ON THE ROAD you constantly hear fellow backpackers comparing the costs of living in various countries; prices of street food, hostels and the like. I too have a budget. I go over it occasionally, but can balance it out by having a day or two where I'm doing nothing: staying in to read, learn more Spanish or write this blurb. I'll just deny myself a night or two on the tiles if I've treated myself to a day of diving. What I refuse to do is travel for longer at the expense of the local people, whether that's a low-paid trek guide or a waitress in a cafe. Their employers may be getting them cheap, but this doesn't mean you should follow suit. So this means helping people out with a dollar or two where you can. A small amount of cash for good service you receive is not a high price to pay. Make someone's day: give them a bit extra. People here can feed their family for a day on what you or I would spend on beer in an evening. So it gets on my nerves when people refuse to tip, or try to haggle someone down to the bare minimum they can accept on an item or service and still turn a measly profit, before bragging to others about their negotiating skills. I'd ask those people to put themselves in the place of the people they are dealing with. How would you feel if someone with more available money than you could earn in ten years turned up and spent ten minutes trying to knock you down a dollar or two? I'll tell you how I would feel: I would depise them. I've seen the looks on people's faces when dealing with foreigners who are adamant they'll fight for the best possible deal. It's not a case of haggling, as they'll give you a gringo price initially, but offer them 3/4 of this and they'll give it to you...haggling is expected. In some countries, they respect you more for it. But starting negotiaiting at a quarter of the price is just downright rude, in my book. Saving yourself the price of a sandwich each day back home is a tasteless victory.
I've met people who are travelling on a much tighter budget than myself. Others with far more to spend. Personally, if service is not included on something then I'll give 10%, and more if the service has been really good. Speaking better Spanish has been useful in this respect; when using a tourist shuttle between cities or countries, I'll chat with the drivers...ask about their families, how many days of work they get a week, and whether or not they own the vehicle, or drive it for a firm. I've met some really nice drivers, and they've helped me with my Spanish. So if I've had a pleasant chat at the end of an journey, I don't consider it a bind to give a man a dollar for a beer as he's passing my bag down from the roof. I don't see enough people doing it. A smile and a gracias is worth a dollar of anyone's money when you've been looked after. Never forget that you are an ambassador for your country. I've talked to locals in many countries about various nationalities of backpacker; they have an opinion on each one, dependant on their experience of them. If you make time to speak to people, pay them what their service is worth, then you are smoothing the way for your fellow countrymen in the future.
I've had moments of mortal embarrassment when people I've met randomly on the road and eaten with have exclaimed "Oh...they've put 10% service on?" when the bill has arrived, and their share is a dollar over what they'd pulled out of their purses. Calculators come out, the proprietors frown as they wrongly think they are suspected of pulling a fast one. It's unpleasant. Other travellers write a budget diary, itemising to the last cent exactly what they have spent. This is no way to travel, for me. If I have a week less on a trip because I've given people their due in tips along the way, then so be it. When you're back home after travelling, spending $100 on a night out with friends, these people are still here trying to make ends meet.
The Israeli guy in Tacuba made my blood boil. He waxed lyrical about his favourite spot in Central America.
"Guatemala is so good...a great country. Better than El Salvador, for me."
"I liked it, too...lots of sights. But El Salvador has far less tourists, and the people are friendlier" I replied.
"Yes, but in Guatemala you can get a dorm for $3, a meal for $2 on the street...an amazing country..."
"Is that your definition of an amazing country, then? How cheap it is? Not how exciting it is to travel, or how stunning the scenery is?" I spat. "What about the people...did you like them?"
I didn't need to ask whether the people liked him...I saw the look on the old lady's face sour when she saw he'd left a ten cent coin after we'd eaten lunch on our return from the waterfall trek. The food was cheap enough, and tasty, so myself and James left a dollar each. They ran for a bus as I finished; as the lady cleared our table, she picked up the dollars...the dime was left where it was. She looked at me and I shrugged, pointing to where the tight bastard had been sat. She snorted, then laughed as I raised a forearm and slapped the elbow with the palm of my right hand. "Barato!" she agreed. Cheap.
I had a favourite breakfast place in El Tunco. Guacamole with coriander, beans and rice with fried plantain...washed down with a massive orange juice. Wasn't on the menu, I just told the waiter exactly what I wanted. And it was delicious. On leaving the first time, he said I owed $3. I told him I'd had orange juice, too...but he told me it was included. Figuring the meal was worth more, I gave him $4. He grinned. I ate there at least once a day, and was always greeted with a "Senor!" and a handshake. I was served pretty damn quick, too. Look after people, and they will look after you.
In Tacuba I'd met a couple at the opposite end of the spectrum to these spendthrifts. Two Canadians: Gary the bug-collector and his wife Maryanne. Bug Boy was out day and night collecting ugly specimens with his net, while his wife was content to take it easy around the hostel. They were quite reserved when I first arrived, but I later realised that they are content to see who they gravitate to, and vice versa. As it turns out, in the current crop it was myself and a Basque fellow named Nacho. We were all very similar in outlook, and got on very well. The Canadians were two of the most selfless people I've ever met. They don't have children of their own, but have brought up their niece and nephew after a series of tragic events in the family. Gary paints murals in the town in his spare time, Maryanne looks for volunteer work, and donates money and supplies to the local school. (I was due to leave from San Salvador to head for Nicaragua a few weeks later, and the couple generously donated one of the nights they have stored up at the Marriott so I could spend a night in luxury. If you're reading, Maryanne...thanks, it was heaven in a bed.) What goes around certainly comes around.
I was heading for Suchitoto that morning, but was hanging on for the party to arrive from the beach. Maryanne was in agreement that there would be some fallout as regards the women on the trip. I was told that a girl had turned up a couple of weeks back, after a fling with Manolo. Thinking there was something special between them, she'd arrived back to surprise him in a big romantic gesture...only to get a severely frosty shoulder in return. Oh dear...some people move on quickly, don't they? I couldn't wait any longer, despite the comedy potential, as I had a long journey ahead. So I sought the quiet local woman who'd been working each day at the hostel, and found her washing up. I thanked her for all her help, and gave her a $5 bill. She looked shocked, and accepted it in quiet embarrassment, saying "For me..?". I smiled. "Si." She recovered a little as I picked up my bag and went to leave the kitchen, thanked me and wished me a good trip. Sitting with Maryanne, I relayed what had just happened. "Good for you" she said "that lady earns $5 a day, for 12 hours. I gave her five myself this morning." I'm sure that $10 made a big difference to her family that week, and that makes me feel good...and less guilty for being a comparatively rich man in a poor environment.
So put your hand in your pocket. So what if you spend a few more dollars a day? Make somebody smile and oil the wheels for the next traveller passing through. Besides, you don't want a frowning, disgruntled Latino vigourously slapping his elbow as you leave the premises, do you?