A traveler walks a fine line every time a street peddler descends to sell us a souvenir in an impoverished country. How can one contribute to the local economy without being mobbed by desperate people -- and avoid getting pick-pocketed in the scrum?
I took a spring break trip to Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu between junior and senior year in college. At every tourist attraction, the street vendors descended upon us. My friends indulged them by checking out what they were offering to sell, smiling to them and saying no, and were rewarded with insistent 10 year olds who would follow us to our restaurant and hold up our trip. I have had enough attempted pick-pocketing incidents by juvenile street hustlers crowding around me that this made me pretty stressed out: I felt I had to watch my back the entire trip for fear that one of the kids would unzip my backpack or slip his hand down my pocket.
I reacted differently than my friends, several of whom it was their first time out of the country: I gave a very forceful "NO" to everyone that came up to speak to me, and they almost always left me alone. At one point, near the beginning of the trip, a friend commented that I came off as straight up rude to some of these people and that I should be nicer. However, when I said no, the horde stopped in its tracks and we were left alone.
Now when I travel with my family, acting like this is obvious. My parents and brother all know to give a firm "no," no matter how cute the little Peruvian kid trying to sell you his Alpaca is. However, I didn't realize just how important and how rare it was to act like my family has been conditioned to, until I started traveling with friends to these remote destinations.
By the end, at least a couple of them were on the same page as me, as after a week of fending off finger-puppet wielding eight year olds their patience was finally tested.
Here are my suggestions for coping with over-aggressive street peddlers, while preserving their dignity and your sanity, and still making some contribution to the local economy.
- Don't make eye contact unless you are 90% sure you are going to buy it. Recognize that in most developing countries, the vendors are hustling so hard because it's their only way to put food on the table. If they sense there is any possibility of you buying something, they will pounce and they won't let go.
- Avoid getting caught in a horde of street peddlers -- that's where pickpockets lurk and gives thieves access to your backpack via open zippers.
- If they keep on lowering their prices and don't go away, offer a ridiculously low price. Most of these hustlers assume you are walking away from them because the price isn't good, so they will continue to hound you and follow you, lowering their prices gradually and trying to barter. If you are just not interested, even if they gave it to you for free, making it clear that price isn't the issue usually makes them leave.
- Book guided tours/stay at resorts. I love hostels and really detest packaged tours. However, some recent experiences have made me come to a newfound appreciation of the more packaged experience. In countries that are going to throw you so many curveballs, a little help could be good for some people.
- Say no like you mean it.
I realize that I'm privileged to even have the opportunity to travel, and that many people in countries I visit are desperate to earn some money off of tourists who visit. So I always make a point, before the end of my trip, of buying some little souvenir from a street vendor, even if I don't really need it. It helps the local economy, doesn't take a lot of space in my backpack, helps local families and gives me a memento of my trip -- street vendors and all. However, if you are going to have a nice trip in many of these locations, it is necessary to develop a bit of a thick skin.