There is a tourist mall approximately halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay, directly opposite a nearly identical Korean tourist mall. It is large and sports a wide array of hilariously overpriced silks, coconut candies, and enormous marble statues. Every single bus that follows the trail to the Bay parks at the mall for 45 minutes to encourage their flock of tourists to buy as much junk as humanly possible. On our way from Hanoi, I breezed through the mall in seconds, marching directly from the entrance to the exit, and sat in the hot parking lot waiting for the bus to set off again, because I am nothing if not petulant.
On our return drive from Halong, the bus began to slow along the highway. “Our bus driver didn’t get a chance to eat any lunch!” our guide bemoaned, despite it being 3 p.m., and also the fact that we were just recently at lunch. He shrugged his shoulders, imitated human empathy. “So we are going to stop for a while so he can eat something.”
I raised my hand. “Are we stopping for his lunch at the same mall as last time?”
I begrudged the pitiful lie, though I did not begrudge the second go-around to the mall. These shops and economical shanties would not exist if people were not buying from them, and this well-plied tourist route was carefully crafted by money-siphoning artisans, skilled tradesmen and women who had finely honed their abilities to squeeze dumb foreigners of their dollars. This was all a part of the dance.
Whenever tourists are thick on the ground, there is always a strong, robust, and efficient apparatus to separate them from money. Most often it is not overly taxing: an overzealous knick-knackery salesman, brief diversions attached to tours, mandatory shop visits premised as fun and exciting windows into local industries. Why, it’s not a laborious attempt to squeeze you for a few extra ringits and rupees, it’s a whole new tourism experience!
At first when I was travelling, these excursions felt unduly horrible and I let it show–a manufactured, rigid smile across my face, my fists and butthole clenched like vices as I resisted, at every moment any, opportunity to buy anything. In time, though, I came to accept their necessity, to understand their part in the universe of travel. They were neither positive or negative, they just existed, like quasars and meteors and giant space monsters. I didn’t have to like them, but disliking them would never make them go away, so making peace was the most righteous path.
Of course, not everyone sees it that way. The owner of our Jaipur B&B was middle-aged, stern, a former military man. He set up a rickshaw driver for a tour around town, and interrogated the man in English and Hindi before us to make sure there was no funny business going on. When we returned from our trip, he and his wife gave us a critical debriefing about the experience. He took you to all the sites, certainly, but did he force one of those textile shops upon you?
By then, we no longer had it in us to be too mad about going to one of these tourist shops. They had become a regular part of our lives, and no amount of our finagling ever seemed to get us out of going to them, so we let go of our rage and tried to make the best of it.
We were happiest when we had other conspirators on our side. While some of our drivers in India pretended that they were off to show us the wonders of the local textile market, a sacred and hushed backroom tour available only for us, the most respected tourists, others were happy to be straight up.
“Listen, if you spend some time in this shop, I get a commission,” our driver in Delhi told us. “Don’t buy anything, it’s all too expensive. Just spend some time looking interested and we’ll be on our way.”
“How much time?” we asked.
Our driver had perfected this down to a science. “This shop requires at least eight minutes. Look at some shawls and then get out.” Getting out can sometimes be easier said than done.
The salesmen and women are charming, beguiling demons, silver-tongued incubi and succubae trained at the hand of the devil himself. They could talk you out of every baht if you allowed them to slither within your ear and crawl around your heart, and resisting their many skilled ploys took constant effort and craftiness. Once, while whispering sweet nothings about the quality of the pashmina and how it was crafted by dozens of paraplegic street urchins with no teeth, some salesmen actually attempted to trap us physically by unfurling nearly three dozen heavy blankets upon our laps. These were people who had heard every excuse in the book, who knew every trick a tourist could use to try to get out of buying something, had designed their stores to be labyrinthian and always containing another floor and another salesman. The nature of their pleasantness made us reluctant to simply flee or to say, “We don’t want any of this useless crap,” and thus we had to try to talk ourselves free.
“Oh, that’s just not the colour I want.” Really? Luckily for you, we have this same thing in every single colour on the visible spectrum, and several in infrared. “I don’t really have any cash on me.” We take every major credit card, most of the minor ones, personal and travellers cheques, all foreign currencies, and even pinky-swears taken before a legal notary. “I left all of my cards and ID back at my hotel.” We have a guy who can follow you on scooter back to your hotel to complete your transaction there. “I don’t really think I can carry all of this stuff for the rest of my trip.” We ship to everywhere on this planet, most of the other heavenly bodies in our solar system, and even several parallel universes. “I need to think about it and maybe come back tomorrow.” What time? I’ll send my driver to pick you up.
Faith, as it turned out, was the most skilled at the dance, and eventually took the lead in every textile and tchotchke centre. “I’m looking for… well, it’s hard to describe,” she would begin, enrapturing the salesman at the scent of a potential sale. From there it was a carefully articulated and flowery goose chase through all of the possible items available in the store or available for layaway order, while still maintaining that nothing was at the proper specifications. The point, Faith declared, was to never let them try to sell you something, but to trick them into believing that they had a sale just waiting to be made so long as they could find what you were looking for
Ty and I would attempt to drift away, to lose our stalkers in the depths of their own stores. At a marble emporium in Da Nang, two middle-aged Vietnamese women trailed inches behind our backs, extolling the virtues of every single item we allowed to hold our gaze for more than three nanoseconds. Only once Faith expressed her vague and directionless interest would we be left alone, as vultures began to circle the likely source of meat.
And in time, after our petty disinterest, and after Faith’s misty-eyed sadness and sense of loss over never finding her desired, non-existent Perfect Souvenir, we would make our escape. We would find the stairs, we would not make eye contact with anyone, no matter how kind their entreaties. We would not stop at the in-store restaurant. No sleep until we’re back in the taxi.
“But maybe you would like to look at our custom suits?” someone will ask the Michael-shaped puff of smoke left in my wake. Not this time, I think. I’ve already had a nice waltz today, and you’re going to have to find some new dance partners.