It was my first morning in Cluj, and as I walked through the city I felt a joyful buoyancy about my first change of scenery in five weeks. It was Sunday, so it was quiet, and I had my headphones in (not that I was listening to anything, I was just being Snapchat ready). As I was waiting at a crosswalk, I saw out of the corner of my eye a young man approach an older woman, get turned away, and then turn to me.
I barely even looked at him when he said something to me in Romanian. I just shook my head, assuming he was trying to sell me something.
“No—“ he said, but then he turned and walked away.
Almost immediately I started to feel guilty. I didn’t know for sure if he was trying to sell something. Maybe he was asking for directions. I glanced back at him, but he was already power walking towards the park. I had just made some huge assumptions without even looking at him, and I disliked that.
Which is why, when he approached me in the park the next day, I was more open.
He was young, maybe in his late teens or early twenties. Dressed casually in a clean t-shirt and shorts, with that haircut that’s fashionable with Eastern European guys these days, buzzed sides, long and swoopy on top. He spoke to me in Romanian, and I could see immediately that he was going to try to sell me one of the lavender satchels he was carrying – which did smell wonderful, actually.
“I only speak English,” I told him with an apologetic smile.
“Oh,” he switched to English and introduced himself. He held out his hand.
I didn’t take it. “Amy,” I said, and he dropped his hand. I didn’t shake his hand. I don’t think ever in my life I’ve refused to shake someone’s hand. Maybe it was that I had just been in Paris, where the friendship bracelet scam is a big deal, that I didn’t take his hand. But in the split second it took for me to make that decision, think maybe it was actually kinda a douche move, and reconsider, he had already withdrawn his hand. Not deterred, he moved on to trying to sell me a lavender pouch.
“No, thank you,” I said, again with what I thought was a small but pleasant smile.
“Please,” he said.
“No, sorry, thanks.”
“Please, one lei. Please.”
“No, thanks.” And I looked away.
“You know what?” The pleading had dropped from his voice. There was a quiet edge now.
“Fuck you. Ok?”
I said nothing. I didn’t look at him again. He kept pace with me for a few more seconds, then diverted to a pair of women crossing the path in front of us.
Considering a stranger had just menacingly whispered “Fuck you” to me, I felt strangely calm. In fact, I started wondering if I had a mistake. One Romanian lei is about twenty-five cents. Twenty-five cents! I’m walking around with my DSLR camera slung over my shoulder, my iPhone tucked into my palm, and an air of (relative) financial stability, and I had just denied this guy a quarter.
I have a general rule when I travel not to buy from people who approach me first. There are a lot of reasons. One, many times these vendors are children who are missing school or other opportunities to work. They might even be being abused or manipulated, a la Slum Dog Millionaire. Another reason is that I don’t want to support a culture of commerce where shoppers are hassled by vendors. And lastly, I just don’t trust my own intuition. I’m not confident I can spot a travel scam before it happens, so I try to minimize situations where I’m vulnerable — situations like opening my wallet in the middle of the street.
On the other hand, don’t we Americans prize entrepreneurship? Especially as a method of getting out of poverty. Isn’t that the American Dream?
Growing up in New York City you get to be very skeptical of people asking for money. I once saw a guy on crutches asking for money, and a few hours later I spotted him again, riding a bike, crutches under his arm. In the US, we’re supposed to have services set up for people, where at least there’s access to food and shelter, even if it’s not top quality. I know we still have a lot of failures and there’s not access for everyone, but I have a bunch of fossilized skepticism about people who pan handle in New York City.
But it’s not like that in the rest of the world. People are actually destitute, in a way that is unfathomable for most people living in the US. I regularly see locals here in Eastern Europe giving money out, and no one seems like they’re worried about getting scammed. And would they even care if they were?
There’s a scene in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, in which Tina Fey plays a reporter in Afghanistan. She’s out at the market with her boyfriend, who gives money to a boy who’s sobbing over a crate of smashed eggs. She tells him it’s a scam (having fallen for it herself), and he responds, “I know it’s a scam, Kim, so what? He’s still begging in the street.” Sometimes begging is portrayed as ‘the easy way’ – but the amount of humility it requires is not easy. I’m mortified to ask my family for money when I need a little extra help. How do the elderly, fathers and mothers, young intelligent minds feel when they decide begging for money is their only option?
NPR’s This American Life recently did an episode on the refugee crisis in Greece. They paint a vivid, painful picture of how it feels to be trapped, poor, and rejected. People whose lives have been so completely destroyed that they have to depend on others for their basic, life-sustaining needs. They are completely helpless to improve their situation, while I have the privilege of flitting around Europe however I please.
The man who cursed at me, I don’t know his story. I don’t know if he’s poor or if he’s a refugee or if he’s just trying to scam tourists. But I bet, if he could, he’d be doing anything other than trying to sell lavender pouches for twenty-five cents each. I don’t blame him for being angry with me, with my privilege, with my rejection. Maybe, in fact, I should be angrier with myself for doing so little.
Days later, I’m still thinking about this. What do you guys think? What do you do when you face poverty when traveling? What IS the best way to help fight social justice issues around the world?
Thanks to the photographers who’ve made their work available under creative commons licensing.