Who pays for the beers? Traveling dilemmas in the face of huge income differences

Posted on October 5 2011 by frank

I’ve now spent some time on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Mostly it has been a great time – I’ve enjoyed the calm sea, the beautiful small villages, the friendly people – but what has constantly irritated me is the fact that almost everyone I talk with wants my money. I walk around the village and somebody says hi. We engage into a conversation and when I attempt to leave, if not before, the other asks if I could spare a dollar or two because he really needs to buy water, beer, medicine, whatever. I walk towards a hotel and some friendly person starts to walk with me to guide me there. Whilst there he tells that his service costed me 3 dollars. I chat with a bar-owner and amongst the merry conversation he starts to push me to move into the hotel he also owns.

These kinds of experiences, when repeated all over the day, start to have a toll on one’s morale. Is it simply impossible to meet with anyone who doesn’t see me as a walking wallet? When encountering the locals in such atmosphere one can never put one’s guards down and relax because one never knows from what direction and through what shape the request for money comes from. One starts to seek the company of fellow travelers who one can trust. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met any for six days. These remote villages are clearly still waiting for the tourists to come. Amongst all this, I started to wonder is my anxiety simply the result of my cultural upbringing?

For us westerners, ownership is everything. It is a basic right, the one principle around which our society is built. Ownership is our culture’s holy cow, worshipped and never put into question. But this individualistic take on ownership is not shared by all cultures. Many indigenous cultures put much more emphasis on sharing and joint ownership. My house is your house, if you are hungry and I have food, the food is also yours. In conditions where one’ security network are the people one knows, people have learned to share.

My friend's mother in her kitchen
My friend's mother in her kitchen

Nicaraguans, especially in these poor villages, were clearly closer to ideas about the shared nature of ownership. I learned this even before arriving when reading some books about the cultural customs of people in Nicaragua in which I encountered several times the warning that if one marries a local man or woman one marries his or her whole family. Suddenly the family sees it as your responsibility to pay for the aunt’s dentist bill or the nephew’s education. For them it is perfectly ordinary that in the extended family those who have help those who haven’t. So when they ask for money they are not exploiting you but only doing what is natural in their culture. It might be added that this attitude of sharing lives well in some marginal groups in our home countries as well. I’ve learned to know some hippie people for whom it is common that the one who has cash at the moment pays the beers of the friends also.

I don’t feel like a rich person. My salary is quite much around the average Finnish salary level. A few years back, while living in Thailand for half a year I met with a young Danish guy who had made a fortune through some IT business From time to time, when we went to a bar in a big group, he bought the table full of drinks and shared them with everybody. I appreciated this and thought that if ever I have my hands on equal fortune, I will behave the same.

Yet, compared to these people in the villages of Nicaragua I am the one who possesses a fortune. Many of them live practically outside of the financial economy, getting their needs met through doing things themselves and through exchanging and sharing. During an average month, most people in these villages live with less than a hundred dollars. This means that my average income is actually around thirty times bigger than theirs. That is a huge difference in income if something. It makes oneself wonder what really is morally right and wrong in these situations.

So this one day I walked towards another village around half an hour walk away. En route I met a girl who had the same destination. We engaged in a conversation and whilst in the village she showed me around and introduced me to people. I wanted to repay this generosity and offered to buy a beer to her and her cousin who had joined our tour around the village. They gladly agreed. After the first beer, why not have a second one? Without anyone saying it aloud it was clear that I am going to pay this round also. And the third round into which another cousin joined in. There would have been a fourth round unless I had run out of cash.

Drinking in Marshall Point
Drinking a few beers in Marshall Point

Was I exploited? I think not. The interest these people showed in me was genuine, we had real conversations about the differences of life in our respective countries and we laughed. In my travels I’ve met all sorts of scam artists whose evil intentions are easily spotted behind their supposedly friendly smile and “my friend, my friend” shouts. These were not that kind of people. They wanted to have a good time with me, drink some beer, and most probably lacked the cash to buy it themselves. So the only genuine other option was for me to drink alone. It might be added that even when I paid for the four of us, I paid less than I would pay for one beer in the bars I frequent back home.

The next night, I was drinking a few beers with a guy who was barefoot because he couldn’t afford new shoes. Having at least ten pairs of shoes back home, it would have felt rude and unjustifiable to ask for him to pay his own beer whilst we were drinking together. The next day the favor was returned when he showed me around the village, introduced me to people and offered a meal his mother had cooked. A day after that his cousin (in these small villages everyone seemed to be cousin with everyone) took me to a jungle trek to see his family’s farm.

So given the huge income difference it might just be right that I pay the bill. Of course, it becomes crucially important to be able to separate two sorts of people from each other: one the one hand those who befriend me only for the purpose of ripping as much cash out of me as possible – and who often are willing to use every trick and scam to get it. And on the other those who are really interested in me as a person and want to be friends with me. And for whom it then is just natural that I as the one with enormously more cash pay up the beers. But things are not even as easy as this: I’ve met with many people who lye somewhere in between these extremes. They are interested in the funny looking foreigner but they also are seduced by the possibility to get something from them. In real-life moral dilemmas in which one encounters real people things are only black and white if one refuses to see the colors.

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