Thursday, April 26, 2012

Latin America & the Gringo Tax

It was 11:00 PM 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 that the cab fare to the bus station is $25 nuevo soles ($7.25 USD). 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. Being my first trip, “fresh fish" was 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 as we negotiated the fare that 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 with his hand stuck out demanding five dollars for retrieving my driver's cab. Confused, I reached into my pocket and gave him only a dollar, and he left me alone. In my subsequent trips, I realized I got played a bit.

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. In response, I started using some Peruvian street talk that I learned on the Internet insisting he is getting paid what we agreed, plus a tip.

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 (foreigner). In Perú, however; if you are from any country other than Perú, you are viewed as a gringo even if you are of Latin American heritage.

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. 

In Quito, Ecuador, My Afro-Ecuadorian friend, Gloria (RIP) took me to La Mitad del Mundo (the equator) where I took pictures of me with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere. Afterward, we toured the museum on location, which also had a government-sponsored gringo tax. Gloria used her ID enabling me to pay the local fee.

As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible where you can get items at much cheaper prices. 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 will put you in a better bargaining position. 

In Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I went to the market to shop for some chicken as a favor to my host family I was staying with. The market clerk immediately recognized my foreign accent (in Spanish) and quoted a price higher than what my host family advised. I called her on it and insisted on paying the appropriate price or I will go somewhere else. I paid the appropriate price.

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 much better deals hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash. Of course, it is necessary to be able to speak Spanish.

Before any Latin American trip, I network online. For example, in the Spring of 2009, I opened a separate Spanish-speaking Facebook account making more than 300 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 Shaquille O'Neal 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 those notorious gringo taxes.

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