Monday, May 20, 2013

It Makes The World Go Round

Almost any article written about Bolivia will mention that it is the poorest country in Latin America (and so here I am perpetuating that trend). Of course, like everywhere, wealth is distributed unevenly. Bolivia's richest region is that of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands in the east of the country, whose prosperity mainly derives from oil and gas that is to be found in the plains. Yet despite being the richest and largest city in the country Santa Cruz looks and feels more like a small town than a metropolis: in the city centre few buildings are more than a couple of stories high and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of large-scale business going on. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place to spend a few days, trawling the used clothes market, where traders sell second-hand clothes that have been donated to charity in the West, for bargains (I picked up a nice fleece jumper for only $2 to replace the one that I had inadvertently left on a bus in Brazil); people-watching in the main square in the evenings where families and lovers congregate and old men play chess; heading out to visit the gorgeous Jesuit mission churches of the Chiquitos; and waiting for the inevitable Bolivian strikes to end so that the road-blocks can be lifted. Many of these aspects form facets of what I want to write about in this post: money.

The sumptuous Jesuit mission church in Conception. OK, it's been seriously restored, but faithfully according to old plans and using traditional methods.

I was sitting in the hostel in Santa Cruz one evening writing in my diary (I keep a daily diary which I am perennially behind on) when a young Israeli backpacker came in asking for a room. I was staying at this hostel because it was the cheapest in town ($6 for a single room or $4.5 if sharing) - nothing fancy, but decent rooms and toilets, which is all you really need. Having been told the price, which was clearly marked on several notices by the reception desk, the backpacker started trying to haggle the price down. After about a quarter of an hour, despite pointing out to him that not only was the price clearly advertised but that it was the cheapest place in town, I left, too ashamed to continue witnessing the spectacle. I think he ended up staying, though whether he got his discount I'm not sure. Whatever the case it irked me no end.

Don't get me wrong, I am proud to say that I am a budget traveller. I work hard, and put myself through reasonable hardship, to save money. I will rather walk than take public transport if I can (and almost never take taxis), I self-cater, I hunt around for discounts, I rarely splurge on luxuries for myself, and I've even slept rough on several occasions. Nevertheless I believe that as tourists, one of our most important jobs is to spend money locally, and spend it wisely. We can choose who gets our money. It is far better to spend a little money buying food from a lady at a market than buying from an international chain or even splurging at a local quality restaurant, since the owners (who will get most of the profits) are more likely to be from the rich elite (or foreigners). In poorer countries it is far easier to give your money to the end recipient and therefore, as conscientious travellers, we should ensure that it goes to the people who need it the most. This way, even when travelling cheaply, we can still make more of a difference to local people who need it most than a package tourist who spends a small fortune on an all-inclusive holiday through a Western corporation. The stallholder at the market, the family running a small hostel, the lady selling snacks on the street, the local bus driver, the farmer selling his produce. I believe that this is a far better use of money than simply giving aid (although targetted aid for certain groups and situations is still necessary) as it encourages work, trade and enterprise, rather than simply being a free handout. Plus you get something in return.

The sort of people you ought to be buying from when travelling abroad.

And while there is a risk of being overcharged by virtue of being a foreigner (and therefore "rich"), when paying for everyday services and goods in my experience this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I make it a habit to eavesdrop on the prices that locals are quoted and rarely have I heard prices different to those given to me. People, by and large, are honest, and a pleasant hello and a smile are the best ways of making that come to the surface. Of course it's a whole different ball game when shopping for souvenirs and other services that are only, or mainly, consumed by tourists where, it seems, anything goes and emptor really should caveat. Though whatever the case I find it a useful habit to always ask for prices before consumption so as not to leave oneself open to nasty surprises.

But to get back to our stingy backpacker from earlier, sometimes we need to be clever in the battles we choose to fight. Arguing over a few pennies with someone who is just trying to make a living wage is petty and mean, especially if, like our friend who just arrived on a flight from Brazil which must have cost several hundred dollars, you are willing to pay over the odds on unnecessary luxuries. Such hypocrisy towards poorer locals makes me incandescent.

There is no Bolivian experience more typical than having to endure the consequences of a strike. These almost always take the form of bloqueos where workers disgruntled with the latest government initiative, whatever it may be, will form roadblocks paralysing the country. Having missed out on one when I was first in Bolivia years ago I was feeling cheated, but this time I didn't miss out. Whilst in Santa Cruz there was a nationwide miners' strike, protesting against the new government plans to cut their pensions. Whilst with previous governments the miners may have been accorded plenty of sympathy from ordinary people, the current administration of president Morales is firmly left of the political centre, and there is nothing that he would do to disenchant such a key constituency. So what were they striking for? a 70% increase to pensions and 5 years less service before drawing their pensions*. Such demands have not gone down well with many other workers who have organised counter-demonstrations, declaring the miners' union greedy and avaricious. Bolivian politics takes place on the streets and affects everybody, including tourists.

The blockade on the main highway heading east out of Santa Cruz, strategically located on the only bridge across the Guapay river for hundreds of kilometres in either direction.

And so it was with me when I wanted to visit the nearby Jesuit missions. The first day I planned to go I arrived at the bus terminal bright and early, eager to make the most of the day. However the terminal was eerily quiet with no buses leaving because of the blockades. So I returned to my hostel, checked in again and spent the day lounging and wandering the streets of Santa Cruz. The next day there were still no buses but some shared taxis (called trufis here in Bolivia) were leaving and so I decided to try my luck.It didn't take us long to hit the first roadblock, at the strategic Pailon birdge, the only one across the Guapay river (although it's only a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon it would still be the 3rd largest river in Europe outside of Russia and is pretty wide) within a day's journey. The driver gave us some money back, though hardly enough to compensate for the short distance travelled, and I crossed the bridge on foot (others paid one of the fleet of motorcycle riders who had accumulated to take advantage of the business opportunity created by the blockade). The trufi drivers on the other side were similarly rapacious, knowing they had their prospective rides over a barrel. And so it was again at the next blockade that had to be leap-frogged until I reached Concepcion and its magnificent church. Luckily on the way back the blockades had been lifted as even the miners couldn't be bothered to strike on the weekend.

Newspaper articles displayed at a counter-protest. The comment says "no to those capricious, egoists at the COB (the miners' union) who always get what they want".

*According to another source it was 100% of their final salary. Either way an economically untenable amount that would drive the country's pension system to bankruptcy in no time.

No comments: