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Travel Talk: When overseas, find ways to avoid beggars, honor culture

While Bud and I adore most aspects of travel, some things we encounter abroad are troublesome. Among the most confounding of these is how to deal with begging. On one hand we feel guilty. Here we are enjoying a foreign country, staying in nice hotels, absorbing the local history and culture, clearly we can spare some cash for needy children or adults. On the other hand, the more tourists give handouts, the more the locals depend on the “easy” money and begging becomes institutionalized, a way of life. A bad situation on so many levels for locals and tourists alike.

Engagement: It all begins with eye contact. Whether it’s an ancient gypsy holding a sick baby outside the Coliseum in Rome or a chattering young boy with a box of cheap bookmarks in Cairo, they know the first step is getting you to acknowledge them, eye-to-eye.

They know their chances improve the longer they can hold your attention and engage you, and they are very experienced and very, very good at it. They smile, laugh, flatter you, cajole, appeal to your sense of guilt and/or pity – whatever works. We’ve seen some weep. If you’re like us, you feel conflicted – sad, guilty, annoyed. You want outta there.

Your first line of defense is to avoid eye contact. Walking briskly past comes next. Bud and I make a point of learning “no” or “no thank you” in the local language and shake our heads (but smile) while walking, a tip we got from a protective guide in China.

Alternatives: Are Bud and I uncaring meanies? Ugly Americans? We don’t think so. In fact, we’ve come to this approach after listening to the advice (and even pleas) of local guides from Africa and South America to Vietnam and Cambodia. They love their homelands and don’t want to see whole generations reduced to begging. Their suggestions? Ignore able-bodied teens and adults altogether. If you want to be able to hand something to a child, shop the dollar store before you leave home and stock up on small toys, colored pencils, picture books and so on.

Specific items or needs can vary by culture, so check ahead with your tour company or local forums on Tripadvisor.com.

While you’re at it, look for items that might make gifts for special people you encounter. Last year we found that stickers or anything with “Obama” on it was considered treasure in Kenya. Years ago in Jamaica, the kids’ worn sneakers were like gold.

We’re now researching for our trip to Myanmar and got another good tip from an old classmate who was there recently. Tourism is so new there begging has little foothold – and they’d like to keep it that way. My friend suggested bringing school supplies to local monasteries, schools or orphanages. I’m getting lists now.

Thinking bigger: It’s easy to toss a few coins in an outstretched hand, but the bigger idea is to honor the local culture by supporting the institutions that will help the population. Visiting schools and such is one way, but there are also many nonprofit NGO’s around the world that focus on many social ills.

Many are associated with the United Nations (visit ngo.org for links) and are global, but others operate at the country-level. Just Google the country and “ngo directory” for lists.

Donate or visit – it’s up to you.

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