An Ode to Street Touts and Hawkers

Indian Bangles - Calcutta, India
Endless selection of bangles on sale.

I’m not normally moved to poetry, but India is a place of firsts. I wrote this in Kolkata (Calcutta), but was reminded of it today as I walked the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker ghetto.

This poem is for all who ceaselessly sidle up to me as I walk down the street, befriending me only for the sake of a sale. Although I’m certain those who inspired this poem are unlikely to ever see it, I offer it just the same.
Disclaimer: I’m not a poet…and I know it.

I don’t want any silk saris, pashminas or bangles,
nor do I need more bindis I’ll never use.
I have no kitchen, so spices are a waste
and I bet that saffron is anything but true.

Telling me how wonderful America is –
that’s just touristic and empty banter.
Praise my beauty – it won’t help your cause.
I’m too wise by now; I only brake for candor.

Please let me enjoy your streets in peace,
and engage me for my humanity.
In return, I promise to purchase what I like,
and we can both savor our sanity.

Sarees Shop - Varanasi, India
Saris for sale in Varanasi.

Why not just ignore them and keep walking?” you ask? The catch: there is the occasional person who is truly interesting…and interested in us. This is why we continue to respond and engage. We keep ourselves open to worthwhile opportunities and connections, for these outweigh all others.

For those of you hoping for photos from our Annapurna Circuit trek, you’ll just have to wait another day. Patience is a virtue.

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  1. Daisy says

    Hi Audrey and Dan,
    That was a wonderful poem. And I’m glad you haven’t gone the easy route and given up on chance encounters…come to think of it, nothing about your ‘route’ seems easy!
    Best wishes for continued fun and good health in your adventures,

  2. says

    Glad you enjoyed the poem! After spending the last two days and 20+ hours on rural buses in Yunnan (China), your comment about our ‘route’ not being rang oh, so true today! A beautiful route through endless terraced rice fields and villages, but “bumpy” is an understatement to describe the roads.
    Hope you are doing well yourself!

  3. says

    Just reading your post, makes me cringe already. The touts are simply tough here. I wonder how it will be when we finally find the courage and leave Goa for other parts of India. ;-)))

  4. says

    @Chris: Goa may actually prepare you pretty well for the touts throughout the rest of India as touristy areas are the worst places for touts. You can’t walk two meters in Udaipur’s touristy area without getting approached, but if you walk a few hundred meters to the fruit and vegetable market no one tries to sell you anything. Wonderful!

  5. Alanna says

    Oh, I had so very few issues with Udaipur’s touts that I decided to do most of my shopping there as I was so rarely harassed. The very worst of it was in Delhi, honestly. And I heard so much about Agra’s touts that I was completely dreading it but was surprised to find it not at all as bad as Delhi. Chennai was also relatively peaceful, though Mahabalipuram was a disaster (the touts invaded every inch of our personal space — I was additionally worried about pickpockets — along with refusing to leave). Our tour guide (recommended by our driver) would occasionally shoo off some touts, but for the most part, he actually collaborated with the touts so that they would be lined up when we returned to meet up with him. Not too pleasant.

    Unsurprisingly, you’ll find the most aggressive touts at tourist destinations. I found the best way to connect with locals was on the trains and within the ticketed portion of a tourist destination (touts unable to enter without buying a ticket).

    I wish I could have been able to adopt your more optimistic perception that people approaching you may just be genuinely interested people and not people trying to con you, but even when I did let me guard down once to a guy who kept insisting that he wasn’t trying to get money out of me, that he was not a tour guide, that he was just there to talk and help me out, he turned around and demanded money for his tour guide services in the end. For the most part, I either expressed disinterest to people that approached me or ignored them completely. And I was truly bummed about the whole attitude that I had to take on, too.

  6. says

    @Alanna: We avoided Delhi and Agra on this last trip to India, but from what I’ve heard they have the most aggressive touts. In comparison, Udaipur is calm. But, they were more aggressive than what we encountered in laid back Kerala.

    It’s a fine line to keeping yourself open to random, curious people on the street and keeping your guard up for people befriending you in order to sell you something or expect payment in return. In more touristy areas, it’s almost always someone that wants something from you…but occasionally there is a pleasant surprise. It does get tiring though!

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