I spent a few days in Panajachel Guatemala. It’s the common launching point for tourists wanting to explore Lake Atitlan and the 12 small villages that surround it. As such, it’s also the stomping grounds of hundreds of street peddlers, all trying to exchange your quetzales for a braided bracelet or carved knickknacks or baked goods. In Panajachel, most of the wandering salespeople are kids under 10 years old.
Should you buy something from them?
For about 10 cents American, you can get a bracelet, the kind I used to make when I was 12 and back then we called them “friendship bracelets”. For 1 dollar American you can get a scarf. For 5 dollars American you can get a hand woven rug or a sculpture of a dolphin.
But how much would it cost to get the kids off the street and into a school?
I know it’s very boring to think about these things, but we all know the answer is bigger than what we could possibly attempt in a 2 day trip to the lake. It’s institutionalized under-education of children, especially those coming from indigenous families. But still, even if you do nothing, you’re still making a choice. Do you support a system that supports families by employing their adorable underage children as street peddlers? Or do you turn your back and hope that the lack of sales will encourage the parents to give up and send their kids to school instead? Sadly, the first is enabling and the second is naïve.
The best I could come up with? I won’t buy their stuff, but I will buy them something to drink or give them some of my food (if I’m eating). It’s small consolation for the eldest child (at 7 years old) of 6 siblings, where the father has left and the grandmother brings the kids to the market each day while the mom stays at home with the ones too little to insist to strangers, “Compralo!” (Buy it!)
But it changes the dynamic a bit, when I respond with, “No voy a comparlo pero quisieras una bebida? (I’m not going to buy it but would you like a drink?). Maybe this tiny gesture will mean something. For me it means chatting happily with cheerful youths who are always a little surprised when I make a joke, but then start telling me about their brothers and whether they can swim and what’s their favorite animal. Perhaps it’s just panacea for my guilt, but I like to think that by acknowledging them, treating them like somebody’s kids is at least a small first step.
So I’m curious, how do you handle the inevitable conflict as you travel and can’t help everyone? And since we can assume there is no right way to handle it, have you seen any creative ways to work around this?