Negotiating for a Shoeshine

He was overcharging me. The shoeshine boy had answered, “Tres” – three Bolivianos for my shoeshine and I had bargained down to two Bolivianos. As his blackened hands shined away, his eyes focused downward, his young friend smiled at me and shook his head to indicate, “No” and held up only one finger. Evidently the going rate was only one Boliviano, so despite my bargaining, I was still being overcharged. (At the 2011 rate, one Boliviano was equivalent to 14 cents.)

Shoeshine boys are usually clothed in jeans, sweatshirt, and shoes with no socks. Since they work in low temperatures, they sometimes wear a wool hat mask, revealing only their eyes. Occasionally, they can be a little intimidating.

While my “little crook” shined away, his young friend (who had indicated to pay only 1 Boliviano), laughed and said something I couldn’t understand. I was a little skeptical that I was receiving the best polish — or any polish — as he rubbed the clear liquid on my boots.

After paying two Bolivianos, I decided to give a gift to the young friend who had tried to save me a little money. I motioned for the young boy to come over.

His eyes widened as I pulled a used fox puppet from my bag.

steiff fox

This little fox’s physique had endured years of affection dating back to 1970. Just before my trip, I swiped the forgotten fox from an old trunk. The ginger red fur still had shine. The nose was worn from years of toddler chewing, but little black paws and two eyes still in place preserved his character.

The boy was speechless as I very slowly demonstrated how the puppet worked. To persuade him to talk, I said, “En Inglés, se llama Fox. Cómo se llama in Español?”

He hesitated, “No sé.” He didn’t know what it was called in Spanish, but the confident character he displayed previously emerged, “En Quechua es Viscacha.”

Ah, he must speak mostly Quechua.

I explained, the Viscacha is different, “Como un conejo,” like a rabbit. The Viscachas are colored mostly gray to blend in with the rocks, have short rabbit-like legs, long ears, and the fluffy tail of a raccoon.

As he ran off to join his frien, I was sure he was thrilled to receive the puppet, but I don’t think he even knew what a fox was. Maybe he had never attended school or been to a zoo or read a fox picture book. There was some sorrow in the experience, with the realization that a young boy, on the streets of La Paz, never had the opportunity to see a fox. On the other hand, there was great joy in the surprise on the boy’s face.


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