A Funny (and True) Tipping Story

Clash of the cultures.

Yesterday, I took a Japanese couple for a photo flight over Lake Powell. The wife was the photographer; she was shooting photos for a book she’s writing. Both spoke English reasonably well, although with a somewhat limited vocabulary. We communicated well as long as we all spoke slowly and clearly using simple words.

Lake Powell in the Afternoon

Here’s a frame capture from the video my GoPro Hero shot during our flight. The light gets much better after 4:30 PM this time of year; we started our flight at 2:30 PM. In the photo: Gunsite Butte, Padre Bay, Navajo Mountain.

We flew for an hour in mid-afternoon. The flight was nice, the lake was beautiful, the light was a bit harsh for serious photography. When we got back to the terminal, we planned another flight for the next day during the “golden hour” when the light would be softer and redder.

The husband handed me a credit card to pay for the flight. I ran it through the swiper on my laptop, processing the sale immediately with the building’s WiFi connection. I entered his e-mail address to e-mail him his receipt and gave him back his card.

The wife turned to the husband and said in an undertone, “Do you have bucks?”

At first, he didn’t appear to hear her. It had been a hot flight and I think we were all a bit dehydrated. He was an older man and I don’t think he was accustomed to the heat.

She turned to me and said, “Yes, tomorrow afternoon the light will be better.” Then again to her husband in a lower tone: “Do you have bucks? You know, for coffee.”

He heard her that time and started rummaging around in his wallet and then pocket. She turned to me and continued a conversation. I’d already packed up my things and was ready to go. She was trying to stop me without telling me why.

Eventually, he produced $30 and handed it to me. “For coffee,” he said.

She seemed embarrassed. “For coffee or lunch.”

“Or dinner,” I said, taking the money. “Thank you so much.” I bowed my head and shoulders in a short bob as I so often do when dealing with Japanese people. My bow was likely more natural to me than tipping was to them.

And that’s the thing. My understanding is that the Japanese don’t tip. In fact, I’ve been told that most of the world does not tip. But these folks knew the American custom and wanted to make sure they did things right. I thought the whole thing was pretty cute. Especially, “Do you have bucks?”

How to Tip a Tour/Charter Pilot
If you’re wondering how to tip a tour or charter pilot, I don’t think the 15% rule applies. I think the tip should be based on the amount of time you’re together and the quality of the flight. For a 30-minute tour, I think the pilot would be tickled pink to get $5 to $10. For a lengthier flight — especially a custom flight where the pilot met your requests — $20 to $50 would be good. The $30 tip I received from the Japanese couple was quite generous; I think $10-$20 would have been just as appreciated.

As for me, I get tips about 1/2 of the time that I fly. My flying services are not cheap and I suppose many folks feel that my hourly rate is enough. When people do tip, the amount varies widely. I once did a $750 flight from Page to Monument Valley and back for two Italian men. They tipped me $3. I was not insulted; I know they probably did not understand how to tip. Another time, I took three folks from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon — a flight that cost them $1,800 — and was tipped $300. One photographer I’ve flown many times would end each flight with a crisp $100 bill in my hand. Sweet. The best tip I ever got was $600 from a couple I took on one of my multi-day excursions. That really made my day.

I appreciate all the tips I get and don’t usually feel slighted when I don’t get tipped at all. The only exception is when I spend a great deal of time with clients and provide services beyond what should be expected. Then I usually expect something — but again, I don’t always get it.

That’s part of being a tour/charter pilot.

Hopi Tea

A soothing beverage from the Rez.

My first visit to the Hopi reservation was about 6 years ago. I was traveling in my Jeep with two friends. Our main destination was the annual Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, AZ, but my friend Shorty wanted to drive through the Hopi Reservation and visit Old Orabi, which is the oldest continually occupied village in North America. Shorty wanted to mail a letter to a friend with the Old Orabi (or possibly Hotevilla) postmark.

The Book of the HopiThe Hopi tribe, unlike many other Native American tribes in the Southwest, is working hard to hold onto its culture and heritage and keep it from being commercialized by outsiders. This is probably why so few people know anything about the Hopi people. Their ceremonies are usually closed to the public — as are entire villages sometimes — and photography is not allowed. The reservation is completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona and only a few paved roads go through it. There aren’t many shops or restaurants and there are no casinos. The place isn’t very tourist-friendly because they don’t want tourists around. (This may be changing as the Hopi tribe realizes the importance of tourist dollars for the tribe’s economy. I just hope they don’t lose their identity in the process.) You can read more about the Hopi people on the Tribe’s Web site or in The Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters.

With all this in mind, we drove into the reservation and found Old Orabi. I don’t remember much about it. The Hopi tribe are pueblo indians and they built their homes on the edge of the three Hopi mesas: First, Second, and Third Mesa. I remember walking around one of the villages, past ancient stone homes, some of which were still occupied.

Eventually, we got to the post office, which I think was in Hotevilla. I remember this a bit better. It was a standard tiny-town post office with a bulletin board in the outer vestibule, where all the mailboxes were. Shorty spotted an “ad” for blue corn meal. We made a call from a pay phone and were soon on our way to a Hopi home.

It was a more modern home than the stone structures in the old villages. We were invited inside and I remember being surprised at how remarkably “normal” it was. (I don’t know what I was expecting.) We sat on a sofa while kittens played around us. The Hopi woman we’d met there had a big galvanized metal trash can that was absolutely filled with finely ground corn meal. She measured out quantities of the stuff with a round, flat pan not unlike a cake pan and stuffed it into a Blue Bird Flour bag. She told us how the cornmeal had been ground as part of a wedding ceremony. This was the leftover cornmeal from that celebration. When the bag was full, Shorty handed over some money and took the bag. (I wound up buying about half of the cornmeal from Shorty and still have some in stock.)

The conversation turned to dance shawls. A friend of the woman’s made them and had some for sale. Were we interested in seeing them? Shorty was. So we hopped into the Jeep and followed the woman to her friend’s house. The shawls were pretty — square or rectangular with really long fringe — but the colors were too bright and gaudy for my taste. Shorty bought one or two, possibly to be polite. And then we got on our way.

This whole experience really made the visit to the Hopi reservation special to me.

From there, we stopped at the Hopi Cultural Center for a bite to eat. Unlike my companions, I had a traditional Hopi dish that included lamb. This was before the vendors started setting up stalls outside, so after lunch we continued on our way.

As we were leaving Second Mesa, we passed a shop on the left called Tsakurshovi. (Don’t ask me to say that.) We stopped in. It was a small shop that caters primarily to the Hopi people, offering the materials they need to conduct their ceremonies. There were dozens of traditional-style Hopi kachinas — figures carved to represent Hopi religious and ceremonial people — furs, herbs, and more. The shop had two small rooms and a friendly young Hopi man behind the counter.

Turns out, this shop is owned by the Days — Janice and Joe. Janice is Hopi, Joe is not Native American. And it was mentioned in a recent story on NPR, which interviewed Joe’s son, Jonathan. Jonathan grew up spending his summers on the Reservation and the rest of the year in Boston with his mother. He now lives in Flagstaff where he runs a shop that I suspect is very similar to his father’s.

Traditional Hopi Kachinas: A New Generation of CarversI don’t remember why I bought the hopi tea. Perhaps Shorty bought some. Perhaps I asked the guy behind the counter what the bundles of sticks in a Ziplok bag were all about. In any case, I bought a bag of three bundles of sticks for $4.

I also bought a copy of Jonathan Day’s book, Traditional Hopi Kachinas: A New Generation of Carvers, which I had autographed on the spot by the guy behind the counter, Wallace Hyeoma, who happened to be one of the featured artists (page 47). (A year later, I would return to the shop and buy several traditional style Kachinas, one of which was carved by Wallace’s uncle.)

We continued on our way, leaving the Hopi Reservation. Our next stop was at the Hubbell Trading Post, where I wound up buying a Navajo rug. But that’s another story.

Much later, when I returned home, I found the bundles of sticks in my luggage. I boiled some water, broke off a few sticks and leaves, and dropped them in. In minutes, I had a hot cup of some of the most soothing tea I’d ever tasted. Clean, fresh, and simply delicious. No need for sugar or milk or lemon. This tea, like green or jasmine tea, is perfect straight. Now I commonly drink it on cold, lazy afternoons, when I feel a cold coming on, or when I’m feeling blue. To me, it’s like a comfort food beverage.

Those three bundles of sticks lasted a long time. A few years ago, I was back on the Hopi reservation and bought more. But today, waking up with a head cold, I decided to forego my usual morning coffee in favor of the clean flavor of Hopi tea. As I brewed up a cup, I realized two things: (1) the long story of how I’d discovered Hopi tea might be interesting to at least a few blog readers and (2) I was running low again.

I did some research for this blog entry. I discovered that Hopi tea is from a plant commonly known as greenthread and scientifically known as Thelesperma filifolium. You can see some photos of it as a plant and stick bundles, learn how to brew it, and read about its medicinal values on the New Mexico State University’s Medicinal plant Web site. I learned that it grows in abundance in the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni reservations of the Four Corners area. I also found an online source for purchasing Hopi tea online, High Desert Farmers. High Desert is a small scale grower which sells Hopi tea as traditional bundles (they call it “bulk”), loose, and as tea bags. Since the bundles weren’t available, I bought bags and loose. It cost me $14.50 (including shipping), but saved me a 200+ mile trip to the Hopi reservation.

If you like plain, soothing hot teas like green tea, you’ll probably like Hopi tea. If you ever see some in your travels, I recommend it. And I hope you story of first acquisition is as memorable to you as mine is to me.