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How to Deal Politely with Beggars in Colombia.

A beggar with his belongings sitting on a park bench in Colombia. Used in the article How to politely deal with beggars in Colombia.
A beggar sitting on a park bench in Colombia. Photo credit : The Author

All Latin American countries have a begging demographic. Some are more in your face than others.

Colombia is one of those, and being polite, even to a beggar can be a challenge.

Refugees from Venezuela, Haiti, and other places contribute to the problem as they attempt to beg their way to some green pasture.

Living in the Caribbean I have found beggars seem to be a little more aggressive.

Begging in Tourist Cities

Cartagena and Santa Marta are popular with tourists, and they act as a magnet for those coming from other places.

We were at a nice outdoor restaurant one night in Santa Marta, and a guy walking a cat (he had it on a leash), came in and went from table to table asking for money.

He didn’t do very well.

On his way out the cat let a fart go (I think it was the cat as I didn’t hear anything), and the aroma of good cooking coming from the kitchen was replaced with something very unpleasant that lingered for what seemed ages.

Training a cat to walk on a leash is an accomplishment on its own.

How you could train a cat to fart if you’re disappointed with the outcome of your begging I don’t know.

In Barranquilla (apart from carnival time when the usual suspects converge on the place), beggars, are really “not that common”.

The cops and security play a role (often not very effective), by moving them on from in front of hotels

Sure you may come across a young woman with a baby on the hip asking for alms, or if you are relaxing in a park you may be approached by someone asking for money.

But it is something that is not in your face every day… well maybe every second day.

What is in your face every day are so-called entrepreneurs, trying to sell you stuff you don’t need.

Stop at traffic lights and you can have your windscreen washed, watch a juggling or tightrope act and have someone sell you candy, gum or water.

Get to the next set of traffic lights and see a repeat performance.

The different groups while having their own set of lights they hustle at.

I just keep some 200 or 500 peso coins in the car console.

But you can say no if you don’t want your windscreen washed.

It is easy, just wave them away, and they quickly move on to the car behind or beside you.

But be careful and ready to act, if they are up close to your door and looking around the dash area.

They will be looking for something to steal. A charging mobile phone on your dashboard is a huge temptation for them.

The dancers and jugglers probably do worst of all.

Usually, by the time the lights are green, the horns are blaring and traffic is starting to move they may be only 3 cars up from the lights with their donation hat.

Being between 3 lanes of Colombian drivers is not the smartest of places to be.

Beggars or Criminals.

Distinguishing between “genuine” beggars and opportunists with a huge sense of entitlement is not that difficult.

Their attitude is what gives them away.

If they are aggressive then most likely they lean more toward criminality than begging.

You have three options.

  1. Don’t engage with them, just keep walking. Don’t duck into a shop, because they will be waiting for you when you walk out.
  2. Offer to buy them food from a street vendor, If you don’t feel threatened
  3. Get a 5 or 10-mill peso note from your pocket and give it to him, wish him a good day and quickly walk away.

Beggars or Entrepreneurs

A street vendor selling icecreams at a soccer match in Colombia. Used in the article How to Deal Politely with Beggars in Colombia.
Street vendor selling fruit juice at a soccer game in Colombia. Photo credit: The author.

The majority of the time what you will see anywhere are “wanna-be” entrepreneurs.

Kerbside haircuts with a mirror hanging off a tree branch.

Women pulling small trolleys with flasks of coffee along the footpath selling to anyone who asks.

They usually wait to be asked. A pretty woman though will have no shortage of admirers.

You will also see older guys (and women), with shopping trollies.

The trolley may contain coffee flasks, an esky with water bottles covered in ice, butter, and cheese, with bags of bread rolls hanging off the trolley handle.

A basket on the handle with an assortment of cigarettes.

These guys are organized. They will have for the most part a regular clientele.

The guys managing the car parking sometimes do ok. In many places it is lucrative enough they don’t look elsewhere for work.

Who are the Real Beggars?

The people selling shoelaces or coloring in books on buses, those who walk the streets with a bucket of avocados on their head, yelling Awwwacarte.

A dozen or so vendors in the same street all selling the same type of merchandise, be it food or artifacts.

The guy who jumps on a bus and recites a passage from the bible and then walks the aisle with his hat out.

As I said above, the girl with a baby on her hip. There is usually a sad story behind many of them.

Your intuition should be able to sort out which are and which aren’t genuine beggars.

Sometimes you can be fooled though.

I woke up early one morning in Cusco (Peru) with a terrible headache. I got dressed and went across the road to a pharmacy for some headache pills.

On my way back I just happened to look up the street and saw this old woman who sat outside the hotel in the mornings (telling everyone how poor she is), with some artifacts laid out on a small blanket and her hat to the side of the blanket.

She was talking to a friend and far enough away that I couldn’t be certain it was her. So I stopped and watched.

As she left her friend and continued down the street she removed her false teeth from her mouth and stuck them in a pocket.

I went back to the hotel, took a couple of tablets, got cleaned up, and went for breakfast then went down to catch the bus.

She had laid out her blanket and hat and just before getting on the bus people were throwing coins and notes into the hat.

I guestimated she made about $50 in those few minutes. As we were leaving there was another bus pulling into the hotel.

So in a couple of hours, she was making more than many people in western countries make in a day.

But all beggars know how much they need to survive. They will have an amount they aim for.

I don’t know of any in Colombia who are as fortunate as the woman in Peru.

To be Polite or not to be Polite

There are polite ways and rude ways to say no.

There is no law that says you have to give.

People do it because they feel good doing it. As you give so do you receive.

It is the attitude of the person asking that often determines whether you give or not.

If they have a gun or knife then you probably have no choice.

If you say no, then generally it is agreed the most effective way to do it, is to smile, shake your head, and keep walking.

Giving monopoly money, or throwing a chicken bone in a hat is not going to do you or anyone else any favors.

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