Years ago, when I was in the business of developing package holiday tours, I traveled on a junket to the city of Lima which was sponsored by the government of Peru. The Peruvian government tourist office was trying to convince the travel industry that Lima was about to become the hottest destinations for North Americans. I had never been to Peru before, but based on what I knew of the conditions in Peru, I strongly doubted that Canadians would be flocking there in great numbers. The now defunct Canadian Pacific Airways, had just opened up a new air route to Lima and it was my job to put together holiday packages for the airline. These government sponsored tours are designed to showcase a destination in its best light. So, I was not surprised when we were quickly hustled out of the airport in luxurious limos and taken to the best hotel in the city. That night after a magnificent meal we were briefed by the government tourism officials on what we could expect to find in the streets of Lima. During the course of our briefing, we were warned that from time to time during our stay we would undoubtedly run into “the odd beggar or two.”
The odd beggar or two? That phrase struck me as odd at the time. But now it fills me with shame as I remember passively listening without comment. We were instructed not to let these beggars bother us. We were assured that many of them weren’t nearly as bad off as they looked and that we shouldn’t allow them to play on our sympathies and spoil our stay in Lima. According to our guide, begging was a way of life for most of the people who lived on the streets and if we showed them any courtesy, they would only try to take advantage of us. We were also warned to leave any valuables in the hotel safe. Wearing jewelry of any kind was strongly discouraged by our government guides.
The next morning as we prepared for our sightseeing tour, my assistant John and I, we dutifully deposited our valuables into the hotel safe. Before we left the hotel, John, who’d been on a few of these junkets with me in the past, asked me if I had enough change. John knew that our guide’s instructions about giving money to beggars would have, as usual, fallen on deaf ears. John didn’t like the idea that no matter where we were, if someone asked me for a handout, I always tried to oblige. John insisted that giving money to beggars sends out the wrong signal. He insisted that if you give money to one, then you’ll have to give money to all of them, and there’s no way that you can solve a beggar’s problems with a few coins, let alone deal with the problems of all the beggars who’ll jump on the gravy train. John and I had long since stopped arguing about the matter. We’d worked together for a long time, and we’d agreed to disagree, besides I was his boss, so rather than try to argue with me John just sort of looked out for me and tried to make sure I didn’t get myself into too much trouble. I had assured John that I had enough small change to see us through the morning, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught from the homeless children of Peru.
It only took about ten minutes before my pockets were empty. When I ran out of coins, I was stunned when John took over where I left off. In the past, John had always managed to stick to his guns, but these kids somehow managed to get to him. It’s difficult for North Americans to understand how small children can be allowed to roam the streets. The poverty is beyond comprehension. I don’t remember much about the city of Lima. I couldn’t tell you anything about the tourist attractions which we visited. But I can still remember the pain and desperation in the eyes of the children we encountered. At lunch, John and I filled our pockets with left over bread and bits of cheese, which we gave to the children who accosted us outside the restaurant. John kept blaming me for starting something that we had no hope of finishing. But despite his insistence that we adopt a tougher stance, it was John who hustled over to the shop across the street and bought several loaves of bread, which he distributed, to a small band of kids who followed us the rest of the afternoon.
As we headed back to our hotel, I think both John and I took some consolation in the knowledge that for at least a few hours, the little band of kids who were following us, had food in their bellies. We were discussing the relative merits of buying these kids dinner, when a boy, who couldn’t have been more than about ten years old, came around the corner and blocked our way. Before John could do anything, the boy grabbed me by the arm. John was about to reach for the boy’s shoulder, but something in the boy’s appearance stunned John into stillness. The oozing sores which covered most of the boy’s face were revolting. It was as though this child was actually rotting before our very eyes. Before John or I could recover from the horror of being in such close proximity to septic human flesh, the boy reached for the silver necklace which hung around my neck. I had tucked the silver cross which hung around my neck inside my shirt so as not to attract attention to it. But as the boy took hold of the chain, the cross was revealed. The boy hesitated for just a moment, and the two of us exchanged a glace which contained such sorrow. And then in a flash, the boy, the chain, and the silver cross were gone. Continue reading