Three and a Half Boxes of Tim Tams and a Question of Conscience for Mr David Bean

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Occasionally on this trip, I meet people that make me consider my own ethics and whether or not I'm a "good person." I don't mean good by any kind of religious point scoring system, I'm an atheist. However, I was brought up to respect people and, on top of that, I generally know within myself if I've lived up to my own expectations of my conduct or not. I don't need Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha to point out the right path; my twin senses of duty and guilt usually do it perfectly well between them. But sometimes, even those two overworked parties aren't too sure.  

It was our first night on Samosir island and I took a walk by myself, wandering along the dusty roads, exchanging hellos with the locals and enjoying the cooler evening time. As I walked past one particular building that looked like a community centre, I was greeted by a group of lads in their early 20s sat out in the garden under a tree. They had a guitar and beckoned me in to take a seat and speak to them. I did, not realising for a while that there was anything unusual about the situation. One of the lads unashamedly sang us a Westlife number, accompanying himself on guitar. It was rubbish obviously, as it was Westlife, but he didn't have a bad voice and my applause wasn't ironic or cynical; this guy wouldn't know cynicism if it slapped him round the chops with a dead gibbon.  

The leader of the gang, equipped with the best English, was clearly Amando, a stocky guy of about 25 with spiky black hair, a profound limp necessitating crutches, and a wide face that was quick to break into a smile or laughter. When some girls arrived in the garden from inside and declared me handsome like David Beckham, Amando instead plumped for the one other English celebrity that he knew of: Mr Bean. Somewhere between Beckham and Bean is probably not a bad way to be categorised I guess, and when I laughed about it with them, it was genuine and not just for the sake of politeness.    

Then, when talk got around to travelling, as it invariably does in almost every conversation I ever have these days, I finally woke up to the situation. Amando pointed to his leg, explaining that it was a permanent problem and that he has lived in the centre for a long time. In fact all 6 young people here have physical disabilities and no longer live with their families. They are tailors and live here supported by the church, their families and whatever income they can bring in from making and repairing clothes. They will not marry as this is not expected by the community and they rarely leave the centre other than to go to church; they're Catholics and Amando plays the organ at services.

I was a little taken aback by all of this info, and I chatted to them for another hour. They asked me about my life, religion, job, girlfriends and family with genuine, friendly curiosity. One of the girls, Sumi, told me that my lack of religion didn't not matter, that I have a good heart, many people do not find time to talk to them. Then she mentioned another friend they have made from London who befriended them, brought them chocolate and took them out of the centre for meals together. It seemed they were asking for the same from me, I felt a little overwhelmed and took my leave shortly afterwards, but not before promising to come back.                    

I kept that promise at least, returning twice, on each occasion the my hosts were warm, smiley and welcoming, wanting to hear more of what I had to say. Amando christened me Mr David Bean. I asked him to mend my trousers which had sported an embarassing hole in the crotch since I went trekking in Torres del Paine; the girls thought this hilarious. I didn't however take any presents and made no promises, despite further mentions of their friend from London. Neither did I offer to take them anywhere, despite having more than ample time and opportunity to do so.

I don't do this because it would have made me feel uncomfortable, set up in the role of provider or benefactor. That's not what I'm looking for. Of course I have a lot more cash and opportunities than them, but I don't need or want to flaunt the fact. I also haven't given to people in a much worse sitiuation than theirs, begging on the streets of Bolivia with no safety net to stop them from falling further. Maybe this is just selfishness dressed up as pragmatism. Perhaps I'm making excuses for my conduct, talking myself out of feeling guilty. I dunno.     

On the final visit, our last night on Samosir, I met Amando's aunt, the mother of two of the disabled people, a brother and sister. She joked that she wished I was her son-in-law. I shared round three and a half boxes of Tim Tams from the local shop (I ate half a box on the way - it was just too much of a temptation) and I overpayed Amando for his work on my trousers and gave him a cap I bought for myself the week before in Bukittinggi. This is where the bounds of my generosity lay and I hope that it was enough. I hope that they were not too disappointed that I didn't show up in a minibus to whisk them off for a tour of the island and a slap up dinner all on me.

I am not a philanthropist, I am not a charity volunteer, I am a tourist with a few ethics that take the form of a bit of chocolate and cash spread amongst people I consider friends. At least this is how I square it with myself and it will have to do. The one thing I'm sure of is that I won't forget them. Quite the opposite. And it'll be for the good things, for the smiles and laughter, the neverending questions and even bloody Mr David Bean that they'll stick in my memory.

After I said my goodbyes I walked with Amando's Aunt and ate a roti spread thick with guacamole at her restaurant. She brought out a photograph of her daughter, a 17 year old with a prominent chin, who was about to go to university to become a teacher. Then something in my brain clicked - maybe she wasn't joking about having me as a son-in-law after all.   

I can eat guacomale damn fast when I need to. 

leesalad says:
I think you got the balance just right with the way you handled the situation with the young disabled people. Sounds like you missed out on becoming a sugar daddy though!
Posted on: Jun 22, 2008
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