Theory into Practice: Paying into a Gift Economy

A few hours later we found ourselves eating fluorescent soup in a luminescent library in la Candelaria, Bogota. We weaved our way between students, stacks of boxes and books and glow-in-the-dark meat hanging from the ceiling before stopping for a break to drink some fluorescent fruit juice.

Our guides were Jorge and Diana, who have become our first friends in Bogota. They came to us randomly one day, living up to the legendary loveliness of Colombians:

We were slacklining in Parque Simon Bolivar in Bogota with travel-slacker Jason when Jorge approached us with his mother. He quietly watched for a while, asking before he filmed us. We had a short, friendly conversation and then he left. We carried on slacklining for a little longer. A few minutes later he came running back over.

Slacklining makes you happy.

“I come with an invitation. Tonight, there is an event taking place and I would like you to come with me.”

And so we pottered off to la Candelaria, where we were introduced to Diana. After the fluorescent library they escorted us to a tucked away gem of a bar where we passed the evening drinking beers and chatting at intervals between an insanely good experimental jazz trio. They refused to let us pay a peso.

Food spillage in the library.


Jorge on the right, Diana behind the camera.

In just one night, Jorge and Diana transformed Bogota from a giant, labyrinthine city of endless bus rides to a maze of narrow cobbled streets and superb music. And in just one week they would open it up further to us, showing us big green spaces and the cultural heart of their city.

One day I put out a call on Facebook for work and the next day the two of them are sending me links and email addresses for jobs. Every time we meet either of them they come with a gift: bracelets, typical sweets from their home town, a cup of coffee with a delicious chocolate and caramel waffle, heartfelt conversation. Jorge has donated to a charity championed by Jason when he ran a half marathon recently. Diana has put us in touch with her sister, Sandra, who has offered to pay us to help her practice her English.

Of course Sandra, much like her sister, is absolutely lovely. We get so much out of our time spent with her. The three of them have shown so much love to us and interest in our lives that the least we can do is offer our time to Sandra for free. And we are teaching Jorge to slackline, with Diana soon to join the lessons. It is a very small deposit into a gift economy that the three of them so kindly initiated for us. Still, it feels great.  It would not feel right charging Sandra for our time. The basis of our relationship has, from the beginning, been about completely the opposite to money. It has been about a mutual desire to help each other and to contribute to each other’s lives.

Jorge and Diana: thank you!

I leave you with the words of a chap much cleverer than me:

“Want to fix the economy? Next time you buy a coffee, purchase a cup for the person behind you. Or as you grind your way through the morning commute, pick up the tollbooth charge for the driver behind you, draped over his steering wheel and ranting at the long delay. You’ve heard that famous Gandhian quote about being the change, well these are good measures to start with, packing more punch than you might imagine. This approach to life starts with the following premise: What exactly did I (or you) do to deserve to be alive? If you can process that question and come out thinking it was a gift that you can’t ever pay back, then beginning a life of greater giving is the only logical and remotely reciprocal way to go.”
-Paul Van Slambrouck


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