S2, E27: What Should I Do When Someone Approaches Me for Money When I’m Traveling?

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we examine an age-old travel quandary: the ethics of interacting with panhandlers.

In her inaugural advice column, Dr. Anu Taranath answered a reader’s question about what to do, as a traveler, when faced with panhandling. In this episode of Unpacked, Dr. Anu expands on her answer and shares how to navigate the situation with dignity and grace—for all involved.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And today, we’re exploring a question that was raised in our digital ethics column, also called Unpacked.

Dr. Anu Taranath is our new columnist. She’s a speaker, facilitator, consultant, and educator specializing in issues of racial equity and social change. She’s also the author of the book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, which was selected by Oprah Magazine as one of the best 26 travel books. It’s a fantastic read, and what’s cool about it is that it touches on many of the issues that were raised by the very first question Anu answered in her Unpacked column. Here’s the question:

Dear Unpacked,

My husband and I traveled from Connecticut to Colombia in April, and we had a wonderful time. While we were walking around Cartagena, taking pictures of the city’s famous doors, we were approached by a young mother and her baby. She pointed at the baby, and then her stomach, as if to say they were hungry, and held out her palm. My heart broke—I remember being a young mother myself once—and I immediately gave her all the pesos I had in my purse. My husband didn’t say anything at the time, but afterwards, he told me that I helped fuel a bad industry. Did I do the right thing? — Take My Coins

We’ll link to the column and Anu’s response in our show notes, but Anu sat down with us to unpack her answer. Let’s hear what she had to say.

Aislyn: Anu, welcome back to Unpacked. It’s so nice to see you again.

Dr. Anu Taranath, columnist: Thank you.

Aislyn: Today, we are going to be talking about your recent column—the subject of your recent column, panhandling. It’s a big question. I was curious to know your initial reaction.

Anu: I had to sit with it for a moment because I think for many of us travelers, this is a very familiar question. I’m sure it resonated with many of our readers. And it has resonated with my traveling life for as far as I can remember. And it’s a question that’s heartbreaking.

We see ourselves in others. It’s also a heartbreaking question because it forces us to collide with some of these larger concepts of inequity in the world. What does it mean to live in an unequal world? It’s not OK, but how do we handle this? How do we hold it? How do we navigate it?

Aislyn: It’s kind of like we’re going from the macro to the micro, right? Like macro issues of inequality in this one moment. And I was curious to know why you think this particular situation provokes such discomfort. Like some people, you know, want to ignore the person and walk away. Others want to give them everything they have. Like, what do you think is going on internally when we are faced with this?

Anu: Faced with this, we often short circuit. It’s one thing to understand, on a macro level, that the world is unequal. But when that inequity looks you in the eyes and points to her belly, and points to her child, it puts you and I, and the many others who have navigated this moment, it puts us in a very different position.

It’s much more visceral. You can’t quite shut it off. It’s right there in front of you. And the thing is, is that the inequities of the world are literally right there in front of us all the time, even if it might not be in the poignant, dramatic moment of the young mother pointing to her belly. And yet in order to live in an unequal world, we can’t actually be thinking of the inequities all the time.

There’s only so much that the human brain can take, and there’s only so much that the human heart can take. Right? The unequal world makes us have to selectively pay attention to what’s in front of us. Right? And that’s disturbing, of course.

And yet that’s kind of how we are. We operate from having the veil over our eyes to suddenly being able to peek through it and get a sense of other people’s realities.

Aislyn: It makes me wonder, like, at home, wherever this, this traveler is from, would they have reacted in the same way? Was it also because they were in a different country and you’re noticing more that, that she kind of even reacted this way?

Anu: That’s a really insightful observation. And I have noticed in my own travels and as I work with groups of travelers that we are often somehow more raw when we are away from home and we are somehow more calloused and hardened when we are in our familiar. And that’s partly the glory of travel, right, to make us raw and open and fresh so we can see new things and feel new things.

What would it mean to soften that up a little bit at home, so it’s not only when I am abroad that I can feel deeply, whether I give the woman money or not, but that I can feel deeply that moment of connection, being on opposite sides of equity and inequity? Those are uncomfortable truths. And they make us uncomfortable. No wonder we harden ourselves to them at home, no?

Aislyn: Absolutely. And like you said, it’s hard to sit with that day in and day out. And so, you know, it may be easier to shut that part of your heart or brain off if you see it on a daily basis. And what do you think about her response, giving the money?

Anu: I think it’s a perfectly fine response, what she’s done. Giving the woman money and emptying her pockets of pesos at that moment. I, too, have given money to people that have asked me, both at home and when I am traveling. I also sometimes do not give when I am at home or when I am traveling.

And I have over the years learned to be less harsh on myself for finding the quote right answer or right response to an unfathomable situation that doesn’t really yield one particular right answer. I’ve also learned over the years to stay with the micro. Stay with the woman who’s in front of me or the person who’s in front of me.

And also I’ve learned to kind of pan back and think, “What are the larger systems that are at play in this moment that gives rise to this incident that’s happening here,” right? I think if people had other choices, they would make other choices, right?

Aislyn: Yes. A hundred percent. I mean, no matter the backstory, I imagine most people would, would not choose to be in this situation. It sounds like you’re saying if someone feels motivated in any situation to give some money, there’s no real harm in that.

I did wonder what you think about giving alternatives to money. Um, one of the things that I’ve always struggled with is when you stop at a light and there’s someone there who has a sign up and they’re asking for money or food or a ride, and it’s hard to just be in that, in your car, in that moment, and feeling like “I’m just going to drive away or I don’t have anything to offer.” But grandmother for that reason would actually have, like, a box of snacks in her car. And any time she saw anyone, she would give, you know, a granola bar or I think she had tuna fish packets or something. So, what do you think about giving something like that as an alternative to giving money?

Anu: Again, without knowing the backstory or the particular struggle of the person in front of us, it’s hard to ascertain what the right response is. Some people would really appreciate the snacks that your grandmother so lovingly handed out. I love that idea. I’ve also met people who are not interested in the granola bar that I or you or your grandmother would offer them, and instead are looking for some money so they can do what they need with it.

Again, because we don’t know, that husband’s hesitation and the question about, you know, “is this a bad industry” gives rise to a lot of suspicion in us of “Hmm, what are you using this money for? Maybe it’s, quote, better, or more ethical, or more moral if I give you the granola bar or the sandwich and not give you the three bucks or five bucks that you might want instead. Who knows what you’re going to use it for?”

We become, in some moments, perhaps, a morality police wanting to encourage the person in front of us to make, quote, the right choice. And so the sandwich or the granola bar feels like an easier contribution than money that is somewhat mysterious. “What will you use it for? Will you be responsible?” You know, nobody’s checking with us. Are we using our money responsibly? Right?

Aislyn: And many of us are not.

Anu: Correct, right? But in those moments, we get to be a moral judge and jury when we are distributing our compassion and our compassion has strings to it, right? There are strings attached to it. So, again, I’m not quite sure of the right answer for any of this.

Sometimes we’ll feel satisfied with what we’ve done. Other times we’ll think, “Oh, that was so dumb. And that was useless. And, oh, I should have done something else.” And that, too, will happen. And we take a breath. And we remind ourselves and one another: We did not make the world that we live in. This inequity that I’m navigating and traveling through is much longer and much more systemic than simply my choice at that intersection, whether I give the person the granola bar, the sandwich, or the four dollars.

Aislyn: Yeah, and that’s such a good point about conditions being attached or falling into that place of morality police. I, I think that if you are going to give money, it has to be without strings.

And then food can get into that kind of tricky place of like, “Where are you coming from? And what are you, what are you motivated by?” I think that’s a really good thing to examine. What about contributing to larger organizations within the city, like if there’s a, you know, an organization in Cartagena that’s trying to help people kind of exit poverty? Do you have thoughts about, about that?

Anu: Yeah, this really connects to some of my life values around this conversation. That, to me, if you have more than you need, which is many of us, I think it is our obligation and the gift to share wherever I am in the world.

If I have the wonderful experience of being able to travel somewhere, part of my due diligence around my travel is to learn about the space that I’m going to—within reason, of course. But I try to learn about some of the broader social issues and the larger social dynamics that are playing out in that region.

I ask my friends and colleagues of the region, “Who’s doing the kind of work that you admire? What kind of organizations and groups are grappling with some of the thorny and tricky questions that are playing out in your community?” I’m engaged in those kinds of discussions here at home also. A part of my traveling ethos is sharing what I have, which doesn’t necessarily mean giving to the woman in front of me who’s asking, or giving to the person at the street corner who’s asking.

I know that my strategy can sometimes include that, but it can also include some of these larger systemic organizations and groups that are working at the institutional level to provide more opportunity and dignity for more of us. Again, there’s no one right answer for some of this. And so the more levels we are able to engage on that micro level, on that macro level, on the individual heart level, on the intellectual level, that’s when I think that we’re approaching, if not the right answer, at least a better answer for these tricky questions.

Aislyn: Yeah. And I mean, this, this reader, it sounds like, you know, she took this opportunity to kind of reflect on the situation and maybe it’s a jumping-off point for her to look at some bigger issues or do some research or kind of examine things in a different way. So even the fact that she’s asking about, you know, “Did I quote unquote do the right thing?” Sounds like in the moment, “OK, that was fine. And now, and now what?”

Anu: Absolutely. Any of these moments can be a jumping-off point, right? Our lives are filled with glory and despair, close to home and far away from home. And especially the more we start engaging with people’s stories who are both like us and unlike us, we start realizing the complexity of the world that we live in.

And any of these moments that make us uncomfortable or that make us pause or that make us question, “Did I do the right thing?” All of those are beautiful jumping-off points to take a moment and consider, “What are my values? Who do I want to be in the world?”

Aislyn: Yes, so many questions that we can ask ourselves. Well, bringing it back to kind of your own experience. This reader shared a very personal story and I, I wanted to know, what are some of your experiences that you’ve had around, you know, people asking for money or other things as you’ve traveled?

Anu: I was in Dakar in Senegal, West Africa, and I was with two colleagues of mine. One is a white woman, one is a Black African American woman, and I am a South Asian American brown woman. So we were white, brown, and Black together, the three of us walking in a market in Dakar, and three men came up to us and started asking us for some money.

We smiled and shook our head and continued, and they followed us for some time. Two of them left, but one of them kept on following us and after the first few moments started saying very loudly, “Are you racist? Is that why you’re not giving money? You are racist, aren’t you?”

And it was a really complicated, gut punch of a moment for the three of us. We were, you know, we are three educators who work on issues of race, and imagine ourselves to be, quote, on the good side of these issues. And we turned around and my Black colleague said, “I am Black, like you, what are you talking about? No, it’s not about being racist. I just don’t want to give money right now.”

And they got into a discussion where the Senegalese man said over and over again, “You must be racist, which is why you’re not giving me some money.” And later, my two colleagues and I, once the charge of the moment kind of dissipated and we had some time to think through the incident, we thought it was a brilliant strategy on the part of the Senegalese man to really have Americans confront guilt, shame, history, and inequity with a phrase and a statement that most people on any side of the Atlantic will pause [at], right?

And nobody that I know wants to be called a racist. And if we are called a racist, we have to pause and we have this volcano of feelings that often come up, whether it’s shame and guilt, whether it’s defensiveness, whether it’s denial, and I wondered that if I could meet this man again, I would love to have a conversation with him.

To ask, “Where did you learn that this would be the right strategy for you? How has it worked for you?” I’m so curious to learn more from him about, in his relations with foreigners in his community, how that works. What kinds of responses has he seen? Do lots of foreigners give?

Because they can’t really fathom the fact that this Senegalese man would think that they are racist, and so suddenly they pull out their wallet? Or do people feel so uncomfortable that they quickly sprint away and hope nobody has heard what he said? So, you know, I’ve had a lot of moments like the reader’s question where an individual asks for money, uh, points to their belly, points to a child.

I’ve also had experiences where people have come up and, you know, especially when I am in India and sitting in an open auto rickshaw and, you know, there are folks that come around and beg and say very clearly, “If you don’t give me, we will curse you.”

And so really thinking about, “Hmm, what are the stakes? Suddenly the stakes have been raised.”

Aislyn: Yes. Yeah.

Anu: And it’s the same strategy of that one Senegalese man who really raised the stakes by calling attention to race in that particular moment in the market in Dakar. My two colleagues and I, we did not give to the man, even after he called us racist. And we continued on our way, but the moment has sat with me for the last few years.

And it’s one that I keep coming back to when I’m really grappling with the stories that we tell about who we are or who others are, the ways that we might use race in sometimes helpful or not so helpful ways to get what we want. It’s a moment that felt very unsettling when it was taking place. And even narrating it to you years later, it feels really unsettling.

Aislyn: Yeah. Wow. He was really effective at tapping into—both of those stories seemed to me like tapping into some very base human emotions, like a fear of being cursed or the, the, the guilt or feeling like you might have some privilege, and that really does tend to stop people in their tracks, right? Or maybe make them run away.

But I could see people wanting to give something just to discharge that discomfort and that guilt immediately. Like, “OK, OK.”

Anu: “No, no, that’s not me. That’s not me.” Or “Don’t curse my family” or “No, no, I’m not racist.” Yeah. Yeah. Right. I get it.

Aislyn: It’s a brilliant strategy.

Anu: Exactly. It’s a brilliant strategy. So it again makes me curious: Where did he learn that? How does he, how does it play out?

Aislyn: Is he still asking that question?

Anu: Right.

Aislyn: You know, we don’t know. I can just feel how uncomfortable that must have been for you three. It’s interesting that your colleague dialogued with him.

Anu: I loved the moment, because the three of us as Americans were very differently positioned as Americans, white woman, Black woman, brown woman, and his statement landed on the three of us very differently right? We all share a sense of shock and discomfort, but because of our own histories around race and racism, it allowed us to have a very deep dialogue later that day about it.

Aislyn: It’s a really powerful story. Thank you for sharing it. Well, backing out a bit more, is there anything else you’d like to share with readers for the next time they might face the situation? Because we will all be there again, right? Likely sooner rather than later.

Anu: The more strategies we have, the better we’ll be able to navigate what’s in front of us. I think it’s good for us to have a couple of granola bars in our car to pass out. It’s good for us to have some small change at home and when we’re traveling for those moments where we feel like, “Yes, I do want to give some actual money to the person in front of me.” And for us to pull back and to think systemically about both the community that we’re a part of as well as the communities that we travel to, and to align ourselves with others who are working to create more dignity and opportunity for people in their lives.

So again, if there’s anything that people leave with: There’s no one right answer to this. There are a range of responses that we can explore individually and together. And the more honest we are about the discomfort that we feel in those moments, the better able we will be to navigate the next moment, the next moment and the one after that.

Aislyn: And that was a version of Dr. Anu Taranath’s response. As I mentioned, we’ll link to the column in our show notes. You can explore more of Dr. Anu’s work at anutaranath.com. And we’ll also link to her book, Beyond Guilt Trips, in our show notes.

And if you have a question that you would like Dr. Anu to address, please email us@unpackedatafar.com. We’d love to include your question on a future show. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.