One ugly part of travel which we all hope to avoid, but which inevitably will happen to everyone at some time or another, is all the crime that comes along with big cities. More precisely, the scams that are geared towards tourists, who might be jet-lagged, tired, lost or to some degree out of their elements. When I visited Budapest this in March, my mom was kind enough to research for me the “traveler’s tips” on Budapest, provided by the U.S. Embassy. Of the plethora of scams and tourist traps of which the embassy cautions tourists against, one “classic” example on the list seemed particularly awful to me. In this sketch, a seemingly friendly local woman approaches tourists on the street to offer a restaurant recommendation. It appears nice enough, but the woman then receives commission by the restaurant for recruiting visitors who are offered a special menu, with marked up prices. Since the currency may not be understood by visitors who have just arrived, the unsuspecting tourists get ripped off.
It’s not just in Eastern Europe where these hoaxes occur. Even in big cities in France, England and the U.S., they still exist, presumably in higher volume in popular areas for out-of-towners. Some of these situations should be obvious red flags anyone with an inkling of common sense to purposefully walk in the opposite direction. For example, the gypsies stationed along Champs-Elysées with their petitions, scanning the crowds for backpacks, cameras, or puzzled-faces staring at maps. Once a marker of the tourist is spotted they go in… Do you speak English? (Always answer no) Russian? German? Spanish? I’m not sure who actually stops to talk to these people or pays money to sign their faux petitions.
Another classic example is the Artists from Ghana. This sketch consists in men forming a barricade at the bottom of the Sacre Cœur in Montmarte (I’ve heard variations of this scam also occurs in other places). They wait for tourists to approach or descend from the hill, catch them off-guard and tie a bracelet around the wrist, as an accomplice goes in for the purse or bag of the distracted victim. It’s evident to anyone that these men aren’t any type of artist they claim to be (other than con). Additionally, it’s clear from first glance that you don’t want the cheap string they braid around one’s wrist that looks like a six-year-old’s art project.
So, is it all a scam? Should we assume that any stranger we encounter wants to misguide us or steal something from us? A few months ago I was standing in line for the Louvre with my friend. A woman approached the queue to give away her tickets because the rest of her party couldn’t make it to the museum. She was talking to a group of young women behind us explaining the situation, but they wouldn’t take the free tickets. Apparently, they thought it was some kind of a catch or they didn’t trust the woman giving them away.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t take the tickets! They were free!” the woman sighed in frustration after my friend and I had taken two of them, “I was just going to throw them away if no one took them.”
On my last trip in France, to the south, I was walking alone in Marseilles one evening at sunset. Near the Vieux Port, the Ferris Wheel is all lit up, glistening in front of a harbor full of ships against the pink and orange glowing sky. Tourists and locals congregate in front of the harbor, taking in the beautiful scenery.
“You’re shirt, it goes well with this ambiance,” says a voice, referring to the teal sweatshirt I am wearing. I glance over my shoulder and discover that the voice belongs to a man sporting a straw hat and carrying a paper shopping bag, “You don’t think so?” he says, when I don’t respond right away.
“Oh yes, It’s gorgeous outside,” I say, “The sky and the port make for a lovely atmosphere” He agrees with me and keeps going on about l’ambiance magnifique. As I keep walking to one side of port, skimming the menus outside of restaurants, another stranger approaches me.
“Vous cherchez un restaurant?” He says, quickly adding, “Parlez-vous français?”
“Oui,” I say in response to both questions, hesitatingly. I guess It’s not revealing too much to admit that I want to find a restaurant.
“Go to the other side of the port, to Chez Paul,” he says, “That’s the restaurant where I work. You can get a bowl of the bouillabaisse soup for fifteen euros. C’est moins cher.”
“Restaurant Chez Paul,” I repeat.
“Here, I’ll write it for you,” he says, as he scrawls the name of the restaurant and the dish down on a page in my notebook.
The reason the tourist trap of the lady guiding tourists to a restaurant with a “special” menu seems so awful to me is that these things make us doubt peoples’ good intentions. After witnessing and hearing about enough of these scams, one begins to think that there is always an ulterior motive from the person who appears to want to help. And it’s a shame, because we want to believe that the good people are still out there. On the other hand, when we do encounter some honest, helpful folk when we’re in culture shock, far away from home, it’s a meaningful reminder of how important these qualities are.