The Gringo Tax

Not much going on here besides a massive list of boat projects that I keep adding to.  It’s time for a pretty serious refit, and I finally know what I want done – though figuring out how to do it isn’t all that easy. The good news is I have some pretty salty folks around me that I can ping with the occasional question, I’m aware of the right forums, and I have a dude coming down to help me start checking things off that list.  I’ll need all the help I can get, me thinks.

So rather than bore you with the last few days of relative non-adventure (and how I have to learn to clean my own dishes again) I’ll take the time to write a bit about subjects.  There’s so much that happens outside of the day-to-day, that it’s hard to capture it all.  But here goes.

The Gringo Tax

In Mexico you can often get away with being white, without the Gringo Tax.  I managed pretty well through several adventures.  But the further South you go, the more conspicuous you are – with your Gringo clothes, white skin, and broken Spanish.  And in Panama – the skin tone is even darker than it is elsewhere in Central America – making you stand out all the more.

So I try to go incognito when I need to get business done.  Dirty clothes, some stained Crocs, and a beard several days old helps.  Then I speak as much Spanish as I can, or bring someone fluent.  Every little bit helps.  The absolute worst thing you can do is attract attention to yourself being a Gringo.  Don’t get crazy with the hair.  Don’t wear an outlandish watch.  Don’t wear super-bright clothing.  Avoid fancy backpacks.

Even then, though, you’ll get the Gringo Tax.  It takes many forms:  the run-around, the outright lie, the double-price trick, the hold-your-stuff-hostage trick, and last (but not least) – the hike-up-the-price-after-the-service-is-complete trick.  All are various forms of thievery, but you can hardly blame someone  for trying to make a buck off of you, when their week’s pay might be $100.

A buddy of mine, who also bought a Lagoon catamaran in Panama is black.  When we broached the subject of the gringo tax, he told me how his girlfriend (Asian) was regularly charged 2x for fruit when she went shopping.  He knew this, because he would go behind her – speak Spanish, and be charged 1/2 price.

A fun version of this happened yesterday, when I went to get my rust-bucket SUV fixed.  So here’s an example. This shit’s real.

The Gringo Tax:  An Example

I needed to get my SUV fixed.  Without my SUV, my refit is going to be very, very difficult.  And my SUV was broken:  it had a serious wobble at a certain speed.  I thought it was probably a tire – but there were no visible bubbles on the tire, and after getting a (highly-recommended) mechanic to look at it in Colon – he diagnosed a worn bearing.  I told him clearly (with the help of a translator) that I would like him to:

  • Check the bearings to make sure that was the source of the wobble
  • If so – call me with a quote to replace both bearings (left & right side)
  • If that was an acceptable price,  I’d have him do the work
  • At that point I would need to know if he could finish the work that day (or if I’d need to ride a bus back to Puerto Lindo)

He agreed.

But here’s what actually happened.

I did some other shopping – including trying to find a couple of oil-seals to replace some old ones in my saildrives (translation:  more boat-parts shopping).  After not hearing from the mechanic’s shop – I called.  He said that he had already replaced the bearings on one side – the car would be ready at 2PM.  Well, without a price agreed upon – this was a recipe for disaster.  I asked him for a quote.  He said call back in 30 minutes, and assured me the bearing were the source of the wobble.

In 30 minutes, he wasn’t answering his phone.  I wasn’t happy about that, but I had plenty to do so I called a taxi and kept searching for these elusive boat parts. I found a passable solution around 3PM.  At which point I received another call from the mechanic, telling me my SUV was ready.  Still no price.

So I headed back to the shop.  The guy met me and told me it was going to be $60.  Deep breath, he’s not trying to screw me.  But there was a kicker:  the bearings weren’t, it turns out, the source of the wobble.  So I’d just paid him to replace the bearings and they didn’t need replacing.  After replacing the bearings, the mechanic had come to the conclusion that it was one of my front tires.  I didn’t have the energy to argue about $60.  Since $60 wasn’t going to kill me – I just got in the SUV and left.  I chalked the whole thing up to The Gringo Tax.  It wasn’t over, though.

Now I needed a tire.

They sell second-hand tires here, and based upon the general state of my SUV – I decided that was my best option.  I went to the “best” place for second-hand tires in Colon.  They, of course, didn’t have my size.  But they had something close – for $35.  The tire they brought me was badly warped and completely unusable.  No dice.  They had one more option – it seemed better so I agreed to $30, mounted.

So they took the offending tire off the SUV, took it off the rim, and put the new tire on the rim.  It held air, which was a good sign.  But, of course, as soon as they lowered the weight of my SUV onto the second-hand tire – it immediately started hissing like a cobra.  We ran some water over it to find the hole – located it, and patched it.  Then remounted the tire and dropped the SUV on the tire again.  It hissed again.

This time we managed to locate no less than 3 additional holes.  And they still wanted $ for this tire.  No dice.  So I asked about a new tire.

Good news:  they had something close enough.  Bad news:  it was $135 for an off-brand tire.  I was stuck – I needed a new tire and they were going to charge me to remount my old one anyways.  And if I didn’t get a new tire put on, I wouldn’t know if that was actually the cause of my (initial) wobble.  On the other hand, if I mounted a new tire, and the SUV continued to wobble – I could take it back and argue with the guy who did the bearings.

Completely fed up with arguing, waiting, and the language barrier – I conceded to the new tire.  That’s one less thing I have to worry about.  They put it on, then added tax to the $135. Then charged me an additional $3 to mount the tire.  Jesus, this Gringo Tax can get pricey.

Moving On

I’d like to say there are some lessons to be learned here – but I’m not sure if there are.  It’s more about learning to deal with (and minimize) the inevitable speedbumps and roadblocks when you’re traveling in South/Central America.  If you’re traveling as a backpacker – I don’t think this stuff is as prevalent.  But if you’re traveling via motorcycle, car, or boat (things that need parts/fuel) – it’s just part of the experience.  You’re going to get bent-over.

The silver lining, in my case, is that I now have a working automobile again – which is super-important to this upcoming refit.  Now I just have to get through Black-Jesus Day in Portobello.  That’s a real thing.

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