Street Kids in Enzo’s World

Travel Stories: On a trip to Granada, Nicaragua, JD Roberto confronts hungry children and considers how to explain them to his son

04.13.09 | 9:51 AM ET

REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

It’s with no small amount of guilt that I shoo away a kid of about 8 who approaches me with a “hello, amigo.” Enzo doesn’t notice. We’re sitting on the front steps of our hotel, me poring over the map of Granada and him captivated by the horse-drawn carriages that line the central square of this well-preserved Spanish colonial town.

Street kids—whether the pint-sized kitsch hawkers at Angkor Wat, the frequently belligerent Gypsy girls outside the Louvre, or the pack of 9-year-old boys who follow you Pied Piper-style to the bakery in Hue (where you inevitably buy them a loaf of bread)—are a fixture in the life of a traveler. Almost anywhere you go, there’s a predictable culture of children working tourists on the streets.

Emotionally, it’s complicated. Sometimes you want to give them all your money. Sometimes you want to yell at them to leave. Sometimes you want to jump in the middle of them and sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” An appropriate response seems impossible.

Even more so once you’re traveling with your own child.

Before I can shoo him away again, the Granadan street kid is playing hide-and-seek with Enzo, who’s howling with delight at having found someone closer to his size to play with. Every now and again, this grubby 8-year-old pops up from behind a planter and yells, “Estoy aqui!” which sends my 2-year-old screaming and scampering in that direction.

The next morning, as we head for breakfast, Enzo calls out “Estoy Aqui!” at random intervals—his first words in a foreign language.

At the local waffle house, we tear through the staggering platefuls of food when the first of the street kids appears, throwing us a forlorn “You gonna eat that toast?” look. In fact, we’re not going to eat the toast, so I reach down to the street and hand it off to him. At which point the manager shouts and chases the kid away. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will play out again and again while we sit here, the manager now paying particular attention to my side of the cafe since I’ve proven myself to be an easy mark. Of course, the manager won’t correct or scold me. I’m a paying customer, after all. But he’ll throw me a disapproving look and keep a better eye on my side of the patio. The last thing he needs is for packs of kids to run off his clientele.

And you can’t really blame the guy. The family from Richmond sitting behind us definitely doesn’t want some skinny, unwashed child asking them for a strip of bacon. This isn’t the holiday they signed up for. People get mad when poverty is waved in their face; it’s full of messy feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and the knowledge that there but for the randomness of the birth lottery go you. And—honestly—who wants to deal with any of that over waffles and coffee?

Enzo, of course, is dealing with nothing but the conundrum of how to get the chocolate chips out of his pancakes without having to actually eat the pancake.

He isn’t old enough to ask why he has piles of food—most of which he won’t eat—and that little boy gets yelled at for having my toast. He isn’t old enough to wonder aloud why this potential hide-and-seek partner can’t come have breakfast with us. He isn’t aware enough yet to ask all the obvious questions we’ll spend the rest of the meal ignoring. And I’m relieved. Because when he does, I have no idea what I’ll say.

JD Roberto is a writer, actor and host for television, and a travel junkie. Over the past 14 years, he and his wife Karen have hitched, packed, walked and tuk-tuked their way through nearly 70 countries. Their son, Enzo, has a well worn passport and budding fascination with all things cartographical.

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11 Comments for Street Kids in Enzo’s World

Mo 04.13.09 | 12:11 PM ET

What a great commentary on the side of travel too many people brush aside.  I just wish there was a solution.

Kim@Galavanting 04.13.09 | 1:05 PM ET

Excellent article about the complexity of interacting with street children. I was recently very disappointed to hear a well-known travel broadcaster in the U.S. publicly dismiss them out-of-hand.

Your take is much more thoughtful and full of reality. It should be said more that not one of us deserves more than those who did not win the “birth lottery.”

Well said.

JD 04.13.09 | 2:28 PM ET

Thanks for the kind words.  After a decade of traveling as a semi-young couple, my wife and I are seeing the world through new eyes as we take our son on the road with us (literally and figuratively).  It’s been alternatively glorious and exhausting but, to be fair, that’s the nature of adventure travel with or without kids.

Corinne 04.13.09 | 10:55 PM ET

As a result of your travels with him, Enzo will grow up to be aware of the struggles that face children around the world, and become a more compassionate person as a result… (unlike said well-known travel broadcaster!)

Andrea Ross 04.13.09 | 11:58 PM ET

Fantastic article! I live in Cambodia with my two kids, both under five, and it is hard to explain the polarization, why we have and they have-not. I find that it’s best when we let kids be kids, the beauty is that they will play hide and seek and they will laugh together - the issues that drive adults apart don’t exist for kids. Maybe by showing our kids that they aren’t different from the kids needing breakfast they will be the ones that help figure out a way for everyone to have breakfast?

RJ Gustis 04.15.09 | 3:02 PM ET

I just recently visited Nicaragua and have too seen a larger percentage of beggers and pan-handlers there than I have seen here on the city streets of the U.S, holding their “God Bless” signs.  This is the way that they survive in their country.  Some of these people are just as good salesmen as we might find here in the U.S. in our informercials and through our telemarketers. But remember, even though the percentage is higher there, not everyone in Nicaragua is poor.  Most are hardworking people who deserve true democracy in their country.  If anyone is to blame for the bad living conditions there are the people who steal from the hardworking classes and try to make their own fast buck.  It’s the increase in government corruption there and their less concern for the peoples’ welfare.  Thank the president for that.

Jen P. 04.16.09 | 7:37 PM ET

What an insightful and thought provoking article. Nicaragua seems to have either very wealthy or very poor citizens. There’s not a lot of middle class and this is a very serious problem that needs to get resolved in order for this country to be successful. I was born in Nicaragua to a somewhat wealthy family. We emigrated to California during the 80’s to escape the war going on at the time. I was only a baby so I don’t remember anything about my birth country. But I hear stories about the haves and have nots.

For example, many upperclass Nicaraguans send their kids off to boarding school in Switzerland which is what happened to my parents. They’re both Nicaraguan and they actually met in Switzerland when they were teenagers studying there! How’s that for ironic? But then there’s also a lot of poverty.

I’m now a student at UCLA and I’m very interested in Latin American studies, especially of Nicaragua which has had such a tumultuous love-hate relationship with the United States. Despite the many issues this country faces, there is so much natural beauty. Gorgeous beaches and islands, jungles, volcanoes, nightlife, jewelery and name brand retailers at discount prices, some of the best surfing in the world, and very kind warm people (unlike snobbier colder and more expensive Costa Rica).

I urge anyone interested in a vacation to consider Nicaragua. There are many luxury five stars hotels as well as condo and home rentals and “green” or eco resorts that are good for the environment. Tourism has had a very positive effect in this tiny country and your dollars would go a long way in bettering the lives of citizens there - most importantly, the children.

JD 04.16.09 | 8:53 PM ET

Nicaragua is something of an undiscovered gem.  I’ve written a lot about Granada which is among the oldest and best preserved cities in the Western Hemisphere.  I could not over state what an approachable, easy going experience we had!

Lindsey 04.16.09 | 10:51 PM ET

All the power to you that your son is growing up in a world far from video games and virtual reality! Your being a great Dad!

Children have the ability to see past judgement and just be there in the moment. Chances are, that when your little boy is old enough to think about what is going through your brain on this whole thing…... his perspective will be far lighter and even better than we adults can imagin!

pirano 04.24.09 | 9:08 AM ET

A very nice read. I’ve visited Nicaragua several times—primarily in the 1990s—and have found virtually all the people—yes, even the “haves”—to be overwhelmingly friendly, courteous, interesting and interested. I really hope to visit again one day.

Jason 05.14.09 | 5:47 AM ET

Great article. I can relate to what “Jen P” said about there not being a lot of middle ground in Nicaragua. I’m from Boston and my Mom is Nicaraguan and my Dad is American. My mother has Nicaraguan relatives that are very well off. My cousins also went to boarding school in Switzerland and are now attending private colleges here in the U.S. but their permanent home is still in Nicaragua.

We have visited them in Nicaragua and have stayed in their beautiful luxury home which makes my parent’s typical middle class Boston house seem like a shoe in comparison. And the thing is, just a 45 minute drive away you will see some tiny shack homes alongside dirt roads that people actually live in. It’s really unbelievable the differences between the Nicaraguan citizens.

In one town there might be a family that can’t even read and in another town there will be a family that has had the best education money can buy. Usually the wealthy won’t mix with the “campesinos” and this is sad because the “campesinos” could use all the help they can get from their better off countrymen.

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