumably those seven words represent the extent of the speaker's English vocabulary. I wonder how they learned that phrase?
Of course, everyone would like to help out children in parts of the World where the environment may be stacked against them. Clearly this is what has happened in many widespread places. Over the years, well meaning tourists donated their loose change to the few children they met when their Land Rover briefly stopped at a market on the edge of a mainstream tourism destination. Ostensibly, that should be fine, but children are never quite so simple. Being the impressionable types of people that they are, kids will tend to associate outsiders with the gifts they give, and soon begin to assume that every stranger who enters their sphere will do the same. The first stage is to ask for money, the next is to expect it, and the third is to demand it. Before long all of the local kids have picked up the practice, and have changed from energetic young people, eager to learn new experiences, into something akin to beggars.
I'm sure that this effect has been a matter of concern for many travelers over the years. That may have been a reason that an alternative practice came into being. Specifically, replacing the handout of money with something more utilitarian: a pen. On first glance, that seems like a great solution. Giving something with little monetary value, that is easy to carry along, but which will aid the recipient with their schoolwork. As such, the cash request has often been replaced with a phrase like "One Pen!" While the benefit to the child is real, the idea that they will likely retain hasn't changed significantly. Outsiders will be seen as the people who give away stuff. While such a belief is probably not especially harmful in the short term, the kids who develop those ideas are certainly setting themselves up to be significantly disappointed in later life. To be sure, chasing tourists around asking for gifts is essentially just a big game for many of the kids who do that, to see who among them can harangue the best bounty. There are probably better games to play when young, I would say.
Friendly girls in Com, Timor Leste
Kids who run the roads near Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Even more disconcerting than the game of begging from tourists, is the all-too-common practice of using children as hawkers for the various crafts, trinkets, and other paraphernalia sold in the vicinity of major tourist spots. This is common in many regions, but never sits well with me. While I can admire the efforts of the young peddlers to help out their families, their time clearly could be better spent doing many other activities. It is often obvious that the kids selling those items are doing so because an adult member of their family has realized that tourists are more likely to buy something they don't really need from an adorable young child with a persistent appeal.
In some cases those appeals can be so persistent that they literally can come close to driving one crazy. I have also observed that distinctly identical techniques are often used by child hawkers in widely separated parts of the World. The most glaring example of this came from two of the most visited tourist destinations in the World, Siem Reap, the service town for the Angkor ruins complex in Cambodia, and Cusco, Peru, the gateway to Machu Picchu and a city with many sights of its own. In those two places, located on opposite sides of the planet, the methods used by the kids were shockingly identical. A cute young one, with a variety of merchandise in tow, will latch onto a tourist, follow them around, and start up a friendly conversation.
Inevitably, the common question "Where are you from?" comes forth. If, for example, the response was the United States, the following recital would begin: "Oh! The capital is Washington; the largest city is New York; the president is George Bush, before that it was Bill Clinton; the capital of California is Sacramento, and the capital of Texas is Austin, " and so on. The goal here is to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that the vendor is an excellent student, and is someone you should want to purchase something from. If, like me, you are a cyclist, and whatever was available would neither fit nor survive a trip in your panniers, you might politely decline to buy, but might say something like; "I'm not shopping today. Maybe tomorrow." The reply you would receive would be exactly the same in both cities: "Ohhh!...But tomorrow I have to go to Schooooool!" I really can't understand how this type of identical sales pitch could evolve independently in both places. There must be some sort of global network of child hawker training courses, or some other explanation, perhaps involving abduction by extraterrestrials.
Girls from a tiny Altiplano village near Oruro, Bolivia
Boys in Ambositra, Madagascar
A Controversial Request
I realize that many people will not see any harm in spreading a little cash or gifts around in this way. Certainly, it feels good to see the smile on a child's face when they have just received something as a gift. However, I have sensed that a number of other tourists I have spoken with may give away such items for that reason alone, without considering the wider implications. For example, do you give something to every kid in a village, or just your favorite? What about the rest of the villages in the area? These questions may not be apparent to mainstream tourists who may only stop in one or two places where they could meet local children. As someone who has toured through many, many such places, I can attest to the fact that the lineup of deserving young people often seems endless, with more waiting in the next village, and the one beyond that. We would like to help out all of them, but how can you choose? There is no fair way. There is no way to bring enough coins or pens along to pass out to the thousands of children you will meet on a long tour. In any case, simply handing things out may not provide the indented consequence you originally desired. I understand that many readers could be put off by this request, but I would like to suggest a general policy for all travelers: Never give money or gifts directly to a child.
Three young girls in Mongar, Bhutan
Curious kids in Chardasi, India
Kids in Nkhotakota, Malawi, go crazy
That doesn't mean that one needs to leave the children met along the way unaffected by the encounter. Without simply handing out trinkets, there are ways to make a small difference in the lives you come across. Here are three possible alternative approaches, each of which may be more or less appropriate, depending on the type of travel one is involved in:
- Give intangible gifts. Treat children as if
they are important people, look them in the eye, and speak a few words
in their language. Demonstrate that you respect their society. Show that
there is nothing inherently superior about you or the place you came
from. Sing a song, or do a magic trick, if you happen to have the
requisite talents. Play a simple game, if there is time. When departing,
make it clear that you were as interested to meet them as they were to
- If you chose to give material gifts, pens,
cash, or whatever, seek out an adult from the child's family, and give
the items to them. Make it clear that the items are intended to help out
- Better yet, look up the mailing address of the local school. When you return home, send them a whole case of pens, or anything else that would be useful. You can probably afford that. Let the children's teacher be the hero. They certainly have earned the right.
I believe that these suggestions can help provide assistance to the young people of the World in a way that will not push them towards an early career of begging.
Girls from the Amazon in Puerto Belen, Iquitos, Peru
Girls and a cat in Tilcara, Argentina
Boys enjoy a nice day in Manatuto, Timor Leste
The Strange Case of Ethiopia
While the issues I have discussed so far are common in many places, I also feel compelled to point out an unusual anomaly in the world of child-tourist encounters; the nation of Ethiopia. That land is one of the most beautiful, and culturally interesting, places I visited on the Tour, but it also mentally taxing with regards to dealing with the local kids. While in most places the countryside is filled with pleasant and inquisitive kids and the tourist zones are where the young ones have been somewhat corrupted by outsiders, in Ethiopia those roles have been completely reversed. Arriving at one of the many impressive tourist attractions in the country, it doesn't take long to observe that the children there are surprisingly calm and polite. On the other hand, the kids of the countryside are a whole other matter.
Filled with energy and replete with talents, whip cracking and rock-tossing, to name two, that have been honed for their common chore of herding the family cows, they make their presence known right away. This usually involves one of two or three common exclamations, the most ordinary of which is the common greeting; "U! U! U!" (rhymes with You! You! You!) However, no less frequent than that is the alternative; "Money! Money! Money!", choruses of which echo out across the hills from the thousands of kids living in the chain of small villages that line the rough roads of that country.
It is also common, once again, that the children who shout those requests will continue to do so while they chase behind the bike of a passing tourist, often for quite a distance, clearly demonstrating their heritage as residents of a land renowned for producing world-class marathon runners. I enjoy meeting kids while on tour, but in Ethiopia this sort of thing often got a little out of hand. Not to mention the fact that I was a little worried that the bumpy gravel roads could cause me to swerve around unexpectedly, potentially causing a hazard for my young and closely-following escorts. I tried every method I could think of to shorten those encounters and go on about my business; from the polite, as in; "Sorry, I don't have any extra money to give you right now;" to the stern, as in "Go Away!!;" to completely ignoring my pursuers, none of which had any effect whatsoever. The only thing that worked in such situations was a method I came upon when I was at my wit's end. Namely, sticking out my tongue, and making a big, classic, Raspberry sound, "Pthffffft!" directed at the chasers. That invariably caused them to burst out in laughter, which resulted in the loss of their ability to run after me. If you are ever cycling in Ethiopia, try this, it works.
What puzzled me about this situation is how it could have arisen in the first place. I can see that kids in the tourist towns might be instructed to be polite, but I cannot figure out their counterparts in the countryside. Most of the little villages I went through must see a tourist in their village only very infrequently, if at all, except for those blasting though on busses or vans. Certainly, none of the younger kids could have had any experience receiving any actual money from passing tourists. But in every case, the kids I encountered reacted to my arrival as if I was a rolling ATM machine, and I still have no idea how this behavior could be so widespread. The only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that they are taught to do this in school: "Look children, this is a picture of a tourist. When you see one, be sure to shout out for money…"
Kids enjoy a pagoda dedication ceremony near Mandalay, Myanmar
Girls in Mafeteng, Lesotho
Exceptions to Every Rule
Finally, to demonstrate that I am not some sort of cycling Ebenezer Scrooge, or, at least, that I don't always follow my own advice, I will relate the following story, which also occurred in Ethiopia. Specifically, in the town of Gondar, a fairly small town today, but once the capital of the entire country, which I entered on a damp July afternoon. In so doing, I was completely covered in mud and worn out from the tough conditions of the previous days, and so was not at the top of my game when it came to logistical matters. I was definitely hoping for a comfortable place to clean up and rest for a day, but the only decent hotel in town was located well away from the center, and up on a steep hilltop, as well. Bypassing that option, I set out find other accommodations, which I assumed wouldn't be too difficult. Before long a young boy was at my side, giving the usual offer of assistance to "show me around". My level of tiredness caused me to be lacking in the usual policy of aloofness I tried to display in such situations, and I agreed to let him show me the way to what was apparently the only other place to stay. That actually turned out to be a useful thing, as I may never have found the place, a quite basic affair located well off the beaten path, without his assistance. Consequently, I offered him a few Birr for his efforts. He declined to take any cash, but said that maybe he would see me tomorrow. I could tell then that my new friend really had his act down pat.
The next day, after spending a couple hours washing mud off the bike and the rest of my gear, I then planned to make a leisurely visit to the main attraction in town, the old castle of Emperor Fasilidas. It was not long after I ventured out, that the young fellow from the previous day, who I learned was called Dude, became attached to my side once again. Since he let me off easy the previous afternoon, I decided against shooing him off, at least not right away. In reality, he was a pretty good sidekick for a while, and was able to give a surprising amount of information about the town for someone of his age. We explored the commercial part of town and the public market, and the only time he disappeared was when I noticed that he ran off to help a blind man walk across a busy street. A little later, we reached the area where the castle was located and he said that he would go off now because I "probably wanted to be alone now." Well played, my friend, a true professional.
After a short, but interesting, visit to the castle, I managed to dodge a thundershower by ducking into a restaurant for a typical Ethiopian meal. As I usually found that fare to be not all that satisfying, I decided to go off afterwards to search for an ultimately nonexistent grocery store. Not surprisingly, Dude was again at my side as I emerged onto the main street. He was able to give me some decent directions to the small mini-market nearby, which would have to do. But before I set off, he presented the inevitable request for a contribution to the Dude General Fund. I told him that I don't normally give things to young people as it wasn't fair to leave all the others out, but that I would this time because I was impressed that he had helped out the man who couldn't see earlier in the day. I could tell that he understood. Instead of money, he asked for a schoolbook, mathematics, if I remember correctly, and some white shoe polish for his shoe-shine business. I agreed to get him those things, and we went over to the market stalls together to pick them out.
Dude, sidekick and guide extraordinaire shows off his bike
in Gondar, Ethiopia
Dude was an example of an increasingly rare type of child in a tourist town these days, namely one with his head still screwed on straight. It was a nice feeling to be able to help him a little. If only the other tourist-affected children of the World possessed the same qualities, it would make traveler's experiences that much richer. As it is, of course, the World is dominated by the ordinary kids, the ones who live in places unfrequented by tourists, and who still possess the true spirit of childhood. I was fortunate that the Tour of Gondwana allowed me to meet so many of them.
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