Dealing with the poverty you see on your travels

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Dealing with the poverty you see on your travels is quite traumatic. It is difficult to come to terms with what you see to understand it and accept it.

Friends in Malawi

Eden Riley, an Australian blogger, recently went to Niger, Africa with World Vision and has been trying to come to terms with what she saw. I thought I would write her this letter to see if I can help.

Dear Eden,

I’ve quietly listened in the background since your recent trip to Africa with World Vision. I’ve not said much because I haven’t known quite what to say, even though I understand what you are going through.

I have struggled for years with some of the things I have seen on my travels around the world. I understand the darkness, the tears, the frustration and the helplessness.

I started this travel blog because I believe that the world we live in is so beautiful and the people so amazing.Most of the time I feel as if the world has gone mad and nobody really understands this. I thought if I could just make people see that no matter the colour of our skin, the way we walk or talk, or our religious beliefs, we are so similar and this is what we should focus on.

I thought I could inspire people to travel and get to know the world. They’d then see for themselves and the world would be different. Just like that.

I could change the world and bring peace.


The Complexities of the Problem

When you witness poverty and desperation, a fire inside of you begins to burn. The ideas race in your brain as to how you can fix it. I know I could do this…. or this… if only I could just make people see the truth.

But it’s never that easy.

You return to your own life, and soon enough, even though you swore it wouldn’t, your own difficulties begin to take precedence.

You struggle to keep on top of yourself, how could you possibly change a socio-economic global imbalance and crises?

You struggle with those feelings of guilt. You struggle with dealing with how unfair life is. You struggle with fitting back into Western civilization.

You return to a world where people have boxes of crap they never use, who argue over trivial matters, complain endlessly, bitch constantly and ram you with trolleys in the supermarket because you blocked their way struggling to balance with a baby in one hand with a basket in the other.

You want to scream.

Are you kidding me? Do you not understand how bad people have it? You have fresh drinking water and you have two arms and two legs. You don’t have to steal, or worse, kill in order to make sure that your children are fed. You never have to reach that desperate point of survival instinct when you choose your own life over your child.

Wake up and be grateful.

People don’t understand because they have not had the first hand sensory experience. They hear the stories on TV and they want to make a difference and they do the best they can, but often they forget because soon their own relevant world becomes too complex and difficult.

It’s almost impossible to change people from the outside, which is why travel can bring about profound changes from within a person. The first hand experience seeps within your soul changing everything about yourself, just like you have discovered with your journey in Africa.

Our choice is: Do I let the memories haunt me or do I try to find a way to bring something positive from it?

My haunting memories

I was enjoying another glorious day on Nha Trang Beach, Vietnam. A jangling sound beside me disrupted my peace and I peered over the corner of my book.

A small man stood at the end of my beach chair squinting up at me. He was grasping a change bag with stubby fingers that protruded from his shoulder blades.

He had no arms and no legs.

I could not move or speak.

That was in 99. I saw him again in 03 doing the same thing in the same place.

He haunts me, yes. But he helps me more.

Since that day he’s been my reminder that there is ALWAYS someone worse off than me and no matter how bad I think I have it there is someone in the world DESPERATE to have my life.

After seeing the devastation the Vietnam War left behind, I swore I would never in any shape or form support a war.

How could we do this to people? What is our fucking problem? Why are we so unkind, so destructive, so uncompassionate?

Why do we fight over differences? Why is this all that we see?


I saw so many heart wrenching things on my journey through Africa.

Malawi was the fourth poorest country in the world at the time we visited. Once you see the smiles of the Malawian people and experience the warmth of a friendship they so willing extend to strangers you understand why it’s called the Warm Heart of Africa .

Local Fisherman in Malawi - y Travel Blog

Being poor does not mean that your soul aches and is empty. You can choose to be happy and to make the most of the hand that has been dealt.

Lake Malawi, the third largest in Africa, borders the country. The water stretches way beyond the horizon and you swear you are standing on the coastline, not in the middle of a continent.

Gallons and gallons of available fresh water, yet I felt the tug of my shirt and the pleading eyes of a small child staring up at me asking me for water.

Drinking water.

Are you kidding me?

We shower in drinking water for Christ sakes.

Here was a nation that lived beside a freshwater lake and had no access to clean drinking water. AND WE SHOWER IN IT. What. the. fuck. is. wrong. with. our. world?


We sat on the beach of an evening with the local beach boys. They arrived with a chicken from their home pen. They used the lake to de-feather it, gut it and clean it before roasting it over hot coals. Just a bit further down those from the village bathed in it.

Thirsty and refusing to drink our clean bottled water, the boys took their cups and filled it with water from the lake and DRANK it.

I had to hold back the vomit that threatened to come gushing out of my mouth alongside of heaving sobs.

I struggled to dredge my heart back out from the bottom of that lake. Like you Eden, I was left haunted, afraid, angry, sad, and confused.

Why is our world like this? Why do I have so much and they so little?

Why can’t it be better?

How can we fix it?

When we look at problems so large scale like these we become lost in them and so frightened because it is beyond our capacity to fix them.

So what can we do?

Take the lessons, apply them to your own life and BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD.

I can agonize over it, get angry, frustrated, sad and fight against it, but none of this will ever help solve the problem if I am not being the solution. I can’t just be it one day a week, or a month or in relation to a particular cause, religious dogma, or charitable organization.

I have to be it always.

We can never solve all the world’s problems.

But we can make a difference. Each and every one of us has the power within us to change the world, in the easiest way possible.

Friends for a passing moment

That power is to be the change.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

I can’t change the fact that I was born here in Australia, a land of plenty, and those that haunt us were born in Africa, a land of so little.

I can never understand it either.

A twist of fate? An orchestrated plan whose purpose we will never know?

The whys will haunt you and plague you.

Wasting my tears and hours on trying to find the answers to these questions is fruitless.

All I can choose to do is to be better, to live my life fully and to be so grateful.

Yes. Africa (or travel) changes you. It causes you to look deep within yourself. It makes you question everything you’ve ever known and believed in.

Take with you the lessons

From the dusty village back roads of Cambodia, to the street stalls of Thailand, and the impenetrable forests of Uganda I shared many beautiful moments with those who were so less fortunate than me.

Yet were they?

Because despite their lack they were always so kind and so happy. Despite having so little they would share with me their meals, shove friends out of the way so I could be comfortable on difficult journeys on the backs of pickups, and adopt me as their child when I was sick, healing me with their home remedies.

Our beautiful guide in Longshen China

My skin, my backpack, my ability to roam freely told them who I was. But they didn’t care.

Their eyes never held bitterness. They never spoke to me of jealousy or hatred. They didn’t steal from me, they never hurt me.

It was always kindness and love and so much laughter.

Their eyes showed me how lucky I was. Their smiles told me to be grateful. Their gentle touch asked me to spend every day making the most of my life. For them.

They would without a doubt do anything to trade places with me, but they still wished the very best for me.

Gratitude and living your best life

Sometimes I forget and bitch and moan about my life. Sometimes it takes days, or months, or sadly years before the ghosts reappear.

I hear the jingle of the coin bag and see the dark pleading eyes of a young girl speaking to me.

“I’d do anything to have your life for a second. Anything. You are lucky only because of the nature of your birth.

If I were you I would be kissing the ground in gratitude and embracing every single second of that life that most of us can only ever dream about. Be grateful. This is the best way you can honour us.”

My ghosts help me to remember that I have two arms and two legs and fresh drinking water. My problems are so bloody small and manageable.

I have no right to complain.

So I choose to spend every moment living life the best I can for them. I know how badly they want it so how dare I abuse that privilege?

I choose to work for a better world for them every day by being a better world.

My ghosts also help me in those moments when I see those who have more than me.. My thoughts turn to jealousy, insecurity and self-pity.

Once again I see the smiles, the kind eyes wishing the best for me always and the green envy evaporates.

I wish all the best for you. I am so happy that you have all of that what I want. You are so lucky. I would do anything to have what you have, but for whatever reason life is not choosing it to be so. So please live it fully for me. Don’t take it for granted, don’t whinge and complain, don’t be ungrateful because that is disrespecting those who would do anything to have what you have.

Honour the Ghosts

Those who struggle in Africa would change places with you in a heartbeat. They would give you all their poverty, all their hunger, their thirst and their pain, just so they could have your life.

So in honour of them, it is important that you make the most of your life, that for whatever reason you have been so graciously given.

This is one small , yet powerful and positive way we can give back and spread healing energy to our world.

We MUST do this without being plagued by feelings of guilt. We CAN do this without being plagued but feelings of guilt. We can life our most beautiful life and reach out a hand to help others at the same time.

An ode to live by

Those who suffer would want nothing more than this for you too Eden because it is so desperately what they crave.

We can never change our world by being an outside force. There are too many things working against us.

We can however change our world by being better, by loving what we have been given, and by making the most of it.

Once we do this we are in a more powerful position to create solutions to our global problems.

So take those horrible memories Eden, take those soulful eyes that taught you so much and turn it into a positive and a gift.

What have they taught you?

To be more grateful? To choose happiness? To practice peace? To reach out a hand of compassion to all people? To donate and not fight against, but work towards? To spread the message? To be the voice? To make a difference?

Be all of these things. Let others know they can be too.

Otherwise the ghosts will haunt you even more than before.

Love and Peace



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49 thoughts on “Dealing with the poverty you see on your travels”

  1. Caz, this is so beautiful. Thank you for putting into words all the things my husband taught me when he took me travelling the world. We are all so lucky. I hope we can always remember to be grateful.

  2. Wonderful article, Caz, with so much good advice.

    The way I cope with the poverty we see on the road is to give what I can to organizations I know make a real difference. And while I know I can’t really help the specific individuals I see, I try to leverage my limited resources to have the most benefit possible.

    With that in mind, we recently offered to match the first $1,000 of donations to Heifer International. The offer is still open to anyone who’s interested as we’ve not yet reached the $1,000 mark. Out of respect for this blog, I won’t include a link to our post on the subject, but anyone who is interested can find us through my gravatar.

    1. I am so happy for you to place the link Brian. I think it’s a great idea. And anyone else is also free to do the same.

    1. Absolutely! Wealth comes in so many shapes and forms and the most rewarding ones are those that aren’t made of paper, silver or gold.

  3. Jeremy Branham

    As travelers, I think we have all had some experiences that have moved us and touched our lives. I think that is one of the biggest aspects that travel has had on me – seeing the world outside of my own backyard. I think it’s also what makes me disgusted with some of the materialistic ways of our society. I hate that people put so much energy, time, and money into things that don’t matter.

    To be fair, I can be guilty of the same thing. I am not perfect. However, I am thankful for my experiences which have taught me to stop and take a look at the world around me.

    1. I think everyone is guilty of it. As long as we are aware of it and allow our experiences to change us for the better. As long as we keep trying to be better, I think we are being a positive impact.

  4. An article that is really a life lesson. I find it very difficult to see this type of poverty and then just transition myself back into my own little world. As sad as it is, it is nice to be able to find posts like this to keep us all grounded.

  5. Hi Caz,

    Great post. It’s funny but I know exactly what you mean. When I was travelling the world teaching I saw a lot of poverty in South America and Asia. When you travel you appreciate more what you have, but when you get home you forget, you get bogged down in your own problems and forget how lucky you are. I was almost in the Tsunami in Thailand but was saved because the Sister I was working for cancelled our holiday. I told myself I’d never moan again, but I forget. If it’s okay I’d like to put a link to this on my blog. My readers would love it.



    1. Thank you Barry I would love that.
      I hate how often I forget. Your day to day living can just become so overburdening at times that that is all you see. I always find that the Universe brings me some way to wake up and remember. It’s so important to try and remember every day how lucky we are and what we can do to help those who aren’t. And it doesn’t have to be huge things, just a simple smile and a compliment some times can change a person’s world.

  6. Beautifully put Caz. My first travel trip was when I was 5 years-old to India. Seeing that level of poverty scorched a sad memory in my mind. And I think that’s why I try to be grateful for everything I have.

    1. Wow what a trip to have at five. Look at the way it has helped to shape your life. When you see things like this you can’t help but learn the power of gratitude and that you can be grateful for the simplest of things.

  7. Really moving post, Caz. It is so easy to forget how lucky we are. I think you also make a great point that just because people are poor and do not have easy access to basic things, that does not mean they are not happy. It is all about your attitude and being grateful for the things that are most important.

    1. The happiest people I’ve met are those who have nothing. It’s something I can never really understand about the Western World. When you travel to other countries you start to see how messed up we are in the West and how out of touch with ourselves we are. How did it get like that? Who/what is to blame?
      The questions can become so overwhelming and depressing which is why I think its best to let them go and just focus on being the best person you can be.

  8. Caz your effort is appreciable and touchy too,because it directly touches our heart,and you have elaborated the same feeling that we have whenever we saw poverty.I too feel helpless but i can’t do anything which can be helpful to remove poverty.But i think those peoples know the real spirit to live life cheerfully.

  9. This seriously brought tears to my eyes. You are so on the spot. We are incredible lucky to have clean water, enough food, a roof over our heads. We can only do so much to help those that suffers, but I so wish we could help everyone. The world is totally fucked up!

    1. Thank you Maria. The world is so messed up. That is why it is so important that each of us does our bit to be better. If we all did that then the world would be that way too.

  10. Cole @ Four Jandals

    You always manage to write articles that just reach out to so many people! You are seriously talented Caz. And what a wonderful message to get out there. I hate returning from travels and seeing people wasting absolutely everything. In places as close and as accessible as Egypt to the UK there are so many tourists that seem oblivious to the lives of the locals. I often wonder how can they wander past people living in poverty and be showing off some stupid souvenir they just brought for more than most people’s average salary. Glad there are others out there like you and most of the travel blogging community who try to make a difference.
    Cheers Cole

    1. Oh thank you Cole. I appreciate that. The wastage drives me crazy as well, especially when it comes to water. I can’t help but think if that little.
      I have seen some terrible things tourists have done to take advantage of the poverty in other countries, just so they can bag a bargain.
      I almost gave up my Australian citizen once after seeing what an Aussie did in Vietnam. It took me awhile to come back out from under the table, so ashamed I was.

  11. Wow. This is something I’ve often experienced. The feelings of guilt and hopelessness at the sight of others who may be suffering. Particularly children and the indignity of elderly struggling to survive. I suppose the perspective it allows on our own materialistic (even greedy) culture, and one’s own circumstances, are precious.

    1. I think every person enters your life to help you learn something. I really believe we are all connected in this way and their is a greater purpose at work. It’s up to us to take the lessons and apply them to our life. I think if we all do this then we are making the world a better place as we are doing what was intended.

  12. It’s terribly hard to listen to non-travelling Aussies whinge about life here. And to hear politicians whipping up discontent purely for their own ends. Drives me nuts. When I moved from Karachi to Sydney once, I thought I would never be the same again, that my life would change a lot… yet quickly fell into normal life here in Oz and the harshness of life in Pakistan and it’s massive injustices faded away. I had expected to do something big. Got caught up with my own family.

    So it’s good to be grateful for what we have here. I am concerned though that when we get to wherever we’re going after death, someone might point out that I chose to live a life of luxury and ease and many bathrooms whilst KNOWING how poor other people were. I could fund a school, several homes, aid, lots of things if I dropped our standard of living…. yet I don’t. If I’m barred from whatever heaven because of this, it’ll be a fair cop.

    1. I so hear what you are saying Seana. I often want to check myself out of society. I often feel quite ill hearing the complaints and the general nastiness that comes from others. I just don’t understand it. I often feel disheartened and disappointed because I feel as if I can help people with simple solutions like just be grateful and nice and I think most of the time people don’t care about this. I guess if you haven’t seen a lot of others having it worse than you, you don’t really care. Your own problems are too real.

      And I thik we all get swept up in these as well, but I thik those experiences we’ve had are a better place to snap us out of it. Different people have those snap places though from the hardships they themselves have gone through.

      I don’t thnk you’ll be barred from heaven. I think we all have to make the most of our lives and enjoy it- there is no other purpose. And if you are being grateful and kind than you are contributing a lot more than many other people

  13. Caz, you are such a beautiful woman. Inside and out.

    I love this so much … you are absolutely right about not letting the ghosts haunt us too much, because what good is that? I’m aiming on turning it around, all of it. To use all of the sad and hurt I saw and felt, to propel me on to raise money and awareness whereever I can.

    Thank you for this .. wow.


  14. This topic is one of my concerns for my dream trip to Africa, and I love your approach to it. I practice gratitude all the time and it is still easy to let the daily challenges take over sometimes. This post was a great reminder for hope and for seeing the truly half full of the glass – and then some – that we have. I love it that you pointed out how people can be happy with so little, whereas we at the Western world seek too much “stuff” we don’t need. Your point about us washing in drinking water when many don’t have cleaning water was intense.

    I think we do need to be careful about stretching how happy people who have nothing are, as it may cause some people to think there’s nothing for us to contribute and work toward. It is not the tone or intention I read in your post, and it was still important for me to emphasize. I think, like you said, people who have so little have so much to teach us, as we rely too much on “stuff” and many times don’t stop to appreciate the incredible basic gifts we have, because we were born to them for some reason – not to mention extra privileges like travel.

  15. Caz, this is touching and one of the main reasons I want to travel. It is heartbreaking to see less fortunate people and it’s easy for us to think they have it so bad, but it’s just as inspiring to see people like you who can offer them encouragement and appreciation. Without witnessing the people and cultures as you travel, you miss a lot of the experience. Well done!

  16. Wonderful post, Caz. This kind of thing does stir up conflict and creates a kind of guilt that we shouldn’t feel – guilt over where we’re born – but that we inevitably feel when we encounter this kind of poverty first hand.

    Living our lives to the full, trying not to complain about trivial things, showing kindness and doing what we can to help those less fortunate than us – they’re lessons that everyone should learn.

    Your words are beautiful, haunting and so obviously heartfelt.

  17. It’s a sad state of affairs. When I was in Sihanoukville in Cambodia we were told that we shouldn’t give money to the kids that beg on the beach because their parents would see it as a profitable endeavour and just keep their kids on the beach instead of in school.

    1. This was such a difficult thing to come to terms with when travelling. You understand the impact of giving money to the children so don’t want to but at the same time your heart begs you to help them.

  18. Even if we haven’t seen firsthand the deprivations of Africa I think we can look around our own (western) countries (Australia is my homeland too) and see others whose lives are harder to live than our own. That can stimulate a useful reunion with gratitude.
    On a different note, research shows that equality of income distribution is a strong factor in determining many of the indicators of the well-being of a society. I think this might play a role in what you note of people’s kindness, happiness and good will.

  19. Seeing impoverished children is what’s most difficult for me. It’s too heartbreaking, and knowing I can’t do something for all of them is what’s worst. I remember seeing children, around 5-years-old (my own age at the time), selling gum and trinkets on the dusty streets, and having my small world clicked into perspective, right before my dad grabbed the newly-opened box of Saltine crackers I was nibbling through in order to give it to the little girl I was having a staring contest with. He ran off, and the group of children (his siblings?) ran after him, each one with something my dad had emptied our ice box of. That moment has been in ingrained in my mind for more than two decades now…

    I will and hope to make the most out of my life. Maybe one day I’ll even return and give something back to those children who allowed me to see how lucky I really was at such an early age.

  20. Oops. I meant *She, her, her*. It was a little girl, surrounded by a group of younger children, who I can only assume were her younger brothers and sisters.

  21. Brought a tear to my eye. I am just about to leave for Uganda with my 7 year old son, so your post was a perfect reminder of perspective. Thank you x

  22. Hi,
    I have travelled all over India and Egypt and Thailand and many more countries and have seen lots of the worst kind of poverty. Poverty is its own kind of violence. There really is no escaping the class or privilage that we have in the more developed parts of the world. There does not seem any way to make it fair or right, especially considering that it is on the backs of poorer poeple the world over that we are able to live an easy life without the type of struggle poverty carries with it. Anyone who drives in a car, lives in a house, goes on vacations, wears nice clothes (responds to blogs on their home computer) does this at the expense of many human lives. Many people died short of their life expectancy from severe poverty for each person that has an easy life its just basic truth. There are a lot of ways to justify having so much more than others in the world, through charity or gratitude. One of the things I think about is that people rich and poor alike are striving for a better life and working to have more for themselves and families, also we live on a planet with an expanding population, depleting resources, and all of us carry an infinite appitite for a better life, how we handle that appitite may be what defines us as selfish or not i guess. If it is a real core concern to have more than others do and poverty effects a person very deeply the only real way out of the delima I can see is total self sacrifice in the way of a vow of poverty and service to the world. If the course of action is short of that then there must exist some element of justifying having more than others. Anyway its a great subject and one that I struggle with constantly. I by the way am not a monk and go back and forth between eanring money as much as possible and giving money away and trying to help people, both of these paths are driven in a sense by the effects that human suffering and poverty have had on me. Thanks for letting me share.

  23. Beautiful post. Once we went to a shanty town through a charity we were visiting in India. The housing was built out of mud and the ground was really dry and dusty. One of the local girls brought out a small bowl with water in and started trying to wash our feet. When you realise that she had walked miles earlier that day to collect it and she wanted to share it, to make us welcome, well all I can say is that I felt humbled. For her to have so little and to want to share, makes you take look at your own attitude and re-assess your own priorities and opinions. Thanks for sharing this post

  24. Dear Caz, thanks for the advice. I am going to India in a few weeks and I am very scared that I will not be able to handle the poverty. I feel very guilty about having more than others and want to make a difference. But the guilt is very overwhelming sometimes. Thanks for the help, you offered a lot of good advice that I will take with me to India. Bye

  25. This is one of the most beautiful and soulful articles I have ever read.
    I am researching a possible trip to India and, as an animal and children lover, I am very afraid of the suffering I would witness in a country like India. Your article is giving me a new perspective.
    It’s refreshing to be reminded that there are still beautiful people like you in this world.

  26. Hi caz!

    Its 2016 and Im still reading this, thankyou for writing such wonderful story. I have learnt so much from this article and I will be forever grateful for what i have. Thankyou for changing my views of life!

    More power to you

  27. Thank you so much for this article. I am having a very difficult time coping at the moment because I cannot seem to get away from the sadness that haunts me when I see so many poor people and remember my privileged life at home.

  28. Powerful words Caz. Since I come from one of the poorest nation in the world, I would say that the poverty we live in does not move us the way it does you because you’ve have lived and tested better. People down there haven’t, so they don’t know what is better and they comfortably live through bathing in the same water source they drink from. But we all definitely can help. I say ‘GIVE’ and don’t stop giving! “Otherwise the ghosts will haunt you”.

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