If you’ve traveled to a foreign country in Asia or the Middle East, or even Europe, you know what I’m talking about. You walk up to a majorly touristy spot and small children surround you, hawking little gifts – souvenirs, bracelets, flowers, bubblegum – for cheap prices. One or two will start to follow you around, reaching for your arm and your attention, if it’s not already given. If you purchase anything or show interest, more children will seemingly appear out of thin air asking you to buy their version of whatever the previous child was selling.
Like many other experiences in travel, this feels like a scam and it’s hard not to treat it as such. I mean they’re cute little kids in the best of cases and heartbreaking, cold, hungry little things in the worst of cases. You want to give in to their cuteness which is exactly why they are there in the first place. They are potentially earning more money for their family than their parents; why else would they be there selling cheap trinkets on the street rather than learning in school or something else to make money.
But because they are children, you quietly and politely say no. You ask them why they aren’t in school. You tell them, “But seriously, no please go away,” and try to shake the curiosity of their life and icky feeling that you’re a bad person for not giving them money. I mean, it’s a scam right? Maybe you’re even someone with less of a “soft heart” than me and just wish the interruption of hawkers would cease to exist altogether, without wondering where they come from or what they might need. Even I, the sucker for cute kids, have days like that.
Once in Koh Samui I was out at a night club. Like serious beach front night club. People were obviously partying hard, potential drugs abound, plenty of alcohol, fire and light shows, loud music that bumps through the middle of the night and… little kids selling flowers. I thought, “You’re kidding me right? Who let their child out this late and how desperate are they to make money by putting their child in this situation” – albeit I must admit it is probably very easy to sell things to drunk people.
When one little girl approached me, I shook my head no but she wouldn’t go away. Maggie immediately asked her why she wasn’t in school. A trick she had picked up while teaching in Cambodia one summer. She had learned that as long as the children are making money with tourists their parents won’t send them to school. Sure enough, this question got an awkward response from the little girl, probably 10 or 11 years old. And she was the oldest.
A few more younger children drifted over, settling in around her, and all held out their arms offering flower leis of their own. She kept dropping a lei around our heads, trying to hang it on our arms or flinging one in our laps despite the fact that we returned it every time saying no. We continued to sip on our drinks, lying back in our beach loungers, and wholly ignored the children as they began to work on tourists around us. But the first girl kept coming back.
She asked for a piece of paper and began folding origami flowers. She asked where we were from and wanted to touch my hair. She told me not to worry because she would find a man for me, she was a good matchmaker, and when she wrangled in a sucker sitting nearby he quickly coughed up the money when she dropped a lei around my neck (yet again). She grinned with satisfaction because she knew she was right and I, after all, ended up going home with a lei.
Recently in Jordan, I had another similar experience. As we walked through the end of the siq and the Treasury came into view, our group was greeted by men and children offering up scarves, camel rides, bracelets and candy.
I was largely focused on taking pictures so I wasn’t bothered too much (to my relief) and the children seemed less persistent than some I had experienced before in other sites. We spent a few hours wandering around but before it was time to go I sat down with Seth on a bench. One little boy approached me touting his silver bracelets, “925 for just 1 dinar, 1 dinar, 1 dinar…” I had change from another bracelet I had just bought in a shop, so I thought what the heck and handed it over. He asked me “Which one” and I replied, “You pick.” He smiled as he handed one of his bangles over to me and then stopped midway to bounce the bracelet in his hand as if weighing it. “Ah he said, 3 grams so it’s 3 dinar.”
I looked at him and couldn’t help but smile. Children’s games… “No,” I sadly replied since I only had two dinar apart from some large bills. I pulled out my change purse to show him the two and the little boy began to inquire if I had more, insisting he could give me change. Seth got nervous and quickly told me no (because it would be something short of a miracle if I handed over a larger bill and really got my change back).
As you’d imagine at this point a few more children started to appear chiming in deals like “two for five.” When I shrugged and went to return my two dinar to my change purse the boy clinked the bangle around my wrist and said, “Okay.” Here comes the fun part. The other children now wanted to offer up their gifts. Since they’d seen the transaction they were mild, figuring I didn’t have anything else I was willing to spend, but that didn’t stop one boy and girl from repeatedly trying to hand us packs of postcards as “gifts” (I don’t know what the deal is there because I always say thanks but no thanks and give these supposed gifts back).
The little girl, about the same age as the one from Koh Samui, started asking if I had a gift for her. Lipstick was what she was after. She pointed to every pocket on my bag asking again and again if I had any. She was less than interested in my advice to never accept used lipstick, but was thrilled when she noticed my bright green pen which I happily handed over, of course. She wanted to ask me a hundred questions, like whether I had a boyfriend and why not, to take a selfie like so many children I have met before her (abroad and at home) and to play thumb war – tiny little details that reminded me that she is, in fact, just a little girl.
I have always enjoyed working with children because their emotions and reactions are still unprotected and true. They have yet to be thoroughly molded by the world around them. All of this holds true for the children I meet when I travel. The little girls who excitedly waved to have their photo taken outside Angkor Wat, the children who sat down with us on Khao San Road and were absolutely thrilled when Elen spent every last baht she had to buy them all toasties from 7 Eleven, the sad little boy who tried desperately to sell us bubblegum in Jerash, even the little girls who asked if they could be in a photo with my friends at Mardi Gras out of curiosity. They have no filter, they just want what they want, enjoy what they enjoy…
So on one hand I want to say remember, even if they are hawking you cheap souvenirs, they are just curious, happy, excited, sad or whatever little kids. Some of my most beautiful memories come from the moments when I let down my travel-scam guard and interact with them. On the other hand I have so many questions – maybe to you or maybe just to the world. Why are they working and not in school? What is their life like? Do they grow up and continue to hawk for the rest of their lives? What can, could or should be done for them? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but these are just a few of my thoughts.
I’m curious whether you’ve had similar experiences, or just to know what you think about all this?
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