It was in May 2007 when I went on my very first trip outside of North America on a journey that took me to Ecuador and Peru. This would be my first encounter with a radically different culture and more importantly, extreme poverty.
Culture Shock in South America
In Quito, I exited the airport only to have a woman thrust a tiny infant in my arms. My driver quickly gave the baby back to her, shouting at her rather roughly, urging her to leave us alone.
The café close to our hotel, a hangout for bohemian backpackers, was guarded by men wielding machine guns. They were there to make the tourists feel safe and to keep the would-be thieves and beggars at bay.
Later in Lima, young boys approached me trying to sell “candies” that were strangely unpackaged Halls cough drops.
While touring the Pisac Ruins, I found myself attempting to bargain with locals over a chess set when I suddenly stopped and thought about what I was doing. I know that some vendors will rip-off tourists, but here I was haggling over a few dollars. I immediately felt horrible and paid the asking price.
Nearby, a small boy began to pose for us. He was pretty cute and soon enough our entire tour group was snapping photos. When we finished, he lifted up his small hand to beg for money, catching us all off guard.
These moments left a long-lasting impression on me and until now, have not been something that I’ve been able to put into words.
Poverty in Third World Countries
I’d gone to South America to undertake two extreme once-in-a-lifetime adventures: to take a cruise around the Galapagos and to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I paid a lot of money to take this trip, bringing my expensive camera, hiking boots and backpack.
Both adventures were amazing, even life changing, but there was this awful feeling that would not escape me. It was a mixture of guilt, sadness and helplessness. I felt guilty for all that I had, sadness at seeing people living in such poor conditions, and helplessness knowing that there was not much I could do to change their situation.
Hiking the Inca Trail, I only had to carry my day pack and walking stick. Our porters carried large propane tanks, our tents and other gear.
In the evening, we’d arrive at our campsite and the tents would already be set-up, air mattresses blown up, sleeping bags laid out, a bucket of water set out for us to wash and prepare for dinner. And believe it or not, dinner was already prepared.
We were spoiled by these men, treated like kings and queens. There were about 20 of them for our group of 14. At night, they slept in a single tent on the ground.
I did become close to one man, Javier. He was one of our guides, tasked with staying behind the group and encouraging the slowest (ahem, weakest) hikers to keep on moving. Of course that was me!
He kindly and patiently cheered me on when I was struggling, helped me up when I fell and laughed when I told him I was not cut out for hiking or backpacking in general.
I knew that I paid to take my trip and receive lodging, food and service, but I still couldn’t shake that awful feeling. I also knew that these men were well paid and as a result could afford to send their kids to school and take care of elderly relatives where others could not. I left them all a large tip (especially Javier), with the hopes it would help them and their families.
Travel Changed Me
That trip was an emotional one for me and I found myself in tears more than once (not just when I was struggling from the physical and mental challenges of the hike). It changed the way I travel and even the way I viewed the world in general.
Ever since, I’ve asked myself time and time again, what can I do to help others who live in poverty? I know it might sound terribly clichéd, but I came away wanting to make a difference someway, somehow.
It took some time but I now work for a well-known NGO, sponsor a child in Zimbabwe and give loans to entrepreneurs through Kiva. I hope in the future to do something even more meaningful.
It’s not much right now, but I hope I’m making a small but positive impact.
There’s always more you can do.
So how about shopping ethically and helping out those who live in poverty? Instead of buying clothes from a place like Zara or H&M, what about buying things like that chess set I purchased in the Sacred Valley directly from an artisan in Peru?
Novica connects people with artisans who otherwise wouldn’t have a way to showcase their work to an international audience. Through their online marketplace, you help empower artisans who live in the world’s poorest regions by buying their hand-crafted pieces be it pottery, clothing or jewelry.
I recently purchased this hand-crafted, Alpaca blend wool shawl from a Peruvian artist living in the Andes, the exact location where I hiked all those years ago. To see more work from this artist, Isidoro C’cahuantico, view his Novica profile.
Not only has this shawl helped keep me warm during our cold Canadian winter, it’s been a great reminder of my travels to Peru.
In order to help spread the word about the good work being done by Novica and encourage more of you to make a purchase through them, I’m really excited to be giving away a $50 US gift certificate to spend on their web site.
Enter the contest now:
* Please be sure to view the Terms and Conditions for specific contest details.