Tourists are Targets

Tourists are targets. You can be a mark for savvy salesmen selling ‘authentic’ goods, you can fall prey to hucksters and hustlers that pose as ‘official’ guides, you can have your pocket or purse picked in a crowded market, or you can have a corrupt border guard request a little baksheesh to be paid in return for a stamp in your passport.

We do not buy too much on our trips so the savvy salesman is not someone that impacts us greatly. The best way to avoid getting taken when you are making a purchase in a foreign land is to research what you intend to buy before you leave. If I was traveling to Hong Kong, a place known for its shopping, and intended to purchase electronics or any other high tech gear I would know the price I would pay in Canada before I left. I could then at least feel comfortable with the price I was offered in the  foreign land before I made a purchase.

The second part of the equation is a little more difficult. Is the item you are looking at an authentic name brand piece or is it a knock off? This may not matter if the quality of the knock off is good but in all likelihood an imitation will be of inferior quality. I really don’t know how one is suppose to tell except to say, that if the deal is too good to be true, it probably is. You don’t buy a Canon 7D DSLR camera for $200, I don’t care what country you’re in. There is also the moral aspect of the equation. Do you buy a knock off at all? Personally I would be happier with an original, but in the end it is your choice.

In our travels I can recall hiring a guide that approached us to offer his services, only twice. Both times when we were first accosted, we initially begged off and walked away. After some time and some discussion we returned to the “guide” and discussed the service being offered and the price that was being asked. It was only after this ‘cooling off’ period and a calm chat that we decided to pursue those particular tours. Both times we were happy with the services rendered. Most times we will not pay any attention to the touts that approach us. If they are persistent I will tell them in a somewhat polite manner that we are not interested, if that doesn’t work I get down right impolite. Sooner or later they will give up.

I’m also a little pig headed about having to pay an ‘entry fee’ into a country when I have already spent money to get the proper visa and permit long before I set foot at the border station. When we are getting set to go somewhere, we do enormous amounts of research and we know if there are any official fees to be paid upon entry or exit from the countries to which we are headed.

Several years ago, Debbie, our two kids and I were at a land crossing from Belize to Guatemala. The immigration officer had decided to charge us a bogus stamping fee or some such. I had done my reading and knew this might happen. I refused, partly feigning to not comprehend what he was asking for and partly saying we will not pay money. There was a fellow with a machine gun standing off to the side but he didn’t seem too agitated and I stood my ground. After a minute or two the line behind us was getting backed up and the border guard threw our passports across the table and we were allowed access to Guatemala san entry fee. This attitude is how things work in the non western world and as tourists we should respect the ways of our hosts but those hosts have to realize that we tourists have our moral limits as well and they should accept some of our strange ways. Paying for little or no service, bribery, is not something that most westerners have ever encountered and I personally do not want to partake.

No matter how hard one tries to dress, act, and/or otherwise fit in, most travelers have ‘TOURIST” written all over them. It is pretty hard to blend in when your skin color is different than the general populace but even when that is not an issue, tourists stick out. Maybe it is the camera, maybe the map in their hand, or maybe it is just that they are far more interested in the surroundings than a local might be. This being the case, tourists are easy marks for petty thieves and pickpockets. There are a few things one can do to  minimize the risk of being accosted. Don’t advertise. Try to be subtle in your dress and manner. Don’t wear flashy jewellery or other ‘bling’. If you can possibly do it, look poor. What would be the use in trying to lift a poor person’s wallet when the guy next to them glitters like a star on a clear night. Don’t flash your fancy camera. That does not mean don’t carry it but keep it concealed or at least tight to your body so it is harder to nab.

Always be wary of your surroundings. I was on the tram heading to Athens from Piraeus, it was crowded and a good place for a pickpocket to hang out. I had my luggage on my back so I was quite visibly a tourist. My wallet was in my front pocket that was secured with Velcro. For some reason I holding a chrome post with one hand and I had the other hand placed so my thumb was resting on the top on my wallet. Suddenly I felt the wallet moving up. I looked beside me and there was a lady with a coat draped over her arm and hand standing just a little too close. She had already undid the Velcro without me noticing but luck was on my side and she did not get my wallet. I did get a piercing look when we got off the train.

Sometimes you have to rely on your “spidey sense.” I was walking alone on a street in Dublin, of course I had a map in my hand (a rookie traveler mistake). I was aware of a conversation going on behind me. I was walking quite fast and although I was not consciously thinking about why the conversation was taking place too close to my back, I somehow knew it. Again subconsciously, I suddenly realized the talking had stopped. I don’t know exactly why but without slowing down I stepped sideways into a vestibule, and quickly turned. There was a guy with his hand in mid air posed to get into my rucksack. I shouted very loud so that the entire street could hear to “get the #$&@% away from me.” Not wanting to attract too much attention, he beat a hasty retreat. I had to rely on a sixth sense but none the less I was able to avoid loosing my camera or whatever else he might have been able to pilfer.

I now carry a phony wallet and only enough loose cash in another pocket to last the day. The phony wallet contains a couple of local club cards (like my Safeway card), a couple of credit cards that come as advertising with “your name” in the name slot, and a few worthless bills from previous trips. The wallet is fat enough to be noticeable and if a pickpocket so desires they can have it. There is a pretty good chance I would let it go, it would make the day for both of us.

Most places in the world are no more dangerous than your hometown. The percentage of dishonest people is probably no higher than what you would encounter at home but with the cultural differences and your giddy holiday demeanor it is more difficult to spot the anomalies that would make you suspicious in more familiar surroundings. You have to observe what is going on about you very carefully and unfortunately be somewhat cynical. Every once in a while you will get taken. Just remember that it is all part of the game. We travel to learn and part of learning is making mistakes. So laugh it off and remember the scam so you will recognize it the next time you cross paths.

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