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?

Choices

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If you go to Starbucks, you have choices there. If you go to Subway, you have more choices. Going to Starbucks and Subway are also choices. We live in a world of continuous choices. We have choices. We get to make choices.

South Wenatchee, the poorer area of the city where I again live in the States, is a series of choices. That some people live there in conditions significantly worse than those in the rest of the city is a direct result of choices certain people made.

We understand that we can choose to go to Starbucks or not, that we can choose what to order if we do go, and that we can choose whether to apply to work at Starbucks or Wal-Mart or E.F. Hutton. We comprehend that we can choose to watch the six o’clock news or a rerun of Seinfeld.

But do we understand that the world is as we have made it because we have made choices? Christians talk about “The Fall,” which was the choice Adam and Eve made to disobey God and eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They made that choice and the results of their choice shaped their world…and our world. That’s what Christians believe about original sin.

We make choices every day to shape our world. Discipleship is seeking to make the choices that follow in Jesus’ path. “What Would Jesus Do?” This was a popular campaign and people made t-shirts and wristbands and keychains. But “What Would Jesus Drive?” many people mocked. Many Christians mocked. They thought it was stupid. What would Jesus drive? Does that seem ridiculous to you? What you drive is a choice you make that shapes your world and reflects how you do or don’t follow Jesus. “But we can’t know what Jesus would drive! They didn’t have cars.” No, but Jesus made his values pretty clear.

Whom would Jesus enslave? Whom would Jesus oppress? Whom would Jesus make work in a sweatshop twelve hours a day so He could wear the right brand of T-shirt?

Here is a dynamic tension I live with all the time: life is insanely complicated, but nowhere in Scripture does God give us permission to be lazy. The world of the first century was almost incomprehensibly simple compared with our world. Not that life was easy by any means, but life had fewer choices. You could make more choices in a grocery store today than they made in a year.

I look at our complex lives and I understand why we don’t work harder to make good choices. The Gap doesn’t want to tell me who made my khakis. They simply want me to see them on sale where I can save two dollars and follow my “bargain reflex” to buy them. Where were they made? Who made them? In what working conditions did they make them?

What does this have to do with my discipleship to Jesus? I am shaping my world with these choices. I am using my dollars to vote for or against sweatshops and slave labor. No, I’m not exaggerating or overdramatizing. We look for any excuse not to have to know, because if we really knew, we would possibly—possibly—feel too badly about ourselves (our actions) to continue making these same choices. I hope.

We allow ignorance to screen us from our true choices and the results of those choices. We do this because we are lazy and busy and juggling a million things and because our brothers and sisters are not reminding us of how they are affected by our choices. They aren’t reminding us because they can’t. They don’t have that choice. They don’t have that freedom. We have the choice to pay attention or not; they don’t have the choice to tell us.

I recommend an older documentary called Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. Later in the documentary, there is an interview with two people in Hong Kong who work in a factory that provides Wal-Mart with something small and cheap that they sell to us. They don’t say, “Well, it’s better than nothing; at least we have jobs.” Americans want to create the false choice that either these people work in sweatshops and receive slave wages or they don’t work and starve. If this is the choice, if these are the only two alternatives, then we do the poor workers a favor by buying the trinkets and keeping the demand for their exploitation high.

But this is not the single choice; these are not the sole alternatives. We shape the world the way it is. We turn a blind eye to their working conditions, we do nothing to pressure our government to influence their government to improve these conditions, we do nothing to pressure corporations to demand that these conditions change… Why not? What would it cost us? We would have to spend time and energy to make choices that currently we make automatically. We would have to work diligently to research the conditions under which our clothes and toys are manufactured, our coffee and chocolate are grown and picked and packaged and shipped. We might have to spend more, if our efforts succeeded and companies improved conditions and passed the expenses on to us.

That sounds like a lot of work for choices that I’ve made instantly for years. My struggle is that Scripture doesn’t say, “If it’s too much trouble working for justice, then don’t sweat it.” Scripture says we are responsible for our choices and that those choices reflect our hearts.

Here is the tension: I could go insane. No, the Bible does not condone laziness, but I could obsess over these choices and go crazy trying to make the right ones. The dynamic tension is: God wants me to be responsible with my choices but God does not want me to become a legalist or a lunatic. How hard do I work for justice? How much effort is reasonable for me to make to decide which chocolate or sandal or car to buy? Weigh those questions on this scale: Who is my neighbor? What did Jesus say to do for my neighbor? What is my neighbor suffering? And how would I want my neighbor to act, if I were the one working in that factory in Hong Kong? When Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” I think he meant for us to measure our choices by that standard. How would I want someone to treat me, were I in their shoes in that sweatshop and they in mine?