Tours, Tipping and Our Lack of Wealth

I was discussing begging and money a while ago with another Canadian we met up with. He proposed that no matter how modest our actual means were, most people in other countries view us as walking banks. This is naturally shocking to think about, but is also sadly, very true. While most travelers are certainly NOT overly wealthy in their own countries, beggars, touts and vendors see us only that way. It doesn’t matter how many years of special coffee’s someone did without, or how many brown bag lunches they ate instead of joining their friends at restaurants. Even those such sacrifices that enable us to travel are unfathomable to these people. We are therefore, “Walking Banks”, and it is fair game to try and extract as much money from us as they can. As frustrating to us as this is, they really can’t be blamed for their perception’s I suppose…

After multi-day tours the client is expected to tip whatever staff were involved with your “wonderful experience!”. After paying typically very extensive amounts of money in the first place, this is starting to annoy the heck out of me. I can see that it probably started thirty or forty years ago as an occasional way of expressing even more gratitude to guides or drivers who are extra helpful or frequently go above and beyond the call of duty. Once workers observed or experienced this cycle they would likely do even more little special things for the client, to get even larger tips. At some point company owners realized the large amounts of extra money their workers were getting as tips and felt left out. Naturally they then conspired to slowly degrade the wages of their workers more than the pitiful amount they were already paid. The end result is that after a while the workers NEED those tips to barely sustain their families. This of course made tips expected rather than earned (typically, but probably not “always”). As a result, all of those little “extras” that clients previously enjoyed slowly degraded to a “base” service level yet again. Meanwhile the base fees never really decreased too account for the now necessary tips. The client certainly enjoys their trip, but ends up paying considerably more than the original advertised price.

Roughly expected tips for a driver or guide are about $10-$15/day/person. This basic little formula naturally quadruples everything for us! A cook, or ships crew typically garners 60-75% of the main persons tip. So, for our five day Galapagos tour the main guide was expecting a minimum of about $200 (or up to $300!). The crew were expecting another $150 for doing their jobs and helping us on and off of the boat, and being courteous to us. In India we only had a driver for a week with only a few daily guides. Still the driver “needs” a $350 tip from us… Geesh! Lastly now is the example from our African Safari. At $3,400 for our family (of only four! and not eight) for five days and four nights we are needed to give a huge tip to the driver (the four of us were the ONLY passengers in his Land Cruiser) and also give a significant sum to our cook. The cook was actually shared among two touring vehicles from the same company, so he gets double the bang for his buck. Worse even, was that this guy stopped a few times to buy little trinkets and a necklace for the kids and Claudette. When I expressed thanks but that he REALLY shouldn’t, he replied that he can get it as a Tanzanian for MUCH less money than us tourists could ever negotiate it down to. While this is a sad but very true fact, it doesn’t negate the fact that we wouldn’t really be buying this crap for ourselves in the first place. Really he was just “investing” in these things to make sure we fondly remembered him later at “Tip Time”. Emotional blackmail is what this really amounts to.

For our African safari we came up with slightly more unique solutions. We gave the cook a little tip (about a third of the standard minimum) and a gift. He had expressed great fondness for Canada and knew several of the major cities. My now slightly cynical nature strongly suspects that this is also just another ploy to garner a large tip at the end. He probably knows some basic geography for the US, Australia and Germany along with most other European countries that breed many many travelers. We hadn’t encountered any other “helpers” or guides yet that wore hats, and I had brought one along. It said “Northwest Territories, Canada” and had an outline of a polar bear on it. I made a big deal out of describing how rich we really weren’t, and that I had carried this single hat along on our whole trip so far waiting for the perfect recipient to give it to. I made a slightly bigger production out of it than that, but everything I said was true. I did neglet to tell him that I woke up with bad stomach cramps on our last morning and that I spent a half hour on the toilette that morning expelling my entire insides out, (and that I felt him to be entirely at fault for said gastronomical disruption).

Our driver Thomas on the other hand was a little different case. While he was equally helpful and very adept at his job, Thomas is a very genuine guy. As a freelance driver/guide, he gets paid a little more per trip and can work for any number of companies. Typically a freelance person in any industry would get less frequent work than cheaper salaried employees. Thomas’ top notch skills and extensive experience however ensure that he works very regularly and often. He spoke of some of his previous clients and how they wistfully talked about corporate partnerships with him and setting up web pages etcetera. I quickly picked up on this and threw together a quick basic web page for him while we were driving late on our forth day. I first asked him to stop and pose for a couple of pictures with the vast Serengeti plains in the background. Then I made up a bit of text for the page lightly describing his services and capabilities. Lastly I put down his cell phone number and e-mail address.

I finished just as we got back to the campsite. I spoke to him about how much we sincerely appreciated his skills, helpfulness and friendliness. I explained that we believed that he genuinely deserved a big tip, but that we were not very wealthy like many of his clients and couldn’t really afford to give what we thought he deserved. I then showed him the web page and suggested that if he liked it, I could have it up and running at his own domain within two days. He was excited at the web page and then even more thrilled at the possibility of actually having it up and running, (for real this time) and within only 48 hours. He made a couple wording changes from what I had, and then we drove 15 minutes to a local (expensive!) lodge with a generator fed satellite internet connection. There I made the domain registration request (usually a twelve hour wait) and e-mailed my brother the web page and pictures to FTP upload for me once the domain was ready, (THANKS JEFF!). It was ready and working when we arrived back at Arusha the next evening. During the drive he talked and drove describing to me what information he wanted and I redesigned the site to upload in a few weeks. The next day he came by our hotel to get a picture of Thomas in front of his 4×4 mini bus that some other clients had helped finance for him to run his own tours with.

Then ‘poof!’ He’s thrilled and very happy, while we feel we have shown our appreciation in an appropriately quantitative manner. I explained to him that the domain name registration was about $10/year and that his share of the hosting package would be about $20/year. On top of that I emphasized that he should feel free to e-mail me new pictures, updates or textual changes periodically as he sees fit. I think that he’s just ecstatic to have even a basic presence on the web since that’s what many of his customers (that don’t already know his extensive experience and professionalism) look for to establish the genuineness or seriousness of a freelance guide.

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