San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Humanitarian dismay: Do good joyfully

In the Balinese section of the book, “Eat, Pray, Love” by U.S. author Elizabeth Gilbert, protagonist Liz becomes involved with a native healer, a woman who lives alone with her two young daughters and is about to lose her house. In a burst of humanitarian zeal, Liz writes to all her friends in the United States and Italy to solicit help for her noble friend. She raises $18,000 and hands it over to her friend so she may buy a home for herself and her daughters. Then Liz waits for her to do so – and waits, and waits. After one thing and another, it becomes clear that her friend is angling for more money so she can buy a bigger piece of property than the $18,000 will allow her to buy.

Liz is devastated. She feels that her beloved friend has turned out to be nothing more than an ungrateful manipulator.

Kate Galante

Kate Galante

Liz’s boyfriend, Felipe, who has been living in Bali for many years, sees it differently and tries to explain to her: “You need to understand the thinking in Bali. It’s a way of life here for people to try to get the most money they can out of visitors. It’s how everyone survives.”

Liz reacts with disgust to this idea and comments to the reader: “… I hate the cultural implications under his speech, the whiff of colonial White Man’s Burden stuff, the patronizing ‘this-is-what-all-these-people-are-like’ argument.”

But Felipe, who grew up poor in South America, goes on to explain further: “… As far as she’s concerned, you’re her miracle benefactor and this might be her last chance to ever get a break. So she wants to get all she can before you go. … If you get angry, you’ll lose her, and that would be a pity because she’s a marvelous person and she loves you. This is her survival tactic, just accept that. … I’ve seen it repeated so many times. What happens with Westerners who live here for a long time is that they usually end up falling into one of two camps. Half of them keep playing the tourist, saying, ‘Oh, those lovely Balinese, so sweet, so gracious …’ and getting ripped off like crazy. The other half get so frustrated with being ripped off all the time, they start to hate the Balinese. And that’s a shame, because then you’ve lost all those wonderful friends.”

If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to read the book – it’s worth it – and find out how Liz resolves the situation; just don’t bother seeing the movie. I relate this because I was once witness to a similar situation in Costa Rica, a story with the same lesson.

Some years ago, I was writing some pieces about Costa Rican hotels for The Tico Times and once had the opportunity to cover a very special project. Benefactors from another country, a distinguished man and wife, had raised the money and contributed a considerable sum of their own funds to build a hotel in an impoverished area. Once it was finished, it was to be turned over to the village to run and use to its benefit.

The goal of the project was, first, before signing over the deed to the village, to train the employees thoroughly so they could make a success of the enterprise. So, when I got there, local people were in intensive training to learn how to manage and serve in the hotel.

Even so, everything was in a dreadful uproar. It seemed the local communist party was accusing this remarkable man and wife who had raised money for their community of plotting to steal their money. They claimed that because the money was meant for the people, it should go to them immediately, and they were staging protests alleging thievery.

To another reporter, this may have meant a big scoop, but I have no taste for blood. Moreover, I had become friends with these good people and could see how terribly hurt they were at the reaction of those they sought to help.

Thus, I sat down with them one evening and told them effectively the same thing that Felipe tells Liz. In addition, I explained to them that these were people who lived their whole lives trying to find a way to get enough money to buy rice and beans for their children for the next day. How, then, could we expect them to understand philanthropy? Money is survival, and it was inconceivable that someone would give it away. They were interpreting the situation in the only way they knew how. Someone had to be trying to take something from them because that’s what everyone always did.

Many of us here have had that sinking feeling when we have encountered ingratitude in return for our sincere efforts. I once had a village priest accuse me of having an immoral agenda for my children’s theater group.

It’s hard, but in order to “do good” joyfully in Costa Rica, we need to understand two things: First, ingratitude is a knee-jerk reaction born of the instinct to survive. It is exacerbated by the many years of “freebies” that first-world countries having been giving to Costa Rica and even more years of government theft. Second, giving is its own reward; expecting gratitude taints it.

There’s a line from a Bob Dylan song that says it all (somebody once told me it came from the Bible): “Remember when you’re out there tryin’ to heal the sick that you must always first forgive them.”

Amen to that.

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