There he is. Waiting for you at the dock or train station. Smiling a toothless smile, chewing on a stick or something. He’s smiling because he already knows he’s got you, right from the moment your eyes meet. He’s your local hustler. He and his counterparts are encircling you like vultures.
You’re conflicted, because you don’t want to be a sucker, but The Lonely Planet recommends hiring one, if only to keep the other would-be hustlers/tour guides/drivers at bay. You’re a foreigner here, a bona fide target. You’ve got dollar signs flashing in your fair eyes.
You need him just as much as he needs you. Together, you’ll develop a truly symbiotic relationship. Yet, like the bird that cleans the crocodile’s teeth, it will be awkward at times. But what the hell, you bite the bullet and agree to let the local hustler show you around a bit.
This is where it really gets interesting.
There’s a constant battle of wits. A feeling-out process whereby the local hustler figures out what kind of traveler (and spender) you are. He teases you and goads you with a bounty of food, souvenir and leisure possibilities.
“Up to you,” he says encouragingly. You say you want to see “the real [insert destination here].” He says, he’ll show it to you. You both know he won’t. He asks you if you will eat [insert disgusting local delicacy here]. You squirm inside but keep a straight face. “Maybe,” you say. You both know you won’t.
He can be such a fucking pest. As your link to local tourism, dining, souvenir shopping, entertainment and — in some cases — drugs and prostitution (those are the real hustlers), he’s holding all the cards. In Morocco, at some point during the tour, he’ll be taking you to buy extravagant and outrageously priced rugs. In Thailand and Vietnam, he’ll drag you to buy a tailored suit. In Indonesia, he’ll insist that you buy a batik painting you don’t even want in the first place (see photo, below).
"You like the art? You drank my tea. Now you buy."
Invariably, the local hustler will take you to the usual tourist attractions, which annoy the hell out of you, so you to ask him to show you the real thing. Problem is, the real thing consists of him bringing you to the restaurants and shops that pay him a commission. Most of the time, they’re not bad. They’re seldom the best. And unfortunately, sometimes they just plain suck. They employ all kinds of guilt trips (e.g. serving you “free” tea or booze while you browse) to force you to buy, only to waste your precious sightseeing time. Besides, you’re backpacking — what use do you have for an 85-lb. Moroccan rug?
Nevertheless, it’s a necessary evil. You’re a fish out of water here. It can be exciting to deal with somebody who has personal ties to the foreign wonders around you, to meander off the beaten path, through a city’s hidden streets and back alleys. But he may also have ties to the seedy local underground. But because you’re forced to trust him — he’s already driving you around, eating with you and smoking your cigarettes — you try to ignore the possibility that, at any moment, he and his thugs could pull out a gun, rob you or hold you hostage. Such possibilities become significantly more likely if he’s taking you to drug dealers, strip clubs or worse yet, brothels.
My buddy Ben was in downtown Dakar, Senegal when three guys approached him and said one of them just had a baby. “They’re happy as shit and I’m happy for them,” says Ben. “Then one of them gives me this golden-looking piece of metal, says it’s gold from the Congo and that it’s good luck to give it to a foreigner. Sure, why not?! Then they ask if I want to join them to celebrate. Always up for an adventure, I go.
“They take me to the top floor of a two-storey restaurant. No one else is around. Then they start pressuring me for money — for food, for the celebration, of course. Enough for a bag of rice or some shit. I’m trying to figure out how to get the fuck out of there because it’s getting real sketch, real quick. In the end, I pay for their cokes and get the fuck out of dodge.
“It’s funny because in hindsight I seem like a real dick, but the thing is, sometimes you follow these people around and it works out,” Ben concludes. “And I guess I was willing to take the chance. Oh well, makes for a story, right?”
To scenarios like this, my buddy Sid, another seasoned backpacker, says, “Lesson learned: Never get cornered in a situation where you feel compelled to pay just to get out of it.”
Sid recently visited Egypt, where the hustlers are notoriously tireless. “When we first arrived in Cairo, we decided to take the local bus, because it cost $2 instead of $70, but it was nearly impossible to find the right bus into town,” he says. “An Egyptian guy, about 30-years-old, was happy to show us the right bus, as he was also taking it into town. We get off at the center of the town and he gets off with us, grabs my bag and refuses to let me carry it myself. Then he points us in the direction of our hotel, but also suggests a very good one nearby.
“That’s when the intial hustler alarm bell went off, but at this point, we totally trusted the guy. I even gave him my Egyptian phone number. We end up finding our hotel and decide to stay for one night, and tell the guy we’ll give him a shout.
“Early the next morning, he calls and I don’t answer. Then he calls another 15 times and I still don’t answer. At this point, we realize something’s up and I swear he called me constantly for three more days. Lesson learned: Never give your phone number or any other details to anyone you don’t know well.”