University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Story of Privilege

The street is alive already at 9 am with all ages walking down the sidewalks on their way to some purpose. It’s slightly sunnier than usual, and I feel alert and ready to knock out some homework. I note the happy dogs on leashes, little fluffy dogs practical for city apartments, listen the birds singing in the trees, and greet the random security guards hanging around, chatting to each other. The food carts are on the corners and always, and the gates of bodegas are being lifted up for another day of business in which the customer’s purchases will surely make an unnoticeable dent in their well-stocked stores.
I walk through a park that I just discovered this morning, since it’s hidden in the middle of a gated street whose door happened to be open this morning. I’m on my way to Starbucks, where I can find proper coffee and a place to focus on reading about Peru’s history. There is a test on Tuesday that I must concentrate on and attempt to keep out thoughts of travel and the endless things to see and do here. Learn about the figures behind the names of Peru’s streets— Simon Bolivar, Javier Prado, Gonzales Prada.
I take a left onto the sidewalk and see an older women hobbling along with a walker. I think that perhaps she is a beggar, because this is a perception you must arm yourself with when there is a constant group of Peruvians desperate for one sole, but she is neatly dressed and not hopelessly crunched over. In the light of this beautiful morning, she is just an older woman out for a walk. I don’t switch sides.
As I get closer to her, I can sense her eyes following me. I obligingly look at her, and our pupils lock. Inevitably, a thread has been tied to each of our mind’s awareness, her’s, intentionally, mine, accidentally. A passage from a book I remember flashes through my mind about a homeless person in London who chases people down, forces them to listen, to pity, to feel. I think for a fleeting second perhaps she is holding my eyes simply to give me a friendly Buenos dias, like one of those older people who seem happy to observe the world from their park bench.
She says something that obligates me to stop and listen, whether it is an ‘excuse me, miss’ or ‘please’, the meaning is the same. I stop walking. I’m trapped. I now know she is one of those people, somehow materializing in this alien residential neighborhood.
I brace myself for the usual routine story about kids, family, and unfortunate circumstances, reprimanding myself for not switching sides of the street and at the same time scolding myself for having such little compassion. But honestly, the compassion has been talked out of me. Rationalization is the act I use and abuse each day.
Her Spanish is clear, but I have trouble focusing on the words. I notice instead the intense colors and textures of her skin, and her clothes, the world being more vibrant than usual thanks to the sun gracing Lima with its presence. She wears a purple knit shawl, attached to her pink shirt with plastic hair clips like those that little girls wear. Her skin is thin leather, wrinkled and worn uniformly as a result of harsh weather, not like some older faces that have an excess of forehead wrinkles, or smile lines, or sagging pouches under their chins. Her skin seems to be unattached from the flesh beneath. Her eyes, in contrast, are clear and intense. My intuition does not scream ‘distrust’ and ‘scam.’ Though I feel the clinging, stifling grip of desperation gripping this little bubble she has pulled me into, I also feel truth.
She explains something about a hospital procedure. For lack inspiration, I ask her where she lives. La Marina is all I catch, which probably refers to a street I pass by on my way to the university each day. She tells me about how she came here early in the morning to the hospital a few blocks away, but the procedure is too expensive and she seems to be leaving now, for home. Through my mind flashes a picture of the hospital, a walled complex only glimpsed through breaks in the iron bars or cracked doors.
Then her hands materialize into my vision. Whether they were hidden under fabric before or not, I don’t remember. One hand is swollen to about twice the size it should be, and the other is on its way to the same state. The skin is white, like mine, not the same brown of her face and wrists. The most disturbing part is the tint of purple beneath that thin layer of skin, the bulging indicator of sickness. I can feel that sensation of swelling and the horrible uncomfortable feeling of stretched skin, pulled to it’s limits, miraculously not just splitting like a piece of cheap fabric. A feeling I mentally shake off.
Her hands go back down to her walker quickly, for balance. I am reminded of my grandma when she somehow is left standing without support. The look gripping her body has always reminded me of a fish out of water, gasping the air in the newfound environment in which gills do not function. A look of hunger for familiarity.
Her explanation has begun to trail off into the air, losing steam and wrapping up with the same conclusion as usual. I ask her, stupidly, do you need money? Though I deserve a sarcastic answer, I obviously don’t get one. She responds with a simple nod. Yes, of course, she needs money. What else was the point of her pulling me into this situation?
My mind frantically decides what to do. I could say no, and nothing would prevent me from walking on, with all my money still mine and the woman tottering down the sidewalk to wherever her final destination is. I could say yes. I could give her anywhere from one sole to $100.00 American dollars. I considered this option for a full second.
Nevertheless, I have been inculcated with the knowledge that homeless people are scammers. That there is some secret they know that ‘we’ don’t—their lives actually aren’t horrible, this might just be a side gig, they have a house somewhere waiting for them, food in their pocket, in those large plastic bags balanced strategically on that rickety cart. Remember that guy in Chicago with the cast on his leg, and remember when two hours later the cast had migrated to his arm and his body to a corner two blocks down?
So I pull out my coin purse and quickly grab whatever soles I can pinch between my fingers, avoiding the bills. I estimate it’s about 5 soles. That’s equivalent to about $2.00. I drop the dull gold coins into her palm and they sit there as she evaluates quickly. I can’t read her expression, whether she hoped for more I cannot tell. I mumble something about not being able to give her all of it, and she, with amazing grace, responds that of course I need my bus passage as well. In thanks, she explains that she hopes all will work out. I say, me too, and, good day. Because it is. A good day. Relatively speaking.
I begin walking and a second later her feet begin to shuffle as well, going our separate directions. I have no idea what lies ahead for her, but as for me? Starbucks. Spending my money on camping equipment. Travelling around Peru to experience the culture. Passing a food stand and having the liberty of considering whether to spend my money on nutritionally useless and unnecessary cookies.
Daily life is full of obvious examples of my privilege, but the greatest privilege is that I can choose to examine them. Sometimes I run into a woman with swollen hands who demands that I look at my life.
Rationalization works almost 95% of the time, but sometimes the effortless tools of reasoning and logic fail miserably and prove useless in a world that does not work logically or reasonably. The glaring truth remains that even after writing this I will go on to live a life on privilege, money, and travelling, and so-called first world problems. The weight of five twenty-dollar bills burns a hole in my bag to the left of my feet as I sit here and write.
Peru is a country rich in many things, but occasionally the monetary inequalities seem to rise up to the surface of reality and break into my everyday life. Each day on the bus a man or woman will board at the stoplight and come in, give a short speech, and proceed to offer the riders candy, or refillable pens, or gum. At a busy cross street there are up to ten of these workers fanning out among the idling cars, selling something maybe every ten minutes for only a couple cents. On our way out of the city we sometimes pass through the poorer neighborhoods, where peach and light blue colored houses climb ever so gradually up the sandy Lima hills, piles of garbage flowing by the windows, lining our route and bordering food markets where piles of potatoes tumble from bags. We’ve gotten lost a few times in mysterious neighborhoods where people relentlessly stare—a clear sign we don’t belong. Though I like to think I’m becoming an adopted Peruvian, I don’t think I’ll ever access the real truth of this endless city.

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