“Yes, yes, becak!”
It begins. The familiar cry of “becak”. Before me, a mile long street lined with becak – three-wheeled, peddle-powered kings of the road in Indonesia – and their drivers. Becak – about a hundred of them between me and where I need to be. I wonder how many more times I can hear this word before I lose my sanity.
The becak driver in Indonesia. The tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok. Hawkers on the beach and touts outside bus terminals. Sarongs, massages, ice creams and traditional crafts. The traveler is offered an extensive list an infinite amount of times.
Who’s offering it? Hawkers, touts, street sellers. The labels are irrelevant. They will identify us. They know who we are and what we want, and they’re waiting for us. At first one might get caught up in their vivacious, entrepreneurial energy, but it’s an energy that can soon turn to a spirit-sapping relentlessness which grinds us down and leaves us boarding our flights home with a misplaced anger and a bitter taste in our mouths.
How not to let this aspect of our travels spoil a trip comes in two forms – our mentality towards it and practical things we can do to deal with it.
It’s all in how you look at it
Let’s first adjust our mentality. As independent travelers we’ve made a fine decision to open ourselves up to experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever category we feel this issue falls under, it undeniably exists. Indeed, why shouldn’t it? People have to make a living somehow and that’s just what this is – work.
We may even find that amidst the maelstrom of offers and persuasion is something we actually want or need. These people hold the keys to some of the most convenient and fun transport, the cheapest food and some truly unique experiences. Let’s not dismiss them out of hand.
Accepting this issue is key. It’s too easy to repeatedly lament its presence say, on a beautiful beach. Imagining how perfect things would be if we weren’t being pitched a massage service every five minutes. Thinking like this could rapidly lead to some form of mild traveler’s breakdown. Instead, let’s see it as a chance to get a little more spiritual, a cathartic experience where we rise up to a higher plane, no longer plagued by material concerns – liberated!
Changing our mentality may not happen overnight, so in the short term what can we do to make our encounters with overzealous touts and hawkers less likely to induce dangerous levels of stress?
Let’s look at four key areas where a traveler is most likely to face this issue.
Just arrived and can’t face dealing with the army of taxi drivers waiting for you beyond those automatic doors? Then don’t. Sort out a ride within the confines of the terminal building. Any sizable transport hub will have counters for registered, regulated and safe taxis. No arguing about the price. By a ticket, follow the signs and you’re on the way.
If it’s your first time ‘in country’, consider having a hotel booked and someone waiting to pick you up on arrival. It may be more expensive but it will get things off to a smooth start.
Further into your trip, station facilities will diminish. You may also have gotten more blasé with your planning and have no place booked. If, however, you know where you want to go, be resolute. Drivers may think they know more about what you want than you do. Your desired hotel went bankrupt. It burned down last night. Well, have them take you to the address where it once was (surprise, surprise it’s still in business after all!).
If the taxi has a meter, ask for it to be switched on. No meter? Agree on a fare before you get in. Not too fussed about where you stay? Great! You can just go with the flow. One look at you and a driver can know if you’re after a room for $2 or $200. He’ll know a place so let him take you to it. The owners of the establishment will pay him some commission, which will mean a higher rate for you, but the whole experience will have been a lot smoother.
At the beach
An early trip to South East Asia. Lying on the beach my tropical slumber was broken.
“You want ice cream my friend?”
“Errrr….” A moments hesitation. An opportunity. The hawker launched into a rhyming song about the virtues of eating ice cream on a beautiful beach. It left him drained and looking at me with eyes full of childlike hope.
Behind those puppy-dog eyes I’m sure he was plotting revenge. Guilt and mild concern kept me awake that night.
This taught me a valuable lesson: the preemptive strike. Whether it’s a beach, temple or hill-top panorama, the premier spots are abundant in guides and hawkers. If you’re not interested in what’s about to be offered, make it clear. Turn away, tuck into your book, feign sleep. If the offer comes anyway, cut it off early.
Don’t get trapped into a sales pitch covered up as friendly conversation. Let them get on to someone who is genuinely interested in what they have to offer and you’ll sleep easy at night.
Bagged and bound
I’ve seen many a traveler fall victim to a misplaced sense of attachment to their backpacks. It leaves them paranoid and harboring an unhealthy mistrust towards the locals. I think this only serves to exacerbate problems when dealing with touts.
When using night buses it’s common to wake up and stumble off the bus the next morning to find locals milling around the bus as bags are being unloaded. Still half-asleep, it can be disorientating to say the least. Try to be awake and ready to go before the journey’s end and band together with your fellow travelers to help offload each other’s bags. It’s a good chance to meet people and perhaps share a ride into town.
It’s not uncommon to have children hoist up your backpack and offer to carry it all of 50m to the hotel – for a price. If you’re not willing to pay, don’t let them do it. Personally, I’m not into having others carry my bags. It’s not a money thing and I don’t expect them to make off with it. I just like the idea of ‘pulling my own weight’, if you will. I worry too, about looking like some sort of colonial relic who deems it below him to carry his own stuff. It’s just not a service I want, so I don’t take it.
Am I paying too much?
Here’s the scenario. You check into a room at a price you think is a steal. The next day you find out the person next door is paying half the rate you are. You buy a bottle of water from a street stall and think nothing of it. Later you go to a stall further down the road and buy the same product but a third cheaper. It goes on. Won’t someone just tell us what the real price is?
It can be overwhelming to feel that nothing has a fixed price. What is important here is to know how much you want these things.
When bargaining with locals treat the negotiations with respect and a little humor. Getting aggressive is never good. It will create tension for your trip and could harm relations between locals and travelers in the future. If a local gets too aggressive for your tastes don’t hang around to reason with them. Take your business elsewhere. Prioritize your spending, too. What’s more important to you – safe transport into a city at night or that coconut shell ashtray?
We don’t want to spend our trips in fear of getting ripped off by the locals and thus avoiding as many interactions as we can. The reality is that you probably will get ripped off at some point, but often it’s not that important. Learn from your experiences and you’ll find your own sense of what things are worth to you.
Of course, perhaps the most comprehensive way to avoid these challenges would be to squeeze our travels into a package tour. While this may not fit into the ethos of independent travel, it might suit some of us to take individual tours within our independent trip when looking to visit sites with a reputation for troublesome guides and touts.
In all of this it’s worth considering that perhaps these problems exist because of us, the travelers. The number of touts and hawkers in a given place is a reflection of our presence. Their attitude a reflection of past experiences with our peers. As such, a large part of the solution to any problems that arise from this lies within us, in our attitude and the ethics we employ on our adventures.