Saturday, May 13, 2006

money and manners

Hi folks,

As I may have mentioned before, there is a big difference in how much
things cost here. When I first showed up, I stayed in a hotel which
charged me 90 cordobas a night for a room with a private bathroom. At
about 17 cordobas equalling one dollar, that works out to about $5.30
per night. If you were really determined, you could probably pay as
much as that for a really good restaurant entrée for one person. A
nice, cheap, filling breakfast will run you about 20 cordobas. The
internet cafés where I get email, read news, and send my blog updates
charge 10 cordobas, or about 59 cents, per hour.

This would make it pretty easy for me to live like a rich person if I
wanted to. And in fact, the way I do live, and the things I have,
pretty much put me into the category of very rich regardless of what I
want. For example, I have a cell phone, and a computer, and a watch,
and of course I have just bought a motorcycle. And people here are
not shy, ever, to anyone, about asking what things cost, or how much
they paid for something. At first this horribly embarassed me, as I
tried to figure out whether to lie, or to wildly justify owning things
(I only have this because it was a gift!), or what, in fact, to do. I
have gotten used to it lately, have stopped trying to lie, and have
acquired a much better memory for prices, out of necessity.

This economic difference has made for some weird and uncomfortable
social dynamics. For example, when I go to a restaurant with a
middle-class family that I am friends with, do I let them pay for me,
as they often insist? (Answer: yes, when they propose we go to the
restaurant. But then I invite them and pay the next time.) When I go
to visit a poor family in the campo, and they bring me a huge plate of
food without asking, do I 1) Try to pay them, running the risk of
insulting them by implying they wouldn't have offered me food if there
wasn't money involved; 2) Bring them some sort of other present, like
meat or pastries; or 3) Just accept the food and not bring it up if
they don't. (Answer: I need to rethink this approach, but usually 1,
and everybody involved gets really embarassed and they reject the
money. Unless I'm also staying the night, in which case a combination
of 1 and 2, but always offering money with lots of awkward protests
until we work out a regular arrangement.)

My first trip to Nicaragua, this was all arranged ahead of time, so I
didn't have to deal with it. But the second trip, when I was on my
own, I started out by insisting on always paying for everything, and
blundered quite a bit. The mistake I made was that although realizing
that I have superior buying power, I didn't realize that to accept a
present, without reciprocating, is to accept a social position of
inferiority. There was quite a lot of anthropological work done on
this, and it seems to be very wide-spread, maybe even universal, in
human cultures.

To understand in an American context: employees receive a Christmas
bonus without feeling a need to reciprocate. Children are not
(usually, until they're adults and earning money) expected to give
their parents gifts which are approximately equal in monetary value to
those they have received. This is because they are in acknowledged
positions of social inferiority. But friends and siblings must
exchange gifts of roughly equal value, or risk generating resentment…
ON BOTH SIDES. If a person gives you gifts of much smaller value than
those you give them, maybe you get annoyed if you are uncharitable, or
maybe you don't care, and feel benevolent and virtuous. But if a
person gives you gifts of much larger value than those you give them,
you are much more likely to feel anxious that they will be annoyed.
You will probably feel anxious to give a bigger gift next time, and
maybe even resentful that they have put you in this position. In some
social contexts without formal political systems, one way a person can
become a leader is by acquiring followers by giving them gifts they
can never hope to reciprocate, thus putting them under permanent

So what I have come to realize is that I shouldn't go around paying
for everything if I want to avoid putting myself in the position of
patron and benefactor, socially above the people that I actually want
to be learning from. On the other hand, both some things I can't or
don't want to change about my own position here (stuff I own), and the
positions taken by other foreigners—individuals and institutions—makes
it impossible to get out of that position altogether. Usually, when
foreigners visit the campo, for example, they are there as
representatives of some NGO or other organization which wants to give
things to people and help alieve their poverty. (Have I mentioned
that Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere? Only Haiti is worse off.) So when I say I want to
understand the economic circumstances of the community, I'm following
a well-worn path. Once I understand these circumstances, the next
step along this road is for me to reveal how my group can help the
community. So people tend to approach me with suggestions for gifts I
could give the community, or programs they need. (For example: The
Catholic church in the rural community of El Castillo wants to buy a
piano. It will cost about a thousand dollars. Any brother/sister
church groups out there who want to donate?)

This is made more complicated by the fact that I am trying NOT to do
abstract research without giving back. I have a commitment to
actually attempt to be a net benefit to the cooperatives, either
through helping them connect to outside resources like grants and
buyers, or through doing research they really need. But so far, more
of the former. When I get introduced to third parties, this tends to
get emphasized, and the research becomes an auxiliary to it. So I
sound more like an NGO than ever.

Striking a balance here is really difficult for me so far. But I've
got a while to figure it out!


No comments: