Dealing With Poverty on the Road

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A reader recently opened up an interesting vein of conversation around the topic of poverty, and how we as travelers deal with it on the road:

“I will confess that I have mixed feelings about your blog.

On one hand, it looks like a lot of fun and adventure to do what you are doing and I would be lying if I didn’t want to do it for myself.

However, I am not seeing much about the locals and their needs. Isn’t there a lot of poverty in the places you are visiting?

I went to Jamaica a few years ago, and after seeing how the masses there lived, how many people were being exploited, and the sadness of so many, my heart was truly changed. I wanted to help them.

Maybe you are missing an awesome opportunity around you.”

This sparked conversations with various people – both online and offline – about what poverty is, and how we as “outsiders” visiting impoverished communities deal with it.

Dealing with Poverty as a Traveler is tricky business. Here's some food for thought. #travelwriting #poverty #traveltips #TheProfessionalHobo

This article was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links. 

What is Poverty?

Here in Grenada there are plenty of people who live incredibly simply. Incredibly. So simply that somebody transplanted from a well-to-do western background might struggle to cope with daily life.

Some would say these people are impoverished.

But they all have roofs over their heads, and they don’t starve (fruit literally rains down from the trees faster than people can pick it, the sea is bountifully full of fish, and many people have goats for meat).

picking more mangoes off the ground than I can carry

Many don’t have jobs (there is currently a very high unemployment rate in Grenada), but they’re not hungry, and daily life is not a survival exercise. In fact, I’m told that more people own their little plots in Grenada than not. Their house itself may be a glorified shack, but they’re still homeowners.

But to an outsider, this “poverty” in Grenada might be affronting. (It depends on how far “off the beaten track” you get as to how much “poverty” you see).

Who Exactly is Impoverished?

"California bar"

Does anybody who lives in poverty around the world actually brand themselves as impoverished? Do they even know what poverty is, and how their lives are lived in relation to the poverty line?

Or is “poverty” a term coined by Westerners?

I had a conversation with a very “earthy” and spiritual older man (who has lived in both developed and developing nations) who surmised that people who we usually cite as living in poverty tend to live much closer to the land, and have a valuable (invaluable, perhaps) connection to the earth.

By contrast, he surmised that people who truly are impoverished are those who live in the Western world, struggle to survive from pay to pay while being trapped in a life of consumerism, and who would be completely incapable of surviving off the earth (and off the grid) if they had to.

Although I found this man’s view to be extreme, I also think he had a point.

See also: Lifestyle Inflation, and How Earning More Money Sucks (The Life Outta You)

Does Poverty = Sadness?

The reader quoted above mentioned the sadness of so many she saw while in Jamaica. I wonder what made her believe these people are sad. I’m sure she wasn’t imagining things, but I wonder if she also projected her own ideas that people who don’t have the accoutrements of life we’re used to are thus sad.

I’ve seen more miserable, over-medicated, over-worked, suicidal, alcoholic and drug-addicted people in developed countries than I’ve seen on the back roads of Grenada, or any of the other developing nations I’ve visited.

I’ve watched kids in Africa play with a wheelbarrow for hours on end. Their imaginations turned the simple wheelbarrow into a number of games, shelters, and tools.

And I’ve watched kids in developed countries play with all the latest expensive gadgets and toys, get bored after five minutes, and throw temper tantrums because there’s nothing to do.

I don’t believe that poverty and sadness are synonymous. Living in poverty isn’t an instant ticket to misery.

Poverty Exists

an uncomfortable sleeping spot

I’m not ignoring the fact that there is a large contingent of people who are truly and unfairly impoverished, struggling to survive, and constantly being beaten down when they try to rise above their circumstances.

This exists. And it’s not fair. And to an extent, poverty is a function of exploitation by the “haves” of the world. Or at least, the continuance of poverty is a function of such exploitation. I believe we as humanity can truly eradicate poverty, but it will take a massive shift of consciousness and circumstance to set that ball properly in motion.

I also think that some people are a little too quick to brand people as living in “poverty” and to surmise that their help is needed.

Enter from stage left: volunteer vacations.

Superman Complex

school kids in Nepal

So we westerners who feel guilty for having a life of privilege try to assuage our guilt by doing something about it. We pay exorbitant amounts of money to go on a volunteer vacation. We swoop in (like Superman) to save the day. We roll up our sleeves and “do something good” for the people of the world. Then we swoop back out, feeling good about ourselves for a job well done.

We did our bit.

But did we? Are volunteer vacations the answer?

How would you feel if you lived in an “impoverished” community where foreigners were flown in weekly, they looked at you with pity, then put their elbow grease into a project you may – or may not – have any vested interest in or will derive any benefit from?

Here’s a link to an article I wrote about voluntourism, as it was really becoming popular. I think it still has some merit:

Voluntourism: Hip or Hype?

How Can Travelers Help Poverty?

Despite my ambivalence about volunteer vacations, and my feeling that “poverty” is something of a western invention, I don’t believe we should ignore the needs of others. And there are a lot of people in need.

If volunteer vacations aren’t the answer (and far be it for me to blatantly claim that volunteer vacations are bad – they aren’t, but not all of them are helpful either), then how can we travelers who feel affected by poverty on the road lend a helping hand without crippling, insulting, or alienating the people we’re trying to help?

What exactly are the “awesome opportunities” (as suggested by the reader) around me that may help poverty?

I don’t know the “right” answer to this question.

Some of the poorest people I’ve known have also been the proudest and most generous. They don’t easily accept hand-outs, as it challenges their ability to “save face” – a stature of cultural importance in many countries. It’s not an excuse to not do anything, but it’s a reason to be very careful about how to do it.

Whenever I’ve had a chance to develop a relationship of sorts with somebody in need, I’ve personally helped them (logistically, financially, or otherwise) – as a friend more than as a traveler trying specifically to do a good deed. I see these experiences as some of my “awesome opportunities” to do something good.

I’ve also risen to the call more than once and turned my life upside down to provide invaluable disaster relief on the spot (at times organizing top-level aid where aid organizations failed) – once in Thailand, and once in Australia.

And I’ve been a member of Rotary since I was 25; my home club alone raises $100,000/year for various community and global initiatives, which include the impending eradication of polio around the world.

So personally, I sleep okay at night. I haven’t saved the world, and I haven’t single-handedly eradicated poverty, but I’ve come to know people who technically live in poverty, to learn from them, to help them as best I can, and most importantly – to respect them.

How do you deal with poverty on the road?

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28 thoughts on “Dealing With Poverty on the Road”

  1. Ahhh! It’s tough! I live in the Philippines and in the Manila ‘slums’.. no joke. So yes, it’s definitely tough! I deal with poverty every day. It is my surroundings. I feel I want to help them but at the same time I feel they are so self reliant and happy that they don’t need help. They are sustainable with what they have! They have their own economy. Prices you wouldn’t find anywhere else that they have made and they are a part of. They are so damn resilient!! Sometimes I envy them for not being able to figure out my own finances, still stuck in my Westernized mind, and barely surviving on $1,000 when they have plenty with $300. Yes, to feeling the west takes a sort of ‘imperialized’ view on poverty and that “helping” them makes it all better. How do we know they WANT our help?? The world can not sustain westernized living.. we would need 8 earths if every one lived like US standards. So that’s not the answer. And having done voluntourism myself, that is DEFINITELY not the answer either. In my opinion, its fake.. like a zoo. The companies that make $$ create these simulated environments that appear like you’re helping out when really the program is most likely started FOR the tourism program itself and does nothing. That was my experience in India. If you want to really help out, find an NGO.

    I feel the way to help these communities is through love. Share with them my art and craft. Help cultivate their creativity and minds. Give them awareness of sustainability and recycling. This is how we can help rebuild generations. To address poverty directly, I would rather focus on sustainability; abundance.. Rather than poverty… the lack of. We ARE abundant. So focusing on gardening etc. and feeding communities is an avenue I’d like to explore.

  2. What an amazing article. I love the idea of befriending locals while I travel and sharing experiences and knowlege. This is one of the main reasons I love slow travel, staying in one place for weeks even months instead of days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Nora – this is one of the most frank and honest posts I have read on this subject, and it is something that I struggle with all the time.

    When in Honduras for 6 months, I befriended a local girl and helped her in many ways – not only financially, but driving her to the hospital in the middle of the night to have a baby. When we left it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, knowing that without my help, she would be wanting for some things she needed.

    I’ve struggled with it and think of her often. I try to tell myself that I did what I could while I could, but it’s still difficult….

  4. While I agree that some Westerners have a Superman complex and that volunteer vacations are often more about the volunteer than the community, I think parts of your post are problematic.

    For example, you say that you think “poverty” is something of a Western invention, and that many people around the world may not see themselves as impoverished. Do you think these people aren’t aware of Western luxuries and of the opportunities for education and for travel that people like you and I have? It seems to me that your descriptions of the “proud,” and “generous,” poor people who have an invaluable attachment to the natural world is just another stereotype. Poverty isn’t just about survival; it’s about options, or a lack thereof.

  5. I heard this story several years ago: A wealthy man was visiting an impoverished country and noticed a poor fisherman there. The fisherman lived in a shabby shack near the beach and spent every day out fishing in a small, worn boat. The wealthy man told the fisherman, “If you work very hard, you can buy a bigger boat that will bring in more fish. By selling more fish, you can buy more boats and hire others to help you. After many years you can retire and do whatever you like. What would you like to do most?”
    The fisherman smiled. “Live near the beach and go fishing every day.”

  6. “Maybe you are missing an awesome opportunity around you.”

    People have used the word “awesome” so much nowadays that I’m leery of anyone who spouts it. They really don’t have a clue and wouldn’t know “awesome” if it bit them.

    Your position in the article is right on!

  7. One of the best articles, I have ever read and I totally agree with this statement that the old man made “By contrast, he surmised that people who truly are impoverished are those who live in the Western world, struggle to survive from pay to pay while being trapped in a life of consumerism”

    So true!

  8. a friend emailed me this article said she was interested in my view since she said the author is from my neck of the woods… grenada… i replied to her “hey fiona, just to be clear this author is not from my neck of the woods. she is simply passing through and giving a very simplified subjective romantic priveleged opinion of poverty. i do agree there are many interesting views and some of them i agree with ie volunteerism but there is much i question and shake my head at her oversimplified romantic reflections. a complicated and layered topic for real. blessings. one love maureen

  9. This is SUCH a difficult topic to discuss and deal with. I think you’ve essentially nailed it.

    I must say, though, that the impoverished people of the Dominican Republic were some of the happiest and most joyous I’ve ever met.

    Well done.

  10. Very thought provoking post.

    My take on poverty – and really any social malady is that everyone should do what they can, when they can, where they can. Everyone is able to help others in their own way and if we all do what we can, improvements are bound to happen.

    When it comes to Grenada….Grenada is a beautiful place – I’ve been there and yes, most of the people are very friendly and happy. However, with that said – happiness does not necessarily mean that poverty is absent or that the effects of poverty are only a Western construct. Teen pregnancy is a serious issue in Grenada – 40% of women in Grenada report having their child between the ages of 15-19, and nearly 5% of women had their first child before they turned 15. Alcoholism is a serious problem in several of Grenada’s communities and many women have complained that fathers are unable to support their children as a result of their alcohol abuse.

    The simple fact of having low income does not necessarily result in an unhappy population, but the effects of poverty multiply over time. There is a very real correlation between poverty and alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and poor living conditions and these effects tend to give rise to an endless cycle. Teen mothers who have children from multiple fathers tend to be more likely to raise daughters who also become teen mothers. While completing school is often a step out of poverty for many, giving birth at a very young age often means that the young mother is never able to return to school. Without an education, fewer economic opportunities are available and the cycle perpetuates itself. While sex with a minor is considered statutory rape in Grenada, prosecutions against men for this are seldom pursued, which helps to establish this as something of an acceptable norm.

    I think the question, “Do they even know what poverty is?” – is perhaps flawed, because it makes the assumption that unless you are aware that you are in a less than stellar situation, that you must be fine. As many know, those who suffer from addictions and abuse are often unaware that their situation is “bad” – I think it’s important to take into consideration the effects of poverty that we aren’t able to see as easily by walking down the street – alcoholism, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, etc… They may be less evident than malnourishment, but they are certainly as real. Things have been improving quite a bit over time in Grenada, but there is always progress to be made. We should all keep in mind that while we might see a smile, we know very little of the life behind it.

  11. Nora – I agree with many of the points you made, but am curious where you stand when it comes to the Peace Corps. Do you view it in the same light as volunteer vacations?

  12. I think your point about westerners creating poverty is a valid insight, but it needs development. Despite what other have commented on here, it is not absolute. When someone commented that people do consider themselves impoverished because they see Western and eveloped nations’ luxuries, he wasn’t lying. I’ve met many, many humble people traveling around by thumb, and I can say that people, in general, seem happy, despite their perceived poverty. Poverty is a completely relative term, and yes of course it exists. However, it can be relative in the most extreme of ways.

    For example, the most cut-off communities in the world are in the Amazon. Their plight is one that the rest of the world has fallen before. They resist outsiders. They dont want, and in many cases don’t know what ‘development’ even is. They have their own peoples’ lives to compare their own with, not some rich billionaire European. In many parts of the world, European colonies changed the local inhabitants, brought them to Christianity, because their previous life was considered lost. Today, what happens is a cut-off community allows some things in,like TV. On the TV, the people see a global standard of what is “well-off”, and suddenly they’re poor. They were fine before some outsider brought in an example to compare them with.

    Unfortunately this is the way of the world now, and it’s irresponsible to ignore the fact that poverty does exist, and whether it exists because someone says a person is poor, or that person decides they yes, they are poor, doesn’t matter. If their happiness depends on a measure of material value, then poverty will forever exist.

    Now, as to what you can do… that’s a whole other subject. I think the most ridiculous thing to do is hand out money. There’s a big difference between charity and sustainable development, and unfortunately, as long as our systems persist as they are, sustainable development is the “answer”, and throwing money just prolongs procrastination.

    I know about development and all that jazz, but my way of traveling is traveling-living. I have not volunteered, but not because I would not, but because where I am at any given time is just where I am, and I’llwrite about it and try to learn from every little mundane experience. But I am not one to search out ‘volunteering’.

  13. Nora,

    I’ve been a reader of your website for a while, and this is the first time I’ve commented on one of your posts. This post is on target, and I commend you for having the courage to state some things that need to be said.

    Let me offer one additional point. Many of us in western countries (I am an American) tend to take wealth for granted, and as a result we also assume that poverty is not “normal.” In fact, poverty (as we conventionally define it) has been the norm for 99+ percent of humankind from the beginning. It has been only in the past 100-150 years that a sizeable middle class began to emerge, and even then in only some places. So I have long believed that asking “why are people poor” is the wrong question. We should instead ask, “how do people get out of poverty”?

    When you shift your perspective in this manner, I think it makes your points about “voluntourism” and the Superman complex all the more compelling. Charitable efforts from outsiders certainly can help, assuming they are appropriately conceived, targeted and executed. But real and sustainable change comes from within, and to develop what we consider to be “modern” economies requires social, political and legal structures that often do not exist or are not fully developed. We cannot impose these structures from the outside. They need to grow from within, and be suited to the societies they inhabit.

    You also make a very valid point that at least some of the people we consider “poor” may not see themselves that way, and they might not aspire to wealth as we define it. This should not surprise us. We cannot and should not expect everyone in the world to think as we do, see what we see, and want what we want. We should not assume they need or want to be “saved” by us.

    Thank you for providing your readers with this opportunity to comment on your outstanding post.

  14. Yo Nora! Interesting post and something I’ve been contemplating for a while (since I lived in Saigon back on ’08).

    I agree with you mostly, that poverty is what the West imposes on peoples not they themselves. People always what to better their lot, but some of the happiest people I’ve seen would probably fall under the Western categorization of “impoverished”. Whether they would agree or not, I never got the chance to ask.

  15. I had a lot of the same feelings as you did when I first traveled to a third world country = they don’t have much, but they seem happy! To me it was very eye opening to what WE see as necessity and happiness. The people I saw had a small fraction of wealth, freedom and material things in comparison to me, but they always had a smile on their face, a friendly word to say and even a helping hand at times.

    I realize this is not the case everywhere and it by no means confirms that my observations make it to be true. But to walk a mile in their shoes…

  16. I am very thankful, and appreciate your viewpoint. I share most of it as well.
    There are many kinds of Poverty. Poverty of the heart, poverty of the intellect, monetary or financial poverty, infrastructural poverty, environmental poverty, poverty of happiness, etc.
    It’s very probable that there will be regions in the world, and therefore nations in the future that will lack water, and clean sanitary conditions. These will include “rich” countries.
    Your viewpoint is clearly well experienced, internalized, thought out, and written. Hopefully, the rest of us will reflect upon this and open up all those passage ways.
    There are philosophies that preach of “doing”, “good”, and of doing good. It’s really nothing more than doing yourself (making oneself happy). I differ on this, as I think every act is a selfish act. Especially when there is some self-doing that action. Whether the forces are fear, guilt, or to later feel good about oneself, or to feel redeemed is still some sort of selfish action. Good, bad, or indifferent.
    I hope we all feel good. As long as we don’t hurt that which is outside of us. Plants, elements, animals, people, etc. Also not to hurt others physically, emotional, psychological, economically, etc.
    The best volunteering action human bodies, including myself, could perform would be to leave the earth alone. This includes the plant life, the earth beneath us, all the elements, animals, and other human bodies, especially the “Poor” people. Then again how could we survive without doing anything, and still be content.

    While he opines, someone shouts: “Of the beauty and the beast.” “Hey who said that?”

    Much of the history of human bodies shows that our “doing good” resulted in polluting the very atmosphere. The ongoing industrial revolution and it’s propents, surely Dickens would agree, had not idea that it would literally pollute and possibly poison the atmosphere. Thanks for doing good, and thanks for the efficiency.

    While he opines, someone shouts: “Of the beauty and the beast.” “Hey who said that?”

    The superman concept exists in many of the “developed” societies, and also within me at times. In those moments I kick myself. Hey, I try to be aware. As if the world would be doomed without these superman or superwoman. There was a time when there were no human bodies that roamed the earth. Surely, the unknown is very powerful.

    In conclusion, there is also a natural superman that exists everywhere. It is as natural as when your eyelids shut automatically when sensing an object close to the eye. It is as natural as the chameleon changing colours. Just like when you reach out automatically to support a “stranger” or a friend or a relative when they are about to trip and fall. That superman comes from the heart, and is natural as the roots of a tree extending upwards and becoming the branches and leaves.

    While he opines, someone shouts: “Be well, stay happy, and keep on smiling.”.” “Hey who said that?”

  17. Excellent insights into the real meanings of poverty! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Especially liked the debunking of the idea that less money/stuff is synonymous with poverty, and the questionable efforts of Westerners ‘helping’ other regions–though perhaps with good intentions, not with a good understanding of their needs and wants and culture.

    • Thank you, Nathan! It has been a while since I read this post – so I thank you for reminding me of it!

  18. Love this. Love the comments. You all are people I want to know.

    Like the fisherman story – this is a western story – but I saw a nonfictional cartoon once where an illustrator, though feeling pressure to move up in his career as editor or whatever, decided that what he really wanted was to be a stay at home dad and to his colleagues’ and family’s surprise he quit his job, started a modest freelance gig and got to spend tins of time with his daughter.

    On my road to minimalism and not letting western culture suck me in, that cartoon was a reminder that i can live simpler in the US too if I choose to stay – though I probably won’t. 🙂

    • Great cartoon, Libby – thanks for sharing!
      Favourite line: “Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success”. Wow!

      • Wow is right. A friend of mine who appears, at minimum, complacent, burnt out and comfortably miserable, talks down to me every time I dream of a location independent life around her. “Why can’t you just have a job and travel a lot?” “People who make money at [x dream mobile career here] worked a full time job first and are really lucky.” Etc. I realize her criticism veiled in realism stems from her feeling like i’m attacking her life by not following suit into misery and her need for stability mixed with her desire to write books, essentially I know that in actuality it has nothing to do with me, but it really grinds my gears that she (and everyone else who’s miserable) is so quick to want me to be miserable too. Admittedly I don’t know exactly what my alternative life looks like, and I do need some financial stability and to visit home a lot, but I’ve been working a full time job for a few months now and I’m already burnt out. It seems it really irks people that I could possibly imagine (or have researched thoroughly) having a life that doesn’t follow the miserable norm and are quick to make me feel like it’s a wrong choice. I’m working on TEFL as my next adventure while building a sustainable mobile career. Even if I take that career back to Minnesota for long stints of time, being mobile and running my own show is important to my ambition and emotional well being. All this to say, probably the first time I saw that cartoon I cried a little because there are so many people like my friend in my life and someone else got it. That same friend has been working full time for six years now and has absolutely no savings. She lives in a dirt cheap apartment and her car and her education are paid for – so all that money went? I don’t care where she spends her money or if she wants to be a part of consumerist misery – but I’d sure like it if she didn’t criticize my desire to have a more minimalist life that has room for adventure rather than things. (Not that I don’t enjoy a few luxuries that capitalism provides .) wow I sound really angry in this. I think I have some pent up anger toward her on this front. I’m sure once I’m off on the next adventure I’ll be less concerned with her criticism. So sorry for the negative vibes. :/

        • Hi Libby,
          I’ve been largely lucky in not receiving criticism from family/friends about my lifestyle, but recently a family friend attacked a part of my lifestyle by saying it’s “horse shit” before I even had a chance to explain it. I was livid for days. So I understand!
          As you observed, usually people who criticize are coming from their own place of judgement, unhappiness in their lives, and even feeling threatened by and/or envious of your ability to break out of the box. So don’t take these things too personally – it’s their problem, not yours! 🙂

        • Hi Libby!
          I read your post and wanted to support you. My first big trip happened in the mid-80’s. I was teaching at a University and felt like I was dying there. My love was inspiring people to learn, not play politics. After my third year, I resigned and put all my things in storage. My original plan was to cycle through Europe however I realized I wanted to see more of my own country first.

          Once I resigned, it felt like 40 friends and acquaintances came out of the woodwork to let me know what a stupid and crazy idea I had. I was leaving a secure, solid and potentially tenure track position to do WHAT??? My uncle walked out of the room when I stopped to visit and would not talk about with me about my plans. He was retired military, sat in front of his computer monitoring investments, and pinching pennies. That was satisfying to him but would be deadly to me!

          What happened for me through the criticism is I got even more clear about “WHY” I was doing what I was doing. I wanted to expand my life, experience more, interview interesting people and get clearer about what to do next.

          And I realized a lot of that criticism was because those people had two choices. One, go internal and reflect on whether they were living a meaningful life and doing what really spoke to them. Or, decline that opportunity and instead, make me wrong. That way they could remain comfortable in the routine of their life.

          One friend old me she admired my courage. That struck me as strange? It didn’t feel like courage. What I felt was so clear, it was the thing to do!

          Be clear on what you are clear about. Let go of the need to defend yourself. It might help for you to watch Simon Sinek’s TedTalk, “Start With Why”, to get clearer on your “why”.

          Two things helped me stay focused. First was the quote from Socrates, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I wanted to be fully me wherever I was!

          Second, I felt early in my planning that I might be running away which meant I would take everything uncomfortable with me. So I shifted and decided to move toward. What is my intention? What do I want to move closer to in my life?

          I traveled 15 months, stayed in hotels twice, was invited into people’s home, got to interview amazing people, went through a “vision quest” with Sun Bear, and had magic seemingly prepare my way. I wish the same magical experience for you.

          Yes…live the life YOU dream of! Yay!

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