The heart of a tourist hustler
Lonely in India, she befriended the local playboy. Who could have
anticipated what would happen next?
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BY LISA DREIER
"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 you=
eyes." His fingers flit upward, then out toward me, acting out his story.
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, a=
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 ou=
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, ver=
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
"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 thi=
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 evening=
yawned open like a blank space. After he helped translate a lengthy argumen=
between me and an auto-rickshaw driver one night, I let him take me out for
It was the start of an unusual friendship. Steering clear of prying eyes an=
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 bee=
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 =
few phrases of schoolbook English. A friend who owned a hotel began to teac=
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 n=
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.
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 coul=
still be home in time for his parents' curfew.
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 sleepin=
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
"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
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 revolve=
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
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. The=
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 bee=
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 talke=
to each other. His young wife was very shy.
In the meantime, Rakesh's father found a condom in his son's wallet. "What'=
this for?" he demanded.
"Oh, it belongs to my friend who asked me to keep it for him," the son
"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. Jeann=
called him from 150 miles away to say she and her boyfriend had broken up,
and could she come back?
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 trai=
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 ha=
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
Now Rakesh works full time in a painting shop. His job is to get tourists t=
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 sai=
with a rueful smile, blowing cigarette smoke toward the lake. He said it wa=
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 move=
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.
In the middle of all this, we looked over and saw their mother -- a reserve=
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 wa=
a thief. The line was a new one, but I stared at him, startled by a sense o=
d=E9j=E0 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 =
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 s=
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.
Now, when tourist hustlers approach me, I'm not quite so flippant. A part o=
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 loca=
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 tailorin=
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
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-cultura=
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.
SALON | Sept. 18, 1998
Lisa Dreier lives in Northern California.