Questions without Answers, Part 1

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Today I got ripped off by a taxero.

Context:  I live about 10 minutes drive or 45 minutes hard walk from the school where I coach, teach, and mentor a bunch of students.  My wife works there and my kids attend there.  So I make the trip there quite often, and about 5 days a week the rest of my family has already gone in the car, so I find alternate transportation.

I used to avoid taking taxis here, because there are horror stories of people getting kidnapped, being held and forced to give up their debit cards and PIN’s, and most of the stories come from someone who knows someone who knows the victims.  But…I’ve grown a little bolder, because 45 minutes power-walking in Nicaragua sun and humidity along a busy highway doesn’t always appeal, sometimes I don’t have the time for that form of exercise, and sometimes I don’t feel like arriving at school to mentor or teach looking–and smelling–like I’ve just played 3 hours of ultimate.  While getting bathed in exhaust.

So now I take taxis, sometimes.  I pray.  I walk.  I see who comes along.  Sometimes a friend will pick me up on the highway, so I walk 1/3 or 1/2 of the way.  That’s not bad.  Kinda stinky, some exercise, lower risk of disappearing.  The typical rate for a taxi if I get picked up within 1/2 a kilometer of my house is 70 cordobas.  I’ve had them ask 80, I’ve had them ask 60.  The current exchange rate is 27.66 cords to the dollar.  So if I pay for a ride to school, I’m spending about $2.50.  Not a lot, but if I do it five days a week it’s not nothing, either–especially when you consider that my wife’s pay for being the teaching coach at school is about $700/month.  Yes, life is cheaper here, but not consistently, not across the board, like with those tires I mentioned last time.  I usually tip 20-30 cords, because I know most people are living on much less than I am.  Honestly, most of them seem surprised and thankful for my tip.

Today, I needed to get to school as quickly as possible.  I flagged the first taxi I saw, and just as he stopped, some dear Nicaraguan friends of mine passed, but going in the opposite direction of what I needed to go.  Had I waved them down, they probably would have gone out of their way to give me a ride.  I didn’t.  I just called out “Amigos!” and went to the taxi.  I explained where I was going, then asked,

“¿Cuánto vale?”

“Un y media.”

One and a half.  This took me a second.

¿Cien y medio?”

“Si.”

So he wants 150 cords, double then what I am accustomed to paying.  But I’m in a hurry.

“Cien,” I counter-offer.

“Cien viente,” he says.

I’m irritated.  I don’t want to pay this much.  I say okay.

He talks on his cell phone the entire ride.  I think he makes three different calls.  So far, I’ve ridden with a young kid who really wanted to race everyone else on the road, two different taxeros who looked and acted like maybe they were a little happier than ideal for driving, though I didn’t realize it until after we were underway.  So having a talking while driving, though not my favorite, isn’t the most dangerous thing I’ve experienced on the road.  But I’m already not thrilled with this experience, so it grates.

When we arrive, I hand him 150 cordobas because I have three 50-cord bills.  He takes it and makes to leave.  I ask him for change.  He shakes his head and tells me he needs a tip.  I tell him no, I want my change.  He tells me he wants the tip, and he is hungry.  I ask for my change.  He gives me twenty cords back, effectively short-changing me, and then stares at me to see if I will challenge him.

And I get out of the cab.  As I go, I say, “Precio gringo,” which translates quite nicely as “Gringo price.”  In other words, I tell him he ripped me off because I’m a gringo.

One more crucial piece of context before I get to the point, beyond a simple story about Mike and the Taxi Driver.  Finances are tight for us right now.  For four years in Nicaragua, we enjoyed relative financial ease, low stress, and have had plenty to give and share.  This year is different.  Two major circumstances have conspired to slam us solidly in the red each month; if things don’t change, we won’t be able to stay.  So there’s that.

Now, the question:  Is it right or wrong or backwards or sideways to quibble with a Nicaraguan taxi driver over paying $4.70 instead of $2.50 for the ride?

  1. $2.20, the difference between what I wanted to pay and what I got charged, is not a huge deal for us, even with the tightest budget we’ve experienced, maybe ever in our married lives.
  2. $2.20 may be a big deal for the man driving the cab today.
  3. If $2.20 is not that much, then the extra 10 cordobas are even less that much.
  4. Feeling ripped off is never pleasant.  Feeling targeted to be ripped off is less pleasant still.
  5. In this culture, unlike in U.S. culture, there is an expectation to haggle.  Much commerce happens in mercados where prices are less fixed than they are in U.S. stores.  There are many stores here, too, where it would be nonsense to try to get a different price than the one the scanner tells the register.
  6. There is a difference between haggling and short-changing.
  7. Feeling like you’re getting ripped off really screws with your desire to be generous.  Well, with mine, anyway.
  8. Tips are voluntary.  In the US and in Nicaragua.  Perhaps customary, but voluntary nonetheless, and the expectation for tipping here is actually much lower than it is in the States.  Sometimes we tip wildly high because the expected tip seems ridiculously low to us.
  9. The man may have been hungry.  Or he may have been manipulating me.
  10. I live in a country in which 90% of the people dwell in some level of poverty.  It is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and 50-70% of the population is unemployed or severely underemployed.  In the simplest view, we live here because it is such an impoverished country.  We are seeking to do what we can to empower people to rise out of poverty. If you want to understand our approach, you can read about the Eight Signs of a Transforming Community.
  11. Our work here is both focused on developing deep and long-term relationships and on working for systemic change.  It’s dubious that paying the man an extra $2.20 will contribute to either.
  12. Grrrr.
  13. After I feel Grrrr, or maybe alongside it, I feel guilty, because I don’t want to value money over people.
  14. Jesus says,
    “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Luke 6:27-31
    Does this apply?

I could go on…and on.

Here is the gist:  we have more money than most of the people here.  We came here to try to contribute to positive change.  That sounds great in the Big Picture.  What does it mean in the daily grind, the details, the daily taxi rides of life?

Or, to frame the question biblically:  How do we live justly among people in poverty?

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