Dear Savvy Traveller: My grandfather was born in India and I’d love a chance to see the country. From what I hear, many people are overwhelmed by the poverty in this part of the world. How could I prepare myself for the traveller’s guilt that will come with such a trip?
India, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean—you couldn’t be more right about the level of poverty you’ll face in popular travel destinations like these. Before I dive into this, I want to address what a friend said when I mentioned I was tackling this topic this week. She said we have plenty of poverty in North America, and while that’s true, it’s nothing like what you’ll find in these underdeveloped regions.
Also, at home, we’re adept at avoiding it. I’m glad you recognize that this will be very different. You are right that you’re going to be alarmed by what you see, especially as someone who already cares enough to ask this question before even taking the journey. The good news is you’re past stage one: denial.
So now what? The way I see it, you have two mountains to climb: first, acceptance; second, resolution, to a proportionate degree. Let’s start with acceptance.
On many Caribbean islands, you’ll generally pass through downtrodden areas on your way to pristine oases of tourism, making it a bit easier (for better or worse) to forget what you’ve seen once you arrive. In some areas of India, though, you’re going to be confronted constantly, walking among conditions you haven’t experienced in North America. Perhaps most jarring is how ordinary it seems to everyone there—a level of acceptance that will cause you to wonder how this can be.
The key here is to achieve some level of acceptance yourself if you’re going to find meaning in this trip rather than spend it all being forlorn. Not acceptance that these conditions are right or fair, but acceptance that these conditions are normal (there).
Consider this: Being horrified by a person’s daily way of life is not encouraging to anyone—it’s degrading. Consider a much wealthier person coming into your home and being horrified by its size, its lack of luxury (in their eyes), the food you buy, the servants you (probably) don’t have, and the clothes in your closet.
Obviously, I am not comparing you to a homeless person, or pretending your lives are comparable in any way. But I do want you to consider how it feels when someone who has much more pities you for what you don’t have, and thinks your way of life would be unimaginable for them.
I bet you’re fairly happy with the life you’ve made in the environment you call home, whatever your social status may be. Many of the people you encounter in conditions we find deplorable and upsetting are living their normal lives, and being visibly shaken by it is no benefit to them; it’s emotionally harmful. I know that isn’t your goal, so try to come to an acceptance that this life is normal in the areas you’re visiting, and smile at those living it instead of outwardly, or even inwardly, gasping in horror.
Let me take a second to emphasize that none of this is to say that these conditions are sanitary, hygienic, safe, or fair. I’m not advocating for a “whatever” approach toward global poverty or health concerns. Of course your humanitarian instincts are going to kick in immediately, and you’re going to want to improve the lives you’re witnessing. It’s impossible for you as a decent person to look at people who seem to have nothing, and not feel obligated and interested in sharing some of what you have. This brings us to resolution.
You’re not going to revolutionize India. And you’re not going to dramatically improve one life with your very own Oprah moment of giving money, clothes, and supplies to one lucky kid, or mother, or anyone.
That person will still live in the same village and, to be honest, if you give one person too much, they are likely to become a target themselves. Resist the urge for immediate relief of your guilt by handing over your belongings to someone on the street, or by quitting your job to work with a volunteer organization.
Your resolution should be proportionate to you—one person. You already know conditions are very difficult where you’re going, so you have the distinct advantage of being able to plan some resolution into your trip ahead of time.
Research some organizations that promote community development in regions you’re visiting, and plan a day or two of service during your trip. Keep in mind the old proverb of giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish, and volunteer a bit of pre-arranged time to a group that will provide lasting, positive change through long-term improvement initiatives. This is a reasonable, proportional way for you to assist a community in a real way, maximizing your resources of time and/or money, without insulting or degrading anyone.
This type of hands-on approach is one of the surest methods for relieving the most traveller’s guilt you can manage without upending your life. If you don’t have a day or two to spare, you can also donate to organizations like these before or after your visit.
And don’t be afraid to remember that you’re not required to do anything. This is just an option for those who are truly racked by so much guilt that they need a responsible way to alleviate some of it. This is not an obligation, and there is a great deal of truth to the notion that simply visiting an area brings a degree of economic development that, however slowly, improves conditions and supports communities which may be dependent upon travel dollars.
Whatever level of involvement, or lack thereof, is right for you, just be sure you don’t forego the entire trip for fear of guilt. Emotions are good for you, even the bad ones, so go connect with your personal history, and come home with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world you live in.