Traveling on a Shoestring Responsibly?

In Nicaragua, the biggest complaint I heard about gringos/as was that we are super pinche, or stingy. The irony was that we are often bargaining for cheaper fruits from a woman whose family lives from hand to mouth.

In Tajikistan, this pinche attitude is ever present among the students in my group. A simple example: last night, a group of us went to the “VIP Club” – an exorbitantly (by Tajik standards) expensive dance club frequented mostly by Russians, expats, and narcos. (This club was not my choice, but it was an experience nonetheless!) On the taxi ride back, it came time to negotiate the price. The same taxi took us to the club for 25 Somoni. I asked the girls in the back how much they wanted to pay. One said “10 Somoni!” with glee – knowing this was quite low. The final price we negotiated was 20 Somoni.

I think maybe we just forget that 5 Somoni = 1 US Dollar? So we paid about $4 for a 15 minute taxi ride at 2AM. The same ride would be $15 in Seattle.

Why are we so adamant about bargaining for the “best deal” when the difference is a couple bucks?

Is it that we forget that gasoline is gasoline and is generally expensive everywhere? Do we forget that 90% of people here make less than $5 a day here? Or that this taxi driver has 3 young kids to feed?

I realize we can’t change these structural problems by being a bit looser with our wallets, and that we too aren’t really that rich. But when we just paid 35 Somoni for cover and 10 Somoni for a 8 oz Fanta – profit which goes straight to the pocket of a very, very wealthy local (or possibly even foreign) club owner…maybe we can choose to spend loosely a bit more wisely?

When bargaining (which I still do – it’s part of the culture and fun) or choosing where to spend, my general thought process is this:

1) Who is this person? How wealthy are they in relation to me?

2) Where will this money go? Directly to the person, or to a wealthier owner/manager?

3) How much would this good or service cost in the U.S.?

4) How much guilt does the U.S. carry for the poverty in this country? E.g. did we start, fund, fuel, or otherwise promote a war here? Neoliberal economic policies?

I realize it’s not going to change the world in the slightest. But I think it feels better to walk away feeling like you are helping the local economy rather than being able to brag that you knocked 30 cents off your last watermelon purchase.

And if you choose where to spend wisely – it’s still cheap! Paying a local $5 to guide you around town (rather than bargaining him down to $3) is still cheaper than paying an expat-owned tour company.

[EDIT: I’ve since heard arguments that consistently paying too much for local services could induce the price inflation we see in highly touristy areas of places like Mexico, which eventually price out locals. So there is clearly a need for balance. But I doubt that balance is going to be tipped anytime soon in places like Tajikistan.]

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One thought on “Traveling on a Shoestring Responsibly?

  1. Annie Alsheimer says:

    I am not gonna lie, I can be quite the bargainer in Mexican flee markets, and I get a thrill out of playing the competitive bargaining game. However, most of the time, I usually fold, realizing that I am American and I can afford these things, but i hate doing that. I like your initial questions for bargaining, i think that is a great rule of thumb and I will apply it at my next opportunity (which will now be in Austria-one of the richest countries in the world-so i am DEFINITELY going to get the most out of my money!).

    Awesome entry 🙂

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