I went to the ATM last Thursday with my mom. You put your card in, you punch in your code, select ENGLISH or SPANISH, DOLLARS or COLONES (get colones, it’s easier), punch in the amount… wait while the machine whirrs and counts. Then take your cash, receipt and card. Easy.
Only this day, the machine counts and counts and counts and counts, on and on and on. It must have taken 10 minutes. I kept wondering should I stop it? Cancel? Would it debit my account anyway? Would I have to go in and try to convince someone I didn’t get the money? Argh. The two places you want to make sure each party understands the other is the doctor’s office and the bank. One little word out of place and you could be unnecessarily re-writing your will. I’m anxious about having to get someone to understand what transpired here…
So I’m waiting, waiting, waiting. And finally the little door opens and out slides my cash. With 20,000 colones extra ($40). I count it three times and there it is. And the two extra bills are "out of place"… you know how when you get your money from an ATM, it’s in a neat stack? This all was, too, except for these two extra 10,000 colon bills… Obviously a mix-up here and the reason for the extended counting process.
I practice rigorous honesty with money. I have so little of it, I need all the good karma I can get. And stealing is just flat out wrong. As wrong as you can get next to murder and mistreating animals.
This ATM is in front of a mini-bank, a one-teller deal and it’s not open yet. I peer in the glass door and there is a young guy in there getting ready to open in 10 minutes or so. I knock and shout, "La machina [MAH-kee-nah] no funcionar [foonck-sea-oh-NAR]!" I think I said, "The machine does not work." This tico must not understand my Spanglish ’cause he looks at me with a blank expression. So I start wildly pointing to the machine and waving the wad of cash in my hand… He figures I need him and gives me the universal sign for one minute. Which I know is going to be ten because that’s when he opens.
While I’m waiting, a lightbulb goes off and the coming scene unfolds before me. I KNOW when I give this guy my 20,000 extra magically-appearing colones, they will magically disappear into his pocket or into the pocket of the next person up the line. I don’t suspect this. I KNOW this. Because Costa Ricans, like most locals in most developing nations, don’t have any idiotic compunctions about honesty and stealing.
Stealing is accepted here. Not everyone steals. And ticos are honest. But after seventeen months, I know stealing is a way of life here. Perhaps they don’t think of it as stealing so therefore it’s not dishonest. I don’t know how anyone justifies it. Or if they think about it at all. But taking something that doesn’t belong to you is accepted in the same way that bribery and corruption are accepted. Particularly among the young. And especially if it used to belong to a gringo.
In that moment, I decide to take the money to a bigger bank and explain what happened. But I’ll have to wait until later when one is open. We go about our business. During which my mind is working. It occurs to me that, no matter who I give it to, this money will not make it back to the vault. I decide to donate it to a worthy cause. If it does indeed come out of my account or the bank discovers the mistake and contacts me, I am no worse off.
That same day, a very worthy cause presents itself. My friend Tica Teri is volunteering at a school in Jacó. I’ll be heading her way this week so she asks me to look for art supplies and for a software program that will teach English to little kids. The software is $32 at Office Depot. I will find art supplies today. That’s all gonna come to over $40 so my conscience is clear. I haven’t really donated any money, but I did the footwork and didn’t spend the money on me.
Meanwhile, I tell the Free Money story to several people. Before I get to the end and tell how I solved my ethical dilemma, ALL of them said keep the money, that no matter who you give it to at the bank, it will never make it back to the vault. Then, they said, make a donation.
But I have hard questions. Like, would this really have made it back to the vault in the U.S. like I so arrogantly assume? Are U.S. citizens so much more honest? Or just more afraid of being caught? Here, if a local is caught stealing, the judge basically says, "You shouldn’t have done that! Now go home and don’t do that again." A new twist on reinforcing ethical behavior.
Did I do the right thing? Will the bank suffer? Will the tico who fills the ATM machine lose $40?
And who am I to decide how this was going to unfold? Who made me Master of all Things Honest? Only I can make the most honest choice? In reality, the only right thing to do would have been to give the money back to the bank. No question about that. If the next person in line decides to do something dishonest with the money, that is really none of my business and not my responsibility. Is it?
But my busybody self-righteous mind got in the way of giving it back to the bank and justified keeping it – right or wrong, it was still justification for my behavior which needed justifying – and then committing a Truly Noble Unselfish act and then reporting on it. This is almost as bad as public piety. Ick.
Is it really "only money"? Does my choice matter in the big picture? Does it matter at all? Did I go with the flow? Do I need more coffee? This last is the only question I can answer with any certainty because it’s easy: the answer is always yes. If only the rest of life’s little dilemmas could so simply fall into place.