Touts, Hassle and Hustlers – Dealing with travel’s ‘Sticky Moments’

We all know that travel comes with some challenges sometimes, sometimes things just don’t run smoothly, you forget things, you miss a connection, you get sick at the wrong time. All of these are hassles, but two hassles that you KNOW you will encounter when you go to certain places – for example Morocco, India, Egypt, parts of SE Asia for example, are touts and hustlers. You may regard them as the same thing, but technically touts are really just out for business whereas hustlers are out to do you over in some way, shape or form. And it can make your days in certain places, let’s say for example randomly picked city for no particular, Delhi.

So what can you do to cope with what can become a barrage of unwanted attention in these places? And how can you spot a hustler before they ‘hustle’ you? Surely not easy questions to answer, and I won’t pretend to have the answer, but I do have thoughts!

Let me take you to Egypt. Well, I mean I’m going to do this virtually, much as I wish I had the sort of money to whisk the four and a half readers of this blog off to the Middle East on a whim, the reality is somewhat different. Not too long ago I wrote a blog post – 21-day Itinerary for Egypt. I talked, very briefly, about the hassle of touts in Egypt which at some points became relentless, I couldn’t walk 50 metres down the road without a man approaching asking if I wanted to ride his camel. I was there with my friend Greg and this was his first experience of such touts, and frankly, it became very annoying very quickly. So, did we find a way to deal with this or did it basically do our heads in until we ‘lost our shit’.

The pyramids at Giza, Egypt

Surprisingly perhaps, we did find a way. Keep in mind that there were many other touts around offering to show us around, be a guide, or just trying to sell us some tatty souvenir they had. We decided to laugh it off. Not at first, I’d just come from Russia and I thought if I was to spout a few words in Russian, as I’d just learnt four or five (literally that’s all!) they would be lost. It turned out I tried it on a guy who could speak Russian, obviously far better than I could, and he continued now in Russian.

Lesson learnt. Find a more obscure language! But it was nearby the Pyramids where the camel touts really came out in force, and also in Luxor there were a lot of men with camels. So we decided the only way was to treat it with humour, make it a joke. We would laugh basically, and at one point we would see the tout approaching us and go up to them and ask THEM if they’d like a camel ride. We left more than one or two bemused and confused. And we could laugh about it afterwards.

But the reality is I have seen people, and indeed I’m sure I have, dealt with the hassle not nearly as well, and for sure it can have a really negative impact on your day. It can have you unsettled about that first step onto the streets from your guesthouse or hotel for the day. You feel like you’re leaving the sanctuary of your accommodation and going to battle. With the right attitude it can feel like a bit of fun I guess, however sometimes you’re not well, you haven’t slept much, you’re drained or unhappy for whatever reason, and there’s a feeling of dread that comes over you.

And I’ve seen it really affect people, especially in India, I’ve seen people reduced to tears. And it is worse for female travellers who have to endure a whole different level of attention which we males just can’t imagine. So how to deal?

Well, firstly there is the simple ignoring method. Which is basically walk on by and don’t acknowledge even the presence the person who’s trying to put the hard word on you. It’s drastic in some ways I guess and you (I?) can feel somewhat bad about taking that approach, but sometimes I’ve felt like it’s the only way I’m going to get to where I’m trying to get to, which might just be two blocks down the road but if it’s a tourist part of the town you’re in, you may be surprised to find just how many people suddenly want to help you, to be your friend etc etc. And if you stop to say ‘I’m terribly sorry I know where I’m going’ to each and everyone you are not going to move far at all!

Case in point, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was the place we received the most hassle from the tuk-tuk drivers, and it was basically my fault too. We’d got to the end of this coastal road below a large white stupa elevated with four legs, quite a strange sight, called the Sambodhi Chaithya, and nearby there were a whole bunch of the tuk-tuks with drivers waiting. We couldn’t walk through the area we thought we would go through as it was some sort of diplomatic zone, so we thought we would get a tuk-tuk. So we approached one guy.

Sambodhi Chaithya

I was there with my wife and three Sri Lankan friends. We were descended upon by all the drivers at once, and we knew they were asking ten times or more what was reasonable. We had locals with us and that didn’t help. So we decided to walk around. We had to go back the way we came and it was an extra couple of kilometres walking, but the scene was intimidating and aggressive and we didn’t want any part of it and it seemed unlikely we would get a fair price. Also they kept insisting on taking us for tours rather than transporting us to where we wanted to go. We were then followed for the next kilometre by drivers. One guy keep pace with us, driving very slowly, saying ‘tuk-tuk tour? Tuk-tuk tour?’ He wasn’t the only one. It took twenty minutes of ignoring them all before we were finally left alone. I really didn’t believe it at the time, that it was happening! I mean, it had been a long while since I’d been in a situation like that, years and years and many trips to India and many places. I’m not sure what else we could have done there. I mean, we did say we were going to walk and ‘no thanks’, we were reasonable. We had Colombo locals with us, why would we need a tour?

Hustlers can be a little more crafty, and catch you unawares. The case in point I will use on this is my experience in Jaipur. I was helped out by a seemingly friendly guy in the post office in 1999 there who appeared to help me through the procedure for wrapping up and posting a parcel – not all that straight forward, but navigable by yourself, I ended up meeting his friend who wanted me to buy gems from him to take to Denmark where apparently I would sell them at a huge profit. Signs at my hotel warned against this scam, somehow I fell into it, but I got out without buying any gems. The full story here – Scammed in India – Jaipur!

I was scammed by these two lovely ladies. Would you believe it?

There are many scammers waiting to jump on the tourist. I got suckered in big time in Moscow in 2017 – Scam Alert – Moscow! There have been other times where I’ve realised straight away about scams, in Shanghai there is a tea ceremony scam, people approach you for a photograph and straight away ask you to go with them for a ‘tea ceremony’, but I’d heard about this one beforehand and politely declined. A few times until they accepted my response.

Scammers will hustle whoever they can hustle. And for this issue you need to read up before you go, and be aware of what some people will do. Fake police, well orchestrated plans usually involving distraction or leaving you with a huge bill are surprisingly commonly played on the traveller. Then there was the guy who paid hundreds for a 2-dollar camel ride in Egypt, went into a Pyramid, came out and the camel and his backpack, money and passport were GONE.

So know what the local hustlers are up to before you go to a place, have your wits about you as best you can, and if you do fall for something, do your best to get out of it by paying as little money as possible! Be aware that people, strangers approaching you in busy tourist areas may well have an ulterior motive. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is! I trust my intuition and I know if something seems fishy, I need to act appropriately (unlike I did in Moscow!) Unfortunately, this can be part of the ‘travel experience’.

Thanks for reading today. Have you ever been in a sticky situation when travelling? Would love to hear your stories so please comment below! And May the Journey Never End!

8 thoughts on “Touts, Hassle and Hustlers – Dealing with travel’s ‘Sticky Moments’

  1. I’m a female solo traveler, and your post hit too close to home. I’ve had incidents in Morocco (and, to a smaller extent, in Turkey) where I’ve been harassed by men not just for selling stuff, but also catcalls. You really do develop a thick skin after all of it, and it goes to show that you learn about the downsides of tourism to make your way through it more smoothly in future trips.

  2. Looks beautiful, though the thought of there being so many touts and hustlers would definitely be a pain. Unfortunately being female makes it even more of a pain, though I think it is best to carry on as you are, be wise to it and if it helps then laugh.

  3. Being from Nigeria and female, I can relate to this on a different level. The tout and hustler situation here makes other places seem like child’s play. Because it is not strange to me, I find the ignoring method the easiest thing to do and I don’t feel guilty about it!. I’m careful though about where to use this as some people tend to get aggressive with (solo) female travellers when they feel like they’re being ignored.

    The Russian language incident was hilarious! Got to hand it to that prepared hustler! Anyway, this is one of the reasons why I am so grateful for travel blogs and I make it a point to do some research about places I intend to visit.

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