Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Things You are Reminded of

I went to get some lab work done in Brazil today. I was surprised to see so many people waiting at the lab’s waiting room. I had to get a numbered ticket and wait to be called on one of those electronic boards.

While I was waiting, an old lady probably in her 60’s came up to the front of the waiting room, with her back straight to the 6 lab receptionists and asked people for help to buy ingredients to make a bone soup.

That is something that you usually never see in the United States. More surprising than the event itself was that:

  • The lab staff carried on as if nothing was happening. No asking her to stop or leave.
  • I’d say that out of the 20 people in the lab’s waiting room, some 10 gave the woman some money
  • The woman asking for help was fairly aggressive, going row by row after the first wave of people had given her money, and at least one time she directly asked one person for help.

To me this reminds me and indicates some things:
  • This is a common event at this busy location, and probably at any busy location.
  • People are very used to this type of thing, and they are sympathetic and do help, even though most people at the lab at that time appeared not to be of high economic means.
  • That lady -- as is probably the case with others in the same situation -- grow a pretty thick skin due to the repeated experience of having to ask for help.

Growing up as a then-rare middle-class person in Brazil, almost everywhere you went there were people asking for money. Often people would ring the door bell of our house and would relay a pretty sad story going on in their lives: sick daughter, just got out of the hospital and need money to pay for the bus fare, some recently-inflicted wound, etc.

Your gut reaction is to help, but eventually it happens too often for you to help everytime. Adding to this unfortunate scenario are the scammers. I remember one guy came asking for help at our house once, and we gave him money. A couple days later the same guy came over, with a different story. He probably forgot that he had been through that neighborhood before.

Eventually we got into a system of help-for-work. If someone asked for help at the house, we would ask them to do some small work around the house in exchange for food and (pretty good) money. Without exception those asking for help would reject the offer and move on to the next house.

My mom was once scammed by a nicely-dressed lady who supposedly had “ran out of gas” and needed money to get her car going again. I remember my mom telling me about the very well executed scam, with the lady being very eloquent. Some time later the same person tried to scam my mom again, at the very same intersection, and received instead a good scolding from my mom.

It’s unfortunate, but eventually you get desensitized to this sort of thing, because it just happens so often. But I was glad to see that -- judging by the people at the lab -- most people do help those who at least appear to be in need.


  1. How does that compare to your experiences of a similar nature in the US?

  2. I don't have many of that nature in the US. Most cases I've seen in the US were around Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and here and there on intersections.

    Most people just walk or drive by. The only beggars I've seen receive money are those who were playing some musical instrument.

    I do see a lot fewer people asking for money around the busy (and grid-locked) intersections of Manaus these days than almost 10 years ago, when I left to the U.S. The beggars have been mostly replaced by people seeling fruits, snacks, beverages, etc.

    Maybe it's a reflection of the improvement on the Brazilian economy. Maybe the beggars went somewhere else.

    Yesterday I was at an intersection and this cute 9-ish-year-old girl was selling cloth. She said to me "it's 3 for 5 reais sir" with a face that was just sooo needy it broke my heart. I ended up buying the cloth even though I really did not want any.