I carry a camera over my shoulder. I look to the right to see if there is a photo op; I look to the left to see if anything catches my eye. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m obviously a traveler, worse yet, a tourist. Thus, I’m a target for touts, for individuals who offer me goods or services. I almost always get annoyed.
I have five tactics for handling the oncoming touts who might ask me “Do you want to buy this flute?” My first tactic is directness. I say clearly, and might even take three seconds saying “No.” I can easily say “No.” If it is early in the morning and I’m not exhausted, I may say “No, thank you.” If I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I might even lie “No, the flute is pretty and it sounds nice, but No.”
My second tactic is avoidance. I usually use this tactic when I’m trying to find a restaurant for lunch or dinner. A tout asks the question ““Do you want to buy this flute?” In this tactic, I play the gray haired fellow who is deaf or the traveler from eastern Siberia who does not understand any language, barely even Russian. I simply ignore the person asking the question and keep walking.
I’m proud of my third strategy, diversion. I’m walking through Bhaktipur, one of Kathmandu valley’s medieval towns. The tout approaches with the gentle, gradual approach. “Where are you from sir? Can I practice my English with you?” I try to turn the tables on him (touts usually are males) “I’m from far, far away. Where are you from? What language do you speak?” I use this strategy when I’m feeling playful and I’m in a good mood.
My fourth tactic is distraction. I’m walking up Swayambhunath, Kathmandu’s Monkey Temple. “Do you like my elephant?” I say to myself: how can I miss it, you’ve pushed it six inches from my eyes. “See how carefully I cut the wood; see how pretty I’ve painted the legs and the body.” To retaliate, I say “I’d like to take your picture.” I have yet to be refused by a tout. Because the tout is often flabbergasted, I can easily walk away after taking and showing him the photo.
My fifth tactic could be risky, feign eccentricity. As the tout approaches me and is about to ask “Would you like a guide so that you can learn all about this site?” I start talking to myself, out-loud. I talk about statues, mythical stories, other historic sites similar or different from the one I’m visiting. I talk about anything. As a professor, I can talk for a good hour without taking a breath. Like students, most touts don’t want to listen to me for an hour. The tout walks away to find somebody else who isn’t crazy. I haven’t used this strategy on this trip yet. I’m holding it in reserve.
Although I am annoyed by touts and have obviously designed strategies to handle the annoyance, I also grudgingly respect them. When I imagine myself in their situation, I realize that I would want to do something to make money. Like them, I’m not going to beg; I’m not going to steal. Knowing that no local will want a flute, a carved elephant, a tour of a historical site, I plug away offering my services to the folks who might want those items, tourists. Furthermore, I know that those who are westerners and those who are East Asian have money, otherwise they wouldn’t be here. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to make a sale.
Because I don’t want to lose you, the reader, I’ll keep my next comment brief. Post-Colonial and Subaltern academicians sometimes portray the world in either-or terms, in binary categories. The victimizing Colonizers or Imperialists, the victimized locals. The all-powerful global Citibank or HSBC; the local fellow with a pushcart selling bananas. While helping us recognize that the dynamics of power and wealth permeate all situations, these academicians may become caught in ideological explanation rather than accurate historical description. I want to acknowledge the dynamics of power and wealth. I have the power and wealth to come to Kathmandu. The tout has little power compared to me, but he can choose where he’ll sell his goods, whom he’ll approach, and for how much he’ll charge. Maybe not much the tout can do, but he can still do something. While there is a vast difference, I don’t want to completely ignore that the tout is actively responding to his given situation. He is being more than a victim of global power and wealth dynamics.
One final incident. I’m walking through Kathmandu’s Thamel area. A tout approaches me, like so many others playing a flute. He isn’t Nepalese. “Do you like my music? I need money. Won’t you buy one?” Wanting to be kind, I make the fatal mistake. “It is nice.” He latches onto me like Gorilla Superglue for several minutes. I try my diversion tactic. I ask about him. “Oh, I’ve been here for 25 years.” I ask: “Where did you come from originally?” “I came from Hamburg Germany.” Kidding, I ask “The Pied-Piper of Hamburg. Where are the children?” Although I’m not sure if he finds my comment funny, he laughs. After chatting for a few minutes, he realizes that I’m not buying a flute. We separate. Two days later I see him kneeling on the sidewalk arranging his bag of flutes. Walking over to him, I tap him on the shoulder. He smiles in recognition. He really smiles when I hand him some rupees. All I say is: “I don’t want a flute, but maybe you won’t have to sell as many today.” I grudgingly respected his efforts to make some money.
I still get annoyed at touts. Sometimes I get really annoyed. Yet, at other times, while I don’t know either why for they are a tout or how they’ll choose to use the money they will earn, I grudgingly respect that they are trying to do what they can.