As a Westerner who likes to travel to less-developed countries, I’ve had to learn to deal with pushy street vendors who can sometimes be quite annoying about selling their products and services.
Learning how to deal with annoying street vendors has taken me some time and I’m not always at my “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 street vendors” is a better way of putting it.
My rules for dealing with street vendors
After several years of traveling, I’ve come up with a few rules for dealing with pushy street vendors. I hope they help you enjoy your trip a little more and allow you to walk down a busy street and get less annoyed at the persistence of some of the sales people you encounter.
1. Don’t be a jerk
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. It’s a popular tourist area. And if you know anything about tuk-tuk and rickshaw drivers, you know they are very competitive.
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, literally, the width of a tuk-tuk away from each other. The next one: “Tuk-tuk!”
That’s when I said, “Sir. There were 5 tuk-tuks before you. They all asked me if I needed a tuk-tuk. 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. Because although he almost certainly didn’t understand my English, he definitely understood the emotion. And my emotions portrayed me as a complete jerk.
Don’t be a jerk. It’s better to just focus on where you’re going and walk in that direction without saying anything.
2. Recognize your privilege
Most westerners – at least those of us who have the ability to buy a ticket to a far away place – have never known what it’s like to struggle every day just to put food on our tables or send our children to school.
And even when we do struggle, most of us have a social safety net to help take care of us, whether it’s food assistance, unemployment insurance, health services, or childcare services. We are very lucky – so much so that it’s tough for us to recognize that others don’t have that same system.
On large swaths of the planet, it’s every person for themselves. You take care of yourself and your family because no one else is going to do it for you.
People must earn a living. I know of no 50 year old man or woman whose career aspirations include selling beads and trinkets to tourists. I know of no 60 year old who wants to sit in the hot sun all day trying to get tourists like you and me to buy his or her fruit.
It’s an existence. It’s what they have to do.
Recognize that you live a completely different life, that you will probably never know the same struggle.
3. Be kind to street vendors
This is probably similar to #1, but I think it’s often a good idea to approach a situation from kindness. Just not being a jerk is not good enough. I’m a nice person, I think. Sometimes, my sarcastic side comes through and 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 a lot of practice! Walking down the streets of touristy Cusco, Peru, for example, I constantly get asked if I want a massage.
Smiling ans saying, “No, gracias” with a smile is tough because you have to say it so often. But it’s what I do now. Do I sometimes just ignore the lady? Yes. But I try not to make dismissive behavior my default.
If we start allowing ourselves to walk by hard-working people and just dismiss them as though they were nothing more than an annoying insect, where would we be? The whole point of travel – at least for me – is to learn about other cultures and see amazing things. If you’re dismissing an entire part of that culture because it happens to annoy you as a westerner, then why are you even traveling?
4. Don’t assume you’re being scammed
Dealing with pushy street vendors is a challenge. Sometimes, our first instinct is to think someone is trying to scam us. That seemingly obnoxious 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. I’ve been to nearly 50 countries and have yet to fall victim to a serious scam. My worst experience was in Bangkok, where a tuk tuk driver gave me a “free” ride that included stops to every business he was paid to take me to.
That’s not to say you’re not going to get scammed or overpay. You certainly will on occasion. Travel scams are common. You need to learn how to deal with travel scams, for sure.
Overpaying for something a street vendor sells you? Well, that’s not the same as being scammed. It’s the fault of the person who hasn’t yet learned the art of bartering and will come with experience.
5. Say “no” politely – avoid potential insults
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.
Finally, I turned around and in my sternest voice told him, “Look, I don’t want any of your gold. I’m just trying to go back to my hostel.”
Perhaps I was even rolling my eyes during my entire spiel – and he replied:
“I am not a thief!”
I was so taken aback by this comment. There was no intent to accuse this man of being a thief; however I now felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps I made him feel this way. Or, maybe he wanted me to 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. 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 to my hostel.”
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.
6. Avoid street vendors completely
When all else fails, it’s probably best just to get yourself out of the situation. There have been times, especially when I first started traveling, 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.
It’s hard to avoid street vendors – especially the more persistent ones. But if taking a detour that adds a few minutes to your walk is the option you have, then it’s probably best to do that. You’ll save yourself a bit of frustration. More importantly, you’ll avoid the temptation to become a person you don’t want to be – as has happened to me on several occasions.
Street vendors are just trying to make a living
Nowadays , I usually have a more cavalier attitude about street vendors and touts. 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 now remember that I am a guest in these countries and it’s up to me to learn the rules, not for 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, I now play the game of how to get the best deal from a dozen separate vendors clamoring for my business.
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.
I can live life suspicious of others’ motives or I can live it understanding that making a living in one country is a completely different process and experience that the one I was lucky enough to be 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 salespeople.
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!
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