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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Latin America & the Gringo Tax


It was 11:00 on Friday evening when my plane landed at the Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Perú. I was tired and sleepy after 16 hours of flying and changing planes in Atlanta and Mexico City. I still had another three-hour bus ride to Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture where the family of the late-great maestro, Amador Ballumrosio, the Godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance was expecting me.

First, I had to get to the bus terminal, which was another 30 minute cab ride from the airport. Maribel, Amador Ballumbrosio's daughter, told me over the phone before my trip that the cab fare is $25 nueva soles, which at that time was equal to $7.58 in Peruvian currency. There were hordes of cab drivers in the waiting area of the airport, and several flocked over to me, this lone black guy wearing a Luther Vandross t-shirt, which was a dead give-away that I'm an American with a pocket full of U.S. dollars. The words newbie, fresh fish, and mark were written all over my face.

The words fresh fish, newbie, and mark
were written all over my face

One cab driver came across as being very sincere as he showed me his badge emphasizing, in impressive English, that I would be in good hands if I chose his taxi service over the rest. Because I wanted to use this trip, like I do with all of my Latin American trips, to practice my Spanish, I answered him in Spanish hinting that, if he wants my business, our conversation will be Spanish only. He got the message as I negotiated the fare of 25 nueva soles like Maribel suggested.

The cabbie then escorted me to what was supposed to be a taxi stand, but there was no taxi. How strange, I thought, as his buddy ran to get my driver's cab. When he returned, he leaped from the cab, got in my face with his hand stuck out, and demanded five dollars for running and picking up my driver's cab, I got confused and thought that this might be a custom that I missed reading about in my travel plans. I didn't want to give him $5.00, but I do remember reading that I need to bargain hard when dealing with Peruvian cab drivers, especially in Lima. So I handed over a one-dollar bill, and he left me alone.


As my cab driver raced and maneuvered his way through the dark, hard, fast-paced streets of Lima, he himself became aggressive and relentless in trying to hustle me out of a fare four times greater than what we agreed upon before I got into his cab. It just so happened that before my trip, besides reading travel guides, I downloaded and studied some Peruvian slang and curse words, which surprised and disappointed the cab driver as he lighten up a bit with his hustle. Today, after traveling to Perú five or six times already, I'm just sorry that I didn't use any of those words to the man who demanded the five dollars as well.

What those cab drivers attempted to do, as they presumably do with other visitors, was charge me the gringo tax. What is the gringo tax? It's when you are being overcharged by shopkeepers and taxi drivers with what they can get away with because you are a gringo. What is a gringo? It basically means foreigner, but in Perú, for example, if you are not from the South American continent, you are considered a gringo, and they don't care if you are from Mexico or East L.A, Puerto Rico or Spanish Harlem, Cuba or Little Havana. When I was in Havana, Cuba , there was a famous ice cream parlor called La Coppellia where they have a government sponsored gringo tax; a pint of ice cream costs a Cuban one peso, but for visitors (the gringos), it was 20 pesos, which at that time was equivalent to an American dollar.

As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible, especially in a Spanish-speaking country.

For the most part, government sponsored gringo taxes are minimal and can be avoided as they are only applied in certain places, like major tourist attractions. However, it's usually in those areas where there are a lot of tourists where you will most likely be charged gringo taxes by merchants and cab drivers. As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible, especially in a Spanish-speaking country because my primary purpose for being there is to be totally immersed in the language and the culture. Furthermore, making friends with local citizens and even asking hotel staff or other members of the community for appropriate prices for items and taxi fares puts you in a better position to bargain for acceptable prices. In addition, when shopping, I like to carry a calculator to convert their prices into American dollars and vice versa. Merchants tend to take tourists more seriously and respectfully when they bargain using a calculator.
In terms of tours, I've gotten a much better deal hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash.

It's also a good idea to carry small bills. In the nine Latin American countries that I've visited so far, I notice that merchants and cab drivers do not carry a lot of change. If you hand over a big bill, that can compromise your bargaining power. Therefore, I often go to a bank to change my money into small bills and loose change. In terms of tours, I've gotten a much better deal hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash. Of course, it is necessary to be able to speak some Spanish.

Before any of my Latin American trips, I try to network on line. For example, in the Spring of 2009, I opened a separate Spanish-speaking Facebook account making more than 200 friends throughout Latin America, and put the word out that I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team (I really am!), and that I wanted to visit the all-black town that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado (the Magic Johnson of Ecuador). Within a couple of days, I got a response from an Afro-Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. Her mother showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the notorious gringo tax.