The first time I went to India, it ruined me.

I’d visualised ancient temples adorned earth to sky with mystical figurines, masala chai served roadside in terracotta cups, bustling markets invigorating the senses with scent and sound. Obviously I knew about the poverty, but in my excitement I didn’t think much about it. Or, more specifically, I didn’t think much about what it would mean to witness it firsthand.

The ancient temples, masala chai and bustling markets were even more captivating than I’d imagined. Yet my elation was eclipsed by being overwhelmed at the staggering poverty.

Entire families live on the sidewalk, preparing their children’s supper and braiding one another’s hair as pedestrians wander through their “bedrooms”—neither acknowledging the other, as though existing in separate dimensions. Mutilated beggars howl on the corners while stunted children with distended bellies target the wealthy and the foreign, grabbing their pant legs and miming that they’re hungry.

Of course, this isn’t new information. But actually encountering it was indescribably jolting. I wasn’t mentally prepared.

I was suddenly plagued with questions: Should I avoid giving money, which perpetuates the begging cycle? Or should I give more money, because one person’s giving has no effect on said cycle, and at least my cash can feed one person? Should I quit my job and devote my life to campaigning for greater income and social equality? Should I stop thinking about how this relates to me, me, me?

Kolkata India

A street in Kolkata, India. (Francesco Terzini/Flick)

Prepare to Give

It’s worth taking the time to ready yourself before you leave. Reading novels or watching movies and documentaries set in the country you’ll be visiting is a fantastic way to move beyond academic facts and begin to understand the human atmosphere. (For travel book ideas, check out my recommendations in the May/June issue of Outpost Magazine.)

What to Give

Whether or not to directly give money—well, that’s up to you. There are valid reasons on both sides of the argument, and every traveller needs to draw their own conclusions. Some prefer to give food, to ensure it goes to the children and not (in the case of India, at least) the beggar pimps. If this is your MO, be sure to hand out healthy snacks as opposed to candy, since these kids have no access to dental care.

You may also want to consider avoiding clothing or school supplies, as that might make the child a target for theft or bullying. (Then again, extra layers on a cold night can make an enormous difference, so it’s your call.)

How to Give

As important as if and what you give is how you give it. I was volunteering in Kolkata for two months and made the mistake of giving money to a street kid who hung around my hostel during my first week. As a result, he waited for me every day and followed me down the road, knowing that eventually I’d break down and hand over a couple of rupees. If there’s somebody, or a family, you’d like to give to, wait until the last time you’re going to see them.

Additionally, ensure you’re discreet. You’ll regret the moment you handed out money or food to a couple of kids, and then threw your hands up because you had no more when the horde arrived—and it inevitably will. If you want to shell out, do so as privately as possible and gesture to the child to keep it a secret, which they usually will if you ask.

Beyond Giving

Being so moved by global inequality that you’re inspired to take action is commendable. That said, voluntourism is a complicated industry. If you’re considering volunteering abroad, familiarise yourself with both sides of the debate and research potential NGOs—beyond their websites—before committing to anything.

Travelling isn’t just about pretty sights and cool adventures—it’s about learning about the planet, the cultures and histories of its citizens, and working toward a greater understanding of how it all pieces together.

Another way to make an impact is by changing your lifestyle at home to promote greater global equality, such as purchasing fair-trade products.

Most importantly, don’t make any rash decisions—like donating the entire contents of your bank account to a rickshaw-wallah, or foregoing your travel plans to volunteer with the first poverty-combating organization you encounter. Give yourself an opportunity to process the experience and determine the most effective way for you personally to make a difference, large or small.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t always a beautiful place. But travelling isn’t just about pretty sights and cool adventures—it’s about learning about the planet, the cultures and histories of its citizens, and working toward a greater understanding of how it all pieces together. You can make it a better place—you just have to know how.

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