When I travel, I find that I can forget the stresses and anxiety of my normal life – in fact, I become a completely different person when I am on a journey. The short temper and inflexibility that has come to typify my 30s seems to melt away and I feel the relaxed and carefree demeanour that I used to enjoy in my twenties surface from the dark recesses of my consciousness. My partner finds me easier to reason with, and I am less fazed by inconveniences such as rain, or crowds (which is sometimes lucky). While I find it easier to relax and unwind when I’m on the road, I find that I am also affected by the things I see more substantially than when I’m preoccupied by the myriad of inconsequential hurdles that I find so important when at home. This can be brilliant when surveying an unspoiled landscape or engaging in a unique experience, and it makes travelling even more rewarding, but there is also a flip-side to this Mister Hyde/Doctor Jekyll transformation.
While lounging on the beach in Unawatuna recently, I spied a man selling wooden trinkets and handicrafts. He wasn’t overly unique (although I hope that isn’t what his mother told him), and there were dozens of other hawkers working the strip that afternoon, but for some reason this man it was who caught my attention. He loped towards me with a lovely puppet of what I assume was a Hindu demi-god and motioned at me to inspect. I looked up from my table, smiled, and indicated that I did not desperately need this particular treasure and tried on my best conciliatory expression to soften dismissal. As the man wandered away I sensed as much as felt an incredible weight on his shoulders. In that moment, I pictured the life of a beach hawker in a way I’ve never done before and was overcome with sympathy for a group of people who so often make holidays stressful.
Almost every destination I’ve visited has come with a selection of hawkers, street peddlers, market strong-arms and other shady, cold selling trinket vendors. I’ve been hassled to the point of frustration and anger in Egypt (where I sunk so low as to be rude to a taxi driver who was trying to swindle me out of a few Egyptian pounds with a simple taxi scam), in Indonesia (where any trip to the market in Kuta means explaining why I don’t need four new pairs of sunglasses), Laos (where every other restaurant practically dragged us in for ‘the best meal in…’), and most recently in Sri Lanka where every taxi fare, tuk-tuk journey, and bus ride is a minefield of dynamic negotiated economics and pageantry. While I know it is a part of life in these places, I have never had the stomach for it (as my partner, Linh, so loves to remind me as I’m swindled for the third time that day), and after a fairly long period of tolerance I feel the unwelcome tendrils of my darker home-country persona creeping back to wrestle with my bright holiday personality.
On this occasion, however, the expression on this man’s face, and his body language spoke volumes about his life on the beach. I watched him shuffle off to the next group of disinterested tourists with the melancholy resignation of a man who knew he was wasting his time, and the desperation that comes from failing to close deal after deal (a feeling I remember from my time in sales).
Imagine outlaying considerable time (or significant capital) to build an inventory, knowing that a large percentage of your target market will sneer at your wares, or respond with rudeness. Picture sharing your sales floor with hundreds of others with similar stock and (particularly during low season) a limited audience. It is hard enough selling a car to a customer who is actively in the market, but to cold sell souvenir’s to increasingly savvy tourists who are trying to relax on a beach is a tall ask. With this image firmly in my mind, I imagined doing this week after week, for an entire career and trying to support a family and lifestyle in a place like Sri Lanka where the juxtaposition between the wealthy and the poor seems as fluid as the market these salespeople navigate.
Unawatuna beach, just arround the bay from Galle
Once you put this into perspective, the slightly annoying man trying to sell you a trinket becomes less a distraction to one’s vacation, and more an uncomfortable reminder of the stark contrast between this harried, tired and stressed man and his uncertain life, and my comfortable life (which still leaves me harried, stressed and uncertain).
As the man walked off into the gathering dark, I felt a profound sense of sadness, and I wondered if he went home that evening and collapsed on his chair to explain that there would be no meal tonight because I, the man writing and drinking his beer on the beach, would not buy his puppet.
A corn vendor in Bali
I’ve found over time that I am less bothered by overpaying for souvenirs, particularly in poorer countries. Most of the time the difference between the “right” price” and what I’m being asked to pay is pretty minimal, a couple of bucks or less in a lot of cases. Given that I typically only buy one or two souvenirs on a trip and the small amount of money, I don’t bother to haggle too much for the last couple of bucks because it’s effectively the price of a bottle of coke or something similar for me but might as you say mean the difference between food on the table and going hungry for the seller.
It can also be a waste of holiday time that I could be using to do something far more productive like actual sightseeing. I once spent the better part of an hour in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul arguing over a 5 dollar difference between what I was willing to pay for a plate and bowls and what the seller wanted for it. I could have used that time to look at a mosque or go for a cruise on the Bosphorus, but instead I wasted it arguing over about half of what my lunch costs me every day. And in the end I paid the sellers price anyway! On the plus side it is a lovely souvenir.
It’s so easy to lose that context. I remember spending an hour arguing over a few dollars for a scroll in Egypt that I knew I was going to buy. On the other hand, after two or three weeks of constant hassling for everything from dinner to transport and even a bottle of water, I do become a bit jaded and fed up – simply because it’s not the norm for me (and I certainly don’t enjoy the haggling as some do).
I totally agree – if you want the souvenir, a few extra dollars is (quite literally) a small price to pay.
Tony (Einstein’s Barber)