ABOUT A MONTH AGO, V and I hailed a taxi to Arequipa’s central bus terminal. We knew how much it should cost—eight Peruvian soles in total, less than $3. When the driver quoted us 10 soles, we brought him down to eight. That was the objectively fair price, we reasoned; after years of being overcharged abroad simply because we’re white, we’d gotten used to haggling, as all travellers do. It’s how we save money while living abroad.
The Canadian election campaign was in full swing then, and politics—particularly class politics—were on my mind. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wound up winning, largely based on his promises made toward the middle classes, piggybacking on the popular and divisive sentiment that the top 1 per cent should pay more in taxes. Nobody needs to live on a million dollars a year—such privileged earners can afford to pay a little more, if it means giving the rest of us a break.
Here’s the thing, though: in Peru, V and I are almost inarguably among the top 1 per cent. We can afford to pay more for nearly everything. Our three-storey house—complete with free Wi-Fi, a washing machine, a guest room and a brand-new bed, stove and fridge—costs $600 a month, which poorer Arequipeños tell us is crazy high but which anyone from Toronto would tell you is simply crazy.
In short, we’re quite well off. Shouldn’t that change the way I see haggling $1 away from a local cabbie?
First, some political context
Peru’s current president, Ollante Humala, was elected in 2011 as part of Latin America’s “pink tide”—the wave of socialist-lite presidents who’ve run Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil and other Latin countries for much of the past two decades. But that tide may soon be washing away—Argentina just elected the centre-right son of a tycoon to replace its Peronist president of the past nine years, largely because its economy is in the crapper, and Peruvians, so far as I can tell, will likely follow suit in this April’s upcoming election. Humala’s approval ratings sunk to an all-time low of 17 per cent this past June, and haven’t recovered much since.
One of the biggest reasons locals hate Humala is because of the national minimum wage. It’s been 750 soles per month (roughly US$260) for many, many years. When Humala was elected, he promised to raise it; he’s since done absolutely nothing, leaving Peru with one of the lowest minimum wages in all of South America.
The Case For Paying More
Beyond all this political context is the simple fact that anything less than 10 Peruvian soles is basically meaningless to me. I earn about US$25 an hour as a freelance copywriter, and can earn a Peruvian’s entire monthly minimum wage by writing one, maybe two articles for North American media outlets. I can easily afford to ride a taxi every week to my frisbee practise 10 kilometres away, a 30-minute drive. That’s 10 soles—a little more than the cost of riding the subway in Toronto. (The local bus here, for those curious about the alternatives, is confusing and uncomfortable and an takes an hour for me to reach my frisbee practise, but only costs 80 centimos—around 20 cents.)
So while V and I were riding in the back seat of that cab last month, after successfully bargaining our driver down to the objectively standard price of eight soles, it struck me as hypocritical that I should demand more privileged earners pay more in Canada, but play the middle-class morality card here in Peru. I’m not rich by any definition, but while we’re living in Arequipa, I can certainly afford an extra two soles in a cab.
The central poli-sci argument is the same, I think: equal distribution of wealth. I could argue that I’m generous with tips in Arequipa, giving freely to waiters and good drivers (though tipping is not obligatory), but that’s an imperfect analogy—I’m paying for better personal service, whereas paying higher taxes in Canada doesn’t get you, specifically, better roads. The idea is that those who can pay more simply do for the benefit of those who cannot afford it. While I don’t pay Peruvian taxes, simply not arguing when charged slightly-inflated prices by everyday locals—waiters, drivers, market vendors and so on—is my version of a more equal distribution of wealth.
The Case For Haggling
Before I ever rode a taxi to frisbee practise, I thought it would cost something like 30 soles. When I asked that first cabbie how much, and he quoted me 10, I balked. I genuinely thought I misheard him. For the next five weeks, every cabbie I rode with quoted me 10 soles, and I came to believe that 10 was the fair, accurate price.
One day, a cabbie quoted me 12 soles. I rejected him. Never mind that I was, five weeks earlier, prepared to pay as much as 30; I knew that the standard price of this trip was 10 soles. I had five weeks’ worth of evidence to prove it. Why should I suddenly pay more because some guy charges me that? I felt indignant.
In that light, the objective cost of anything—produce, meals, cab rides—shouldn’t change for anyone. The cost of an apple is the cost of an apple. It doesn’t go up just because I’m white.
I’ve been living in Arequipa for two months now, and if I started paying one sol more for everything—every meal, every cab ride—I would lose a decent chunk of money. I’m not a tourist, whose job is literally to spend money and enjoy myself; I’m a resident who has to integrate into the culture and lifestyle here every day.
Besides which there is my own personal perspective, which greedy cabbies don’t take into account—I’m not staying in Peru forever; I plan to return to Toronto, hopefully buy a house one day. I need to save a tremendous amount of money for that, which is why I decided to freelance from South America at all, where I could save more easily. The cabbies, of course, don’t know this (much as we middle- and lower-class Canadians don’t really fathom the spending habits of the upper classes, nor do we take them much into account); they don’t know that in my financial frame of reference I’m among the lower-middle classes. They see a white face; they figure I can pay more. And while I’m here, I can, but once I’m back in Canada, I’ll be near-broke again.
The Result: I’ll Pay More When I Feel Like It
I tend to strike a middle-ground here. My gut tells me to keep on haggling, since I’m frankly nervous about ever being able to afford living in Toronto and hate being taken for a sucker. My own personal-finance goals frankly outweigh my political-class convictions—I recognize that an Arequipeño cabbie with two kids could probably use two soles better than I could, but I don’t think about that because it’s money I earned.
But I am also mindful to tip generously, since I can afford to distribute some wealth. Just not all the time. That cabbie whom V and I haggled down to eight soles from 10? We barraged him with questions about the bus terminal (it was our first time going there), and he helpfully answered us in full. We gave him 10 soles anyway.
This is a more controlled version of wealth distribution—as if the top 1 per cent could control when they decided to pay more taxes, and did sometimes, depending on their mood and how much better the roads by their house would actually be. It’s arrogant, and I still feel hypocritical, but it’s the only way I can think of that combines both worlds.
Since this is a blog with comments and social-media stuff, I’m actually curious to hear others’ opinions on this. When you travel to so-called Third World countries, do you bother being ripped off? Do you feel bad about haggling? Or is this just the mental cost of white privilege abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.