I have decided to rename this column “Kevin Dolgin Tells You How To Rip Off Tourists.” This is only temporary, but I thought it useful.
The first thing to learn is that you should choose your potential victim carefully. Your potential victim does not know where he or she is going. Your victim is glancing around, not walking too fast, preferably gazing from time to time at his or her map or guidebook. The more out of place your victim looks, the better, but be careful, sometimes if they’re feeling extremely disconcerted, they’ll be violent. This is why you want to avoid fat guys in shorts; they seem like perfect potential victims, but they are often entirely out of place and can have nasty tempers. Generally, you want to go for the most American-looking individuals possible. They don’t have to be actual Americans, but the more they look American, the better your chances, even if they turn out to be, for example, Dutch.
Next, you want to approach your victims with a cheery “Hello!” followed by, “Where you from?” Why do you want to say these things? I don’t know, but that’s what all the best tourist rip-off artists do, and who am I to argue? If the victim responds, then you start launching into your main script. If the victim shrugs you off, then you walk alongside and continue to ask where he’s from. If he continues to shrug you off, start guessing. You’ll eventually get it right, and for whatever reason, that seems to be a good thing.
Next, you want to explain that this week is the annual art/jewelry/handicrafts/duck stomping week and that there is a special art/jewelry/handicrafts/flat duck exhibit just down the road and that you’re a student of art, jewelry, handicrafts or duck stomping and you’d be happy to show them the exhibit.
Tell them it’s free. It’s always free.
I usually don’t fall for this crap, and believe me, I’ve been approached by scores of tourist rip-off artists, but still, despite all that, deep down I remain a sucker. I don’t know why. I have therefore decided that it’s time to share some of this with you, whether to help you avoid it, or if you really do want a new job, to help you discover how to rip me off.
Another tip: speak a language your victim speaks, without him expecting it. Everyone speaks English these days, or at least most tourists do to some degree, so approaching an English-speaker with your English is still a good idea, but not a deal-stopper. Approaching a Finn in Finnish, though, would pretty much open his pocketbook like a sea otter opens an urchin. How does this work with me? On at lease three occasions, I have been approached in the street in Paris by someone asking me for help in Italian. These were never people who were simply accosting everyone in Italian—every time, they came right up to me and launched into a whole explanation of why they needed a few Euros and would I give some to them. It worked every time. Only once did I ask how they had known that I happened to speak Italian. The man looked at me and said: “Because you do” and walked away. I’m still working on that one.
And then there’s the old tried and trusted method of giving something away or free, or nearly so, and then asking for money afterwards. For example, I recently wanted to buy two seals in Beijing. It’s an ancient Chinese tradition to create seals (as in things you seal letters with, not fuzzy marine mammals). These make nice gifts: you get some merchant to carve someone’s Chinese name into a small block of sandstone and you wrap it up. Kids love them. In order to do this, you pronounce the Western name and the Chinese artisan chooses appropriate characters to make a close phonetic approximation, trying all the while to find characters that are auspicious. I had already gotten seals for my children from a fishing village near Shanghai quite some time ago. They cost me, if I remember correctly, about 100 RMB each (about $15). I wanted to get seals for my godson, Michel, and his sister, Noldine, so I went to a big tourist store on Dong’anmen road in Beijing, where a smooth-talking man sat me down and kept talking, talking, talking while he carved up two seals for children. I had written out their names phonetically. The seals were marked 80 RMB each, which was a pretty good deal. He drew out the characters he was going to use on a piece of paper. “‘No’, it means clever, and ‘Die,’ it means beautiful. This good name. For little boy: ‘Mi,’ it means Happiness and ‘Chwe,’ it means long life.” He then started carving. It cost me 1500 RMB. “80 per letter” he said, and then explained that this was for each roman letter and each Chinese character, because he had inscribed their names in both languages. To make up for my shock, he got out two blank seals, one for me and one for my wife, and when I told him our names he explained that my wife’s characters meant beauty and long life and mine meant happiness and peace. According to these guys, every single character means something wonderful, and many mean exactly the same thing. There must be characters for bird shit and pestilence, but I suppose he never uses those. The worst is, I of course have no idea what he’s really carving. It might be that one day Michel and Noldine grow up and go to China together, where they proudly display the seals they’ve been using for years to sign their personal correspondence only to have their new Chinese friends ask why their Chinese names are “Beavis” and “Butthead”.
One of the most elegant rip-offs I’ve ever seen was in Thailand, where the old national “whatever” week is so common that I’ve seen signs in the Bangkok airport informing visitors that THERE IS NO NATIONAL FINE ARTS, JEWELRY, OR HANDICRAFTS WEEK. Nevertheless, I’ve already written about the efforts of tuk-tuk drivers to force tourists into jewelry and clothing stores. I, of course, am far too sophisticated for that kind of thing. You have to work on me for at least a minute before I crumble. Once, I was visiting a big Buddha statue at some temple in the city when a very well-dressed young man came up and started talking to me about the statue. He wasn’t pushy, and he wasn’t annoying. He was, in fact, quite knowledgeable. He didn’t even ask me where I was from, at first, and just before leaving he gave me his card, which indicated that he was an engineer, or something. Just as he walked away, he asked if I was interested in sapphires, because this was National Sapphire Week, and he knew of a very good store. He wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
I actually fell for this. Can you believe it? To this day, I don’t know how that particular guy made any money off of this. He must have been the store’s owner, or his son, or something, but I can’t imagine he actually spent his days hanging around the Buddha talking to tourists and hoping he’d convinced them. Maybe so.
How do you get around this? You keep walking, barely acknowledging the “art student” wanting to show you their work at national art student appreciation week, and gruffly say that you’re not interested—or more effectively, say nothing at all, just waving them off. This, of course, is the height of rich-tourist arrogance. What if they really are starving art students? It has actually occurred that I’ve run across honest-to-goodness genuine non-rip-off people who wanted to speak with me. If you wave off everyone, you wave off everyone. What’s more, it’s not in an American’s genes to be nasty to people as soon as they introduce themselves (the French have no problem with it). This is one of the nice things about Americans.
My role model is therefore my friend Marc. Once, while visiting the pyramids together, we were approached by one of the many, many men with camels who want to take a picture of you with their camel and/or sell you an Egyptian headdress. The former is fine enough if you like camels (I hate them) and the latter is often useful since most people visit the pyramids with far too little on their head and neck (you’ve never really been in the sun unless you’ve been in the Sahara). Neither of us were very camel-prone and both were adequately covered. The Egyptian, though, pressed a headdress into Marc’s hand despite his protests, finally saying: “It’s free!” Marc, startled, said “Thanks!” I immediately shook my head. Pyramid-dwelling men-with-camels never give away anything for free. He followed us, saying, “Wait! You take my hat, but I sell you band that goes with it!” Marc tried to give back the headgear, but the Egyptian refused. He knew that if a Westerner has actually accepted something, he feels obligated to pay for it. Finally, Marc had an idea.
“You take my hat,” he said.
“You gave me a hat. Thank you. It’s a nice hat. Take mine in return.”
“No,” replied the Egyptian, I don’t want your hat.”
“I don’t want your hat either, but I’d rather have it than mine. Mine is old, yours is new, and I appreciate the gift. I thank you, my friend, but I INSIST you take my hat.” With that, he pressed it into the Egyptian’s hands, despite his protests. The camel, bored with the whole affair, grunted. The Egyptian vociferated, protested, complained. All of this stoked Marc’s fervor. “But I WANT you to have my hat. You don’t like my hat? It’s a nice hat! And it’s free!”
The Egyptian finally gave up, told him to return his headgear and he’d be gone, at which point Marc explained that he had given him the headgear and it wasn’t very hospitable of him to take it back, particularly as he had refused Marc’s hat in return. The Egyptian got on his camel and left, Marc gave the headgear to the next Egyptian child we crossed (who was trying to sell us postcards), and I tried to remember how he had managed to actually come out on top of a tourist rip-off.
Alas, I have never been able to emulate him, I remain a target for name carvers and camel salesmen and for you, if you take my advice and get into this lucrative line of work.