The heart of a tourist hustler

On a lonely trip in far-off India, Lisa Dreier befriended the local playboy. Who could have anticipated what would happen next?


Lisa Dreier
September 18, 1998 3:03PM (UTC)

"Excuse me -- excuse me! Is your father a thief?"

I pause in the street, somewhere between a stray dog and the open sewer.
A young Indian man is calling out to me. "Uh, no ... Why?"

"Because," an easy smile spreads across his face, revealing nearly white
teeth, "someone must have stolen the stars from the sky and put them in
your eyes." His fingers flit upward, then out toward me, acting out his
story.

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Oh, God. It's another tourist hustler. Raking my eyes over him in an
instant, I see that he fits the bill. Young, handsome, dressed in the
entirely Western clothes that are de rigueur for this type: tight Levis,
a macho belt buckle, an imitation Polo shirt. He smiles again,
expectantly, as I collapse into predictable laughter.

Maybe he wants to sell me some miniature paintings -- the specialty in
this town. Or he'll try to bring me into a shop, where his 25 percent
commission will be added to the price of anything I buy. He may have a
similar arrangement with several hotels -- all run by his friend or
brother or cousin. Or perhaps he's hoping for an easy romance, or the
prestige he'll win among his peers by just taking me out for a drink.

You see them in every town -- veering toward you on the streets, calling
out from the doorways of souvenir stands. They speak English, maybe a
little French, a sprinkling of Italian. Their behavior is so
suggestive, so forward, they seem to be a breed of their own -- sprung
incongruously from the traditional culture that surrounds them.

"Where do these guys come from?" I would think, weaving past a pack of
them who staked out the narrow alleyway like a testosterone-fueled
obstacle course. I'd respond with a mixture of exasperation and
amusement, occasionally tossing some ironic banter their way as I moved
past. "Oh, very nice with the tourist ladies," I said sarcastically to
the "stars in the sky" guy. But I couldn't help smiling.

Until I met Rakesh, I couldn't see why this phenomenon had sprung up not
only throughout India, but on every continent where I have traveled.
But after hearing Rakesh's story, I gained a new understanding of the
tourist hustler.

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"Hello, will you come and look in my shop?" These were the first words
he spoke to me. Another strikingly handsome hustler -- I was familiar
with this one. "Oh yeah, your shop, right," I retorted, never stopping
as I headed up the cobblestone road.

At first glance Rakesh seemed typical -- but something about him was special. I was alone
in his city, spending my days writing, and the evenings yawned open like
a blank space. After he helped translate a lengthy argument between me
and an auto-rickshaw driver one night, I let him take me out for a soda.

It was the start of an unusual friendship. Steering clear of prying
eyes and the red-lit restaurant where Indian men were known to bring
foreign women, we'd meet across town each night after his shop closed.
Over unlicensed beer and spicy dahl, we spilled our stories to each
other. A strange agreement sprung up between us: total honesty, and no
games. My new friend surprised himself by telling me the truth about
his life, and this is what I heard.

Rakesh first entered the tourist trade at the age of 13. "I
didn't know anything," he said. He was from a poor, traditional family,
and spoke just a few phrases of schoolbook English. A friend who owned
a hotel began to teach him the ropes. Rakesh helped out in the
restaurant and began to observe the strange new breed of people who ate
there. They were foreign, they had lots of cash and the women were
both captivating and accessible. Rakesh earned no salary, but when he
brought tourists to the hotel, he received a small commission. This was
a nice perk for his family -- some nights he'd walk home with an extra
50 or 100 rupees for his mother.

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He began to work the streets, convincing tourists to shop at places
where he'd earn a 25 percent commission. His good looks gave him an edge --
women and gay men responded when he approached them with all his charm
turned on. Off they'd go, in search of rugs or clothes or paintings.
Afterward, the shopkeeper would slip some folded bills into his palm
during a brief handshake. For a big-ticket item like a rug, this could
be as much as 8,000 rupees. It was far more than he could have earned
at any regular job, and several times what his father would earn in a
month.

Inevitably, Rakesh became acculturated to the people who formed the
center of his working days and his personal economy. His English
improved, and he picked up slang and a cool demeanor. He took up
smoking. With some of the extra cash, he bought new blue jeans and
button-down shirts. And eventually, after watching the easy laughs and
tantalizing expanses of skin, he learned to try his luck with the women.

This brought spectacular success. Rakesh was handsome by anyone's
standards. Like most young Indian men, he had almost no opportunities
to relate to Indian women outside his family. But the tourist girls
were easy. They laughed, they looked, they responded to his touch.
They were young and unchaperoned, sometimes lonely, often full of
desire. He learned to size them up in a glance, and could spot the
willing ones instantly. One-night stands were simply arranged, and
after meeting a girl in her hotel, he could still be home in time for
his parents' curfew.

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Sometimes he'd be seeing several different tourist women at once, all
staying in different hotels. Occasionally, this backfired. One girl
came back to see him two days after she'd left, only to find him already
sleeping with her friend. Another time, he invited his four current
girlfriends to meet him at a restaurant at the same time. When he came
through the door, all four -- none of whom knew about the others --
turned to say hello. "Who are you?" he said to one. "And you? And
you? And you?" then he turned and ran.

"I was crazy, you know?" he says to me now. "Like this," he taps his
forehead. "Not good. But I tell you these things honest, OK? I was
very bad."

Being bad was easy. So was dealing drugs, just a little on the side, to
bring in extra cash. It was a natural compliment to his work, which
revolved around swinging with the tourist crowd. He flirted with gay
tourist men, taking them shopping but steering clear of their
propositions. He preferred the women, and he could afford to choose.
Many of his friends, though, were willing to have sex with foreign men
in exchange for money, gifts or shop commissions.

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Love letters and photographs streamed into the home of his bewildered
family, bearing foreign stamps. "Rakesh has many friends," they'd shrug
to each other. It was a double life: His family demanded compliance
with a strict and innocent social code, and never saw what he did across
town. They would have been upset even to know that he smoked.

In the midst of all this, Rakesh got married. His parents had arranged
a match for his older brother, and the ceremony was so expensive they
figured they'd economize and marry both sons at once. So at the age of
18, Rakesh put on the traditional red turban, mounted a small white
horse that had been rented for the occasion and was joined in matrimony
with a 13-year-old girl he barely knew. She would continue to live with
her family and he with his until some later date when the parents
agreed to let the partnership begin. Three years later, he told me he'd
never even kissed his wife on the cheek. He visited her family about
three times a year; even then they rarely talked to each other. His
young wife was very shy.

In the meantime, Rakesh's father found a condom in his son's wallet.
"What's this for?" he demanded.

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"Oh, it belongs to my friend who asked me to keep it for him," the son
replied.

"Don't lie to me!"

"OK," Rakesh said, cowed. He had learned to deal fast and invent
stories on the street, but his family was sacred. "If you don't want me
to lie to you, then here. Just take it." He handed the offending
packet to his dad. They never spoke of it again.

This could have gone on forever, and in some lives, it does. But Rakesh was lucky: He
fell in love and woke up. The object of his adoration was an Australian
woman, Jeanne, who came to stay with her boyfriend in the hotel where
Rakesh worked. The boyfriend got sick (a terrible error) and while he
lay in bed, Rakesh and Jeanne talked late into the night, stealing
kisses. They cried when she left. Then, a few days later, a miracle
happened. Jeanne called him from 150 miles away to say she and her
boyfriend had broken up, and could she come back?

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She did, and she stayed for three months. Rakesh would bring her
breakfast each morning, then go out to work the streets. In the
evening, he'd fall asleep in her arms -- until just before midnight,
when the alarm went off and he rushed home along shadowy, abandoned
streets to sleep beside his brother on the floor of the family home.

Jeanne was genuine and warm-hearted. She demanded honesty and inspired
love. She entreated Rakesh to give up drug dealing and double-crossing
women. For her, he did. He'd never been close to someone like this
before.

It was a gut-wrenching day when Jeanne left to go back to Australia.
"Usually, I don't take girls to the train station," says Rakesh, who is
well-versed in such departures. "But with Jeanne ..." he trails off,
remembering. "I had tears like this," he says, his fingers tracing
unstoppable tracks down his cheeks. "And now, never again I go to that
train station. It was terrible."

The love stuck. Rakesh showed me her picture, kissing it
surreptitiously when his younger brother looked away. It had been two
years since Jeanne had left; Rakesh said he was just waiting. Maybe
somehow they would make a life together in her country. But Jeanne
seemed resigned to a different fate. "Someday I want you and your wife
and children to come and visit me in Australia," she wrote in a letter
he unfolded carefully from a bulging plastic bag.

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Now Rakesh works full time in a painting shop. His job is to get
tourists to come into the shop, then sell them paintings -- and he's
good at it. He makes a monthly salary, most of which goes to his family
and a community savings bank. He spends about 15 rupees a day on
cigarettes and soda, and only occasionally sleeps with tourists. He and
Jeanne tell each other everything in their letters.

I liked Rakesh -- he was cheeky and handsome and sweet. His cool
exterior hid a gentle soul. "I can't believe I'm telling you this, you
know?" he said with a rueful smile, blowing cigarette smoke toward the
lake. He said it was because I reminded him of Jeanne.

One night, he took me home to have dinner with his family. We walked
across a bridge to the other side of the lake, through a maze of dirt
roads dimly lit by an occasional shop selling bananas and soda and tiny
packets of shampoo. Mothers sat on their front stoops while children
played in the street; the entire neighborhood commented as I walked by.

Inside their small two-story home, I met the younger siblings. The only
daughter, Rana, was about to get married at age 16. The whole
family was plunged into a panic because the date of the wedding had
suddenly been moved up, and they had three months to come up with
100,000 rupees to pay for the ceremony and dowry. This was a nearly
insurmountable task. They were going to have to go into debt; Rakesh
had sold his motorcycle and was thinking of dealing drugs again to cover
the costs. Nikhil, the younger brother, was 17. He was friendly
and had striking looks, as did the entire family. The three siblings
drew the curtains, giggling, then cranked the stereo and showed me how
they could dance to Western rock music. Nikhil danced outrageously. Their innocence and glee were contagious.

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In the middle of all this, we looked over and saw their mother -- a
reserved and dignified woman, resolute in her traditional veil --
peering curiously in through the window.

"Rakesh, do you think your brother will ever go to work with the
tourists also?" I asked him. After all, it was good money.

"No!" he said, with surprising vehemence. He shook his finger to
underscore his point. "I won't let him. He is very innocent. Not like
me." Later, he said that perhaps he had been too young when he started
working with tourists -- too impressionable and ill-equipped to handle
the swirl of seductive opportunity. Whatever had gone wrong, he wasn't
going to let it happen to his kid brother.

It was a few days later that the man in the street asked me if my father
was a thief. The line was a new one, but I stared at him, startled by a
sense of déjà vu. He looked almost exactly like Rakesh! The Western
clothes, the smooth and flirtatious body language, the easy English
slang. After hearing how contact with tourists had transformed Rakesh's
life, I saw this man in a new way. He was a member of an easily
identifiable species, and now I understood where they came from. We had
created them: we, the tourists -- foreign women, gay men, drug users and
souvenir shoppers; we, the exporters of Western culture. The forces that
had distorted this man's social world so profoundly were my own. We had
come here to appreciate Indian culture, but in the process we were
changing it. This man's behavior was just a symptom of that change.

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Now, when tourist hustlers approach me, I'm not quite so flippant. A
part of me is sad. I watch their come-ons and know that in some way, my
own society has helped create them. Maybe this is not so bad, but it's
an unnatural twist in the ecology of the local culture. I wonder about
clashing social values, about who benefits from this cross-cultural
encounter. Is it the local men, who come away with new friendships,
extra cash or quick romance? Is it the foreigners, whose cultural
values leave a powerful stamp long after they've left?

What about the people who are entirely left out of this picture -- the
local women? By and large, rural India's young women don't have the
option of accessing the tourist culture and economy. Older matrons may
staff tailoring shops or sell vegetables, and a few young ones work in
offices, always taking a back seat to their male colleagues when clients
come in.

Because most girls are carefully sheltered at home, a rift is springing
up within the younger generation. Shortly after I left, Rakesh's wife
came to visit his family and stayed for two weeks. "We're starting to
talk to each other more, it's good," he said when I called him from
Delhi. "But oh, I don't know what to do." He wasn't sure whether or
how to approach her physically. She was very innocent; the difference
in their experiences yawned wide.

It was time for me to leave; I boarded a train and rode for 20 hours
from Rakesh's city toward Delhi. Staring out the window as we
shuttled through the arid landscape at dusk, I thought about what I'd
seen. They say this world will only get smaller, and perhaps it's
inevitable that cross-cultural encounters leave their mark. What
bothers me is that it seems to be an unequal exchange. Tourists leave a
clear trail behind them, transforming pockets of the local culture. But
any social impact that they themselves experience is less visible and
more fleeting. At the end of their trip, travelers can forget this
strange world they have passed through. It's the local inhabitants who
don't have that choice. Their world is changed, and they continue to
live in it, bending themselves to meet its new shape.


Lisa Dreier

Lisa Dreier is a freelance writer and nonprofit consultant in Northern California.

MORE FROM Lisa Dreier

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