Re-reading my journals from my travels in Central Asia, I came across a pertinent analysis I’d made (and subsequently forgotten) of the different ways of dealing with getting ripped off while traveling.
Getting scammed on the road is something that all travelers have experienced to a large or small degree. Whether they come offering taxi fares, package tours, or souvenirs and trinkets, there are many people in nearly every country who make their living selling things to ignorant tourists at a substantial mark-up. If you are only in a particular city or country for a few days, and especially if you don’t speak the language, there is virtually no way for you to know how much everything should cost, and you will inevitably overpay at some point. I don’t care how savvy and experienced a traveler you are, or how much pre-trip research you do; unless you have a trusted local with you 24/7 of your stay, you will get ripped off.
Does this fact of life mean that you should never travel? Of course not. No place in the world is entirely safe, and many people get ripped off in their own countries each day. Furthermore, if you’re coming from a wealthy Western nation and traveling in an extremely poor country, unwittingly paying $2 for something when a local would pay $1 isn’t exactly a travesty.
Still, that feeling of getting burned by a tout or salesman stings. Angry thoughts can fester and sour your trip for significant stretches. I know, because I have allowed this to happen to me in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Whenever people ask me which country that I’ve traveled to is my favorite, I launch into my standard speech about how I cannot pick one favorite, that I have found unique and exciting things in so many countries that it’s impossible to elevate one clearly above all others. However, I can very easily pick my least favorite country: Egypt.
I spent three weeks in Egypt during what turned out to be one of the last months of the Mubarak regime. As noted, I have traveled to many countries (including other Arab countries) and had people try to sell me things in all of them, but I have never seen such a concentration of people trying to gouge me for as much money as possible, as often as possible, as I experienced in Egypt. Travelers to Egypt very quickly learn the word “baksheesh,” roughly equivalent to “tip.” In my experience, acts of selfless generosity were rare in Egypt; instead, nearly everyone has his hand out constantly. This observation is not unique to me or to this era; for example, Mark Twain really captures the Egyptian experience in The Innocents Abroad, written in the mid-19th century. From Chapter 58:
“Of course we contracted with them, paid them, were delivered into the hands of the draggers, dragged up the Pyramids, and harried and be-deviled for bucksheesh from the foundation clear to the summit. We paid it, too, for we were purposely spread very far apart over the vast side of the Pyramid. There was no help near if we called, and the Herculeses who dragged us had a way of asking sweetly and flatteringly for bucksheesh, which was seductive, and of looking fierce and threatening to throw us down the precipice, which was persuasive and convincing…We suffered torture no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for bucksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes and poured incessantly from Arab lips.”
Still, one reason that I had such an exceptionally miserable experience in Egypt is that I let the relentless touts get to me. I ridiculously overpaid for a tour around the Pyramids, I got ripped off my cab drivers taking the long way around to run up the meter, and I got gouged on a couple hotel rooms. Two weaknesses of character that I possess, and that I am constantly trying to alter for the better, are a tendency toward indecisiveness, and a desire to avoid confrontation. These traits have figured prominently in many of the occasions when I’ve been ripped off. Yet whatever the causes may be, as I noted previously, getting ripped off is inevitable to some degree. Events happen that are largely out of your control. What is under your control, however, is how you deal with getting ripped off.
Thus back to my theory. As I see it, rip-off victims basically fall into three categories. Let’s call them Guy A, Guy B, and Guy C.
Guy A gets ripped off, then realizes he’s been ripped off and is extraordinarily angry about it. The loss of money puts him in a foul mood, which continues for several hours or even days after the rip-off occurs. The pleasure he may have gotten out of his purchase turns mostly to bitter scorn.
Guy B gets ripped off, but doesn’t realize he has grossly overpaid. Thus he carries on blissfully ignorant, enjoying his tour or souvenir without considering that he could have gotten it for far cheaper.
Guy C gets ripped off, realizes it, but shrugs it off. While regretting the loss of money, he takes the loss as a learning experience, and does not allow his enjoyment of his purchase to be diminished by the knowledge that he could have gotten it for cheaper.
I have unfortunately spent too much of my travel life as Guy A, and have long feared becoming Guy B. For me, Guy B is the wide-eyed rube, the country tourist who gets fleeced in the big city and goes home with empty pockets, scratching his head. However, I now recognize that Guy C is the best model to aspire to, and that even Guy B generally enjoys his vacation far more than Guy A.
Once when I was in Budapest, I got scammed out of a chunk of cash. I was highly upset and fuming about the incident. I didn’t want to go out and do anything; all my thoughts kept coming back to the money I’d lost, putting me in an endless loop of regret and anger.
One of the friends I was traveling with helped me put the incident in perspective by telling me something very profound. He said, “Losing the money sucks, and you can’t change that. But that event only ruins your vacation if you allow it to.”
My friend’s statement fits very well with one of those basic principles of life, eloquently explained in Buddhist philosophy. External events happen constantly. Some are good, and some are bad. All too often we say things like, “Oh, if only such and such hadn’t happened! Then I would be happy!”
However, bad things will always happen to all people. It doesn’t matter where you live, what age you are, what job you have, or how much money you make. You will always face hardship and difficulties in one form or another. You will never be able to wish or buy or pray away challenging events; they are inevitable and outside of your control. What you do have control over is how you think about and respond to those events.
Someone insults you? Don’t say, “If only that person hadn’t insulted me! Now I’m so angry I can’t get any work done!” That insult took only a few seconds to deliver, but now you are nurturing and growing that insult in your mind over hours and hours. That’s a decision that you’ve made. Why make such a decision to be miserable? Why accept that insult and allow it to eat at you from the inside out?
The same mentality works for getting ripped off. So when traveling, make sure to keep the Guy C mentality in mind, and thus have a much better time on your trip, whatever comes your way.