Why People Are Jerks: and Other Thoughts on Poverty

The woman in the pink shirt. I think that’s the way I’ll remember her, which makes me sad because she deserves to be remembered by her real name and not by the only shirt she owns. But writing her name down on paper comes with a certain sort of guilt that I’m perhaps afraid of. The woman in the pink shirt is a title, not a name, and it’s easier to remain detached from her sadness when I don’t refer to her as “Angelica.”

Iquitos, Peru is a city of 400,000 people in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. “La encanta de la selva.” And it is the most beautiful and glorified trash heap I have ever encountered in my short, privileged life. It is full of ethnically beautiful people, all different, but somehow similar in a way that makes you overly aware of the fact that you are indeed white. Despite being buzzing and crowded, there are no roads to Iquitos, and it is only accessible by boat and plane. It is the number one city for sex trade in South America. It’s a starving city.

And that’s why I ended up in the center of town on a Saturday night with two of my best friends at my side and one red ticket that incited the sort of emotion in me that makes one desperately want to punch an innocent person in the nose. The offending red ticket (given to us by Paul our host during our stay, and the director of People of Peru Project), in reality, represented a meal for a hungry person. We had been tasked with the impossible job of choosing someone to feed. The Red Ticket Event, for all its good intentions, is really a torture mechanism for the compassionate at heart.

So Sabrina, Tori, and I walked the busy, humid streets of Iquitos quietly, watching a bit shyly for someone who needed food, a little bit worried we’d pick the wrong person. When we saw the woman in the pink shirt, we didn’t worry about that anymore. We sort of stopped, all looking in the direction of the woman who sat in the street, head in hands, rocking back and forth with an empty cup in front of her.

“Her?” Tori asked.

“I mean, if that’s who you want to give it to,” I said. It was a stupid thing for me to say.

Señora,” Sabrina reached out to her. The woman in the pink shirt groped around and felt the hand reaching out to her. She latched onto it like a lifeline. “Are you hungry? Do you want food? Comida?” The woman replied in low, incoherent mumbles I couldn’t understand (a recurring nightmare in Peru).

Sabrina looked up. “I don’t- I don’t understand.”

Across the street, another group of students from our mission group were scouting for hungry people. We yelled at them for awhile until they agreed to risk life and limb to get to our side of the road (pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way) and one of them huddled over her and spoke to her in Spanish. “She says she won’t come with you, but you can bring the food to her.”

“You found a good person,” one of the girls said to me.

“I mean,” I scoffed.” She was in the middle of the street.” It seemed pretty obvious, really.

It bothered me to leave the woman in the pink shirt alone. I knew she was there and that she was blind and that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it seemed to me that no human being in such mortal despair shouldn’t be alone for more than a second more than they have to. And suddenly I was very, very angry.

By the time we managed to drag ourselves away from the woman in the pink shirt, Tori was crying and I had worked myself into an all-American rage. I was suddenly in a hurry. I didn’t want to leave the woman, but I wanted to help her, and the only way to help her was to bring her food, right?

You know what was so sad about that night? I didn’t want to end world hunger, I didn’t come there to fix every poverty-stricken home. I just wanted to help one person.

I was jittery the whole time, waiting at the burger stand. “Rapido,” I snapped at the man and immediately regretted it, but every second I was away from the woman I was angrier and angrier. Every well-to-do somebody eating at that outdoor restaurant, the two American men speaking in loud English outside that bar, the drunk native who called out crude things to us in Spanish every time we passed by, I wanted to punch them all in the face for being happy. How dare they enjoy their lives while some blind woman was sobbing right in front of them on the street?

The man handed me the burger and I stared at it, cupped in my hands. It’s not enough, I thought immediately, and it seemed suddenly that I was a tiny, little red ticket: one meal and a million people to feed. It wasn’t fair. We marched around the block to the woman as fast as we could. The drunk man yelled and reached out to us and I thought, the next time he speaks to me, I’m going to punch him in the nose. We passed the white men speaking English at the bar and I believed I would like to knock their teeth in as well.

As soon as I saw the woman in the pink shirt, a wave of relief washed through me. Sabrina knelt back down by her and clasped her hand in her own fingers. I took the burger and placed it in her lap, allowing Sabrina to guide the woman’s hand. She held it, stroking it a little to make sure it was there, but she didn’t pick it up, and I knew, then, that she wasn’t going to eat it.

The adult chaperones found us huddled over a blind woman and sobbing. One of the chaperones spoke Spanish, and they asked us if there was anything we wanted to say. Sabrina had a prayer and asked her name.

“Angelica,” she mumbled.

I had the overwhelming desire to tell the woman in the pink shirt- the only person in the world who I wasn’t mad at- that I loved her, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words in Spanish.

One of the adults, in an attempt to comfort me, I presume, said to me, “Well you gave her a few days, and that’s what matters.” But it just made me more angry.

Later that night, when we were all home, and the tears were dried, the adults asked Sabrina, Tori, and I to stay behind for a minute. “We wanted you to know that someone saw your girl later. There was a little boy beside her and he was eating the sandwich. Son, grandson, we don’t know, but she gave it to him. We just wanted you to know why she didn’t eat it.”

The point of the story is not really that white people are jerks. The point is that poverty sucks. Angelica is, or was- one human being in a sea of starvation, and our small efforts to help her were still not enough. As a first-world, white, privileged teenager who had the experience to fight poverty first hand, and failed, I can tell you that those annoying emails and those articles on Facebook are sent and posted by desperate people who are fighting an impossible enemy. Poverty sucks, and I couldn’t fix it, but poverty fixed me right into place.

It’s easy to ignore poverty and scroll past it when it’s an in-personable article in your news feed. When a woman in a pink shirt is sobbing in the street in front of you, there will be nothing you can do that will be enough.


Posted on March 31, 2015, in News, Top Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Refrain from tagging me and harassing me “Edyn-Mae Stevenson”. Thank-you.

    • Edyn-Mae Stevenson

      Miss Stong, I’m afraid this is all a misunderstanding. I was not tagging you in my articles, nor do I believe that I should be accused of “harassing” you. I inconsequently have a very good friend named who goes by the name of Tori Stong. If you had read my article, you would’ve seen that I mentioned her in it. However, her full name is Victoria Stong and I’m afraid I tagged her by her full name in the article. I have never met you, nor would I dream of harassing you. The article that I accidentally tagged your name in is an account of a life-changing experience I encountered while visiting in Iquitos, Peru and has nothing to do with harassing any strangers. I’m sorry for this misunderstanding and inconvenience, and I will take the tag out of my post as to keep from offending anyone else, including you. Thank you for understanding.

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