Wednesday, September 19, 2012
It's not always about the money
After eight months in Copan Ruinas, I’m finally getting 10-lempira moto-taxi rides. It’s a big moment.
Not because of the money, mind you. My experience is that foreigners typically pay two or even three times as much as the locals for a moto-taxi ride here, but we’re still talking a difference of no more than 50 cents or a buck per ride.
But I admit to being bugged by the two-tiered charges these past few months, and am happy for whatever threshold I just crossed that led me to being viewed differently by the moto-taxi guys. I don’t know what changed, but I’ll take it.
Moto-taxis are the only form of public transportation for getting around Copan Ruinas. They’re small three-wheeled, canvas-topped vehicles that can accommodate two comfortably, but it’s not uncommon to see one labouring up the hills with three adults and a few small children aboard, along with that day’s load of groceries or other supplies from the town centre.
I found the code of the moto-taxis to be something of a mystery when we first moved here. We knew enough from those who had gone before us to ask what the charge would be before we got into the vehicle, but I had no idea how to gauge the prices the drivers gave us. When you come from a place like Canada, a ride from the bus station to your house that costs a couple bucks sounds like a pretty good deal.
So we’d ask, and the drivers would quote us something, but then we’d just get into the taxi and pay whatever the rate was. Some drivers charged more, some less; if there was a pattern, I couldn’t see it.
But then I started talking to my workmates about what they paid when they took a moto-taxi to work, and realized that I was paying a lot more than the going rate. I’m no babe in the woods when it comes to being a tourist in a poor country, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by that. Still, it started to grate.
I accepted the two-tiered rates for quite a while as the price for being a comparatively well-off foreigner in an impoverished land. And fortunately, just as it was really starting to bug me these past few weeks, everything changed and suddenly the drivers were charging me the same rate as everybody else.
I’ve also come to understand that rates are better if you share a ride, as do so many locals. So if you’re willing to stand at the taxi stop for a while and wait for someone else who’s going in your direction, you’ll pay 50 cents instead of a dollar for the ride up the hill. I suspect the drivers didn’t even consider packing other people into the taxi with me in the first few months, so part of the reason I’m getting local rates now could be that the drivers understand that I’m OK with a crowd.
I’ve also learned to refuse rides on occasion, when I know I’m being overcharged. The drivers don’t appear to take it personally – they just don’t give you the ride. Some will even ask other drivers at the stop if they’re willing to take me for the local rate. Either somebody agrees to and off I go, or I wait for a bit to share a ride with another person going in my direction.
Again, I’m a little embarrassed to be making a fuss over a difference of 50 cents. But I hope at least some of you know how it feels to be indignant over a principle. All I know is that somewhere around the seven-month mark it really started to get to me that I had to pay more solely because I was a gringa.
The drivers charge by the rider, so whenever my partner and I are catching a taxi together I know the rates will be higher. (I think we also look more gringo-ish when together.) One rainy night when we were returning from San Pedro Sula and the bus got in late, we really wanted to catch a moto-taxi for the short hop home, but ended up walking rather than feel exploited by the record 60-lempira ($3) rate the driver quoted us. Serves us right for using the bus service frequented by gringos, I guess.
Drivers aren’t getting rich by any means, and only a few of them actually own their own taxis. I think any visitor coming from a country like Canada or the U.S. will find prices extremely reasonable in Copan, and I’m definitely not advocating that tourists start haggling with drivers to drop their rates.
But I’m grateful for whatever made drivers decide I was due for the local rate. It makes me feel like I live here.