As a Westerner who likes to travel to less-developed countries, I’ve had to learn to deal with locals who can sometimes be quite pushy selling their products and services. Dealing with pushy street vendors has taken me some time and I’m not always the best in these situations. I use the term “pushy street vendors” not to disparage the people trying to make a living; rather, it’s the common way I’ve heard people describe how they feel when they first start traveling and encounter local sales people for the first time. Maybe “overly persistent” is a better term.
Case in point: In Luang Prabang, Laos, I just finished my morning coffee, was in a great mood, and was heading out to enjoy the city. The area outside my hostel was a common place for tuk-tuk drivers to hang out, as it is a popular tourist area. As I walked out the hostel door, I could see the line – it was between me and the fastest route to where I was going. I knew what was coming…
Driver 1: “Tuk-tuk!”
“No, thank you.”
Driver 2: “Tuk-tuk!”
“No, thank you.”
Driver 3: “Tuk-tuk!”
“No, thank you.”
Driver 4: “Tuk-tuk!”
“No, thank you.”
After about 4-5 solicitations, I was getting slightly irritated. The drivers were about 2-3 meters from each other. The next one: “Tuk-tuk!” That’s when I said, “Sir. There were 5 tuk-tuks before you, all of whom asked me if I needed their service. I said ‘no’ to all of them. What makes you think I’ve changed my mind in the 4 seconds it took me to walk from the last tuk-tuk to your tuk-tuk?”
Of course, my sarcasm would have felt even better if any of these drivers understood English. They didn’t. But it felt satisfyingly cathartic to me. However, “satisfyingly cathartic” does not equal “nice” and I sort of wish I had said nothing.
We Westerners are lucky
Most of us have never known what it’s like to have to struggle every day just to put food on our tables or send our children to school. And even when we do, we have a social safety net to help take care of us, whether it’s food stamps, unemployment, or health services. Those do not exist in large swaths of the planet. People must earn a living. I know of no 50 year old man whose career aspirations include selling beads and trinkets to tourists. I know of no 60 year old woman who wants to sit in the hot sun all day trying to get tourists like you and me to buy her fruit. It’s an existence. It’s what they have to do.
Be kind to pushy street vendors
I’m a kind-hearted person. Sometimes, my sarcastic side comes through. Sometimes, I get frustrated a little too easily. But I have learned to operate on the basic principle of being kind, first and foremost. That has taken me a long time. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s taken practice! Dealing with pushy street vendors is a challenge. Sometimes, our first instinct is to think someone is trying to scam us. That pushy sales person or tuk-tuk driver is just trying to get you into his shop or in his taxi where they’ll promise you a price and double it as soon as you’re hooked.
Relax. My experience is that this is rare. In fact, I’ve been to nearly 50 countries and have yet to fall victim to a scam. That’s not to say you’re not going to overpay. You certainly will on occasion. But that’s not the fault of the merchant or driver. It’s the fault of the person who hasn’t yet learned the art of bartering. That will come with experience. You’ll learn to understand the differences between aggressive locals and scammers.
Pushy street vendors 101 – the gold shop owner
I was on a self-guided tour of Cartagena, Colombia when I was confronted by a man who wanted me to visit his gold shop. I politely said “No, gracias” and continued walking. He followed me, “Do you want to buy gold? Perhaps jewelry for your lady?” Again, I said no. We were getting far away from his shop and he was still tailing me, a guy wearing shorts and a tank top, with the equivalent of $5 in his pocket, to turn around and come back to his gold shop. It was becoming annoying.
I did turn around, only to tell him that I’ve said “No” three or four times already and that I didn’t want to buy any gold.
“Sir. I am not a thief, you know!” I was so taken aback by this comment. In no way did I accuse this man of being a thief; however I now felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps I made him feel this way.
“I never said you were a thief and I would never say such a thing. You are a shopkeeper trying to get me to come into your store to buy something. I understand that. But I told you 4 times that I didn’t want to buy gold or jewelry, yet you continued to follow me. So, it’s not that I think you’re a thief. Certainly I don’t. I just felt you were being aggressive and I wanted you to stop following me. Gold is not something I need. I am simply trying to walk around your beautiful city.”
I said all of this in the kindest way I knew how. The man apologized, we shook hands, and exchanged smiles. I agreed that if I wanted gold I would come back to see him. And I meant it.
When all else fails, detour
There have been times, especially when I was just starting out, that pushy street vendors became quite overwhelming. The children at Angkor Wat begging for money or trying to sell me drinks, taxi drivers accosting you at airports, tuk-tuk drivers scrambling to get you onto their motorcycles. During those times, I found the best way to escape was to simply duck into a store or restaurant. Perhaps even do a quick u-turn and find a less busy route to where you’re going.
In the end, we’re all just living the lives we know
Nowadays though, I usually have a more cavalier attitude about it all. Cultures being as different as they are, I now accept pushy street vendors as a daily part of life in the countries I choose to visit. I am a guest in these countries and it’s up to me to learn the rules, not to them to conform to mine. Unless I am feeling particularly uncomfortable, I will never actually confront someone trying to sell me something. They’re just doing the best they can in a very crowded field. I just let it roll off my back and, in some cases, I enjoy the game of it all. If I’m actually looking for a souvenir at a market, how do I use the fact that so many people are clamoring for my business to get the best deal?
At the end of the day though, we’re all living on the same “pale blue dot” with some getting a huge advantage only by luck of birth. We can live life suspicious of others’ motives or we can live it understanding that making a living in one country is a completely different process and experience that the one you’ve been born into.
Just keep traveling
You’ll figure out the best way to deal with the challenges you’re not used to when you travel, including overwhelming experiences like being swarmed by pushy street vendors. It just takes a mix of experience and empathy.
When you get there, you’ll know it, because all of a sudden, you’re able to relax and enjoy the ride!