Riding my bike in a backstreet in Sri Lanka, I was met at doorways and driveways by curious onlookers, some would smile and wave, others would stare. I came to a dead end where the road wrapped around a school playground. There were three young girls playing and when they saw me, they waved excitedly, one started to shout happily and repeatedly ‘Money please! Money please!’.
In a developing country, being asked for money was always expected. What surprised me in Sri Lanka, was the range of ways this was put forward and from a range of positions in society.
I was trying to find the train station when, despite my resistance, an old, toothless man, followed me and ushered me into a souvenir shop. I declined his offer to show me more stores and he described his family and their struggles in the aftermath of the 2006 tsunami. I walked into a store to buy a drink and he asked me to buy milk sustogen for his sick daughter. The shop was out of stock and as I was leaving the security guard warned me about the man’s ploy to return the milk later for cash. When I returned without the milk, the man pleaded for some money.
After staying in a Sri Lankan hotel for over a month I was talking to the hotel manager about a recent visit to his hometown 150km away. He described his visit with his family and the reason for his trip was to assist his son in his purchase of some land. He then asked if he could borrow 2000rp ‘just for a few days’.
While waiting at a bus station, I got talking to a local who had helped me find the right bus. He assured me that he didn’t want any money. As the conversation went on, he told me all he wanted was a beer, but no money. I was about to leave town, there was no bar nearby, but he kept insisting that all he wanted was a beer, no money.
After ordering home delivered curries from a local, we spent some time talking one afternoon on the beach. He explained that his restaurant was shut down last season because he didn’t have the correct permit and it would cost $5000 to get it up and running again. He asked if I would be his business partner, he said I could go back and forth from Australia, spending the season in Sri Lanka to oversee the restaurant each year.
Who would you give money to?
Despite the different classes of society or different ploys in which to get it, they are all essentially asking for the same thing. They view me, as a tourist, as rich. Which, by their standards is very true. I felt naturally more inclined to give money to some of these people rather than others. On reflection, I realised that I, as a traveller, passing through, am not in a position to judge who will use the money well. We must decide for ourselves, whether we are helping by giving money or teaching a generation and society that tourists are an easy way to make money.