Dealing with Cusco's street merchants

060Cusco is a beautiful city, and the people here are generally great. This is is a fantastic place to explore Peru’s intricately layered history, culture, and recreational opportunities. It is also, however, a city whose residents’ primary way of making a living is tourism – not only in the direct sale of tours and treks and the service industry built around feeding and providing shelter to thousands of fresh visitors each day, but with the endless lineup of souvenirs and services being constantly offered on the streets. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is ground zero for these street merchants and to be honest the constant barrage of sales pitches can be overwhelming and simply annoying to walk through at times. You may have achieved the highest level of Buddhist serenity, but I can guarantee you you’re going to get annoyed at some point, and you may even be tempted to lash out. This annoyance has even lead to a recent line of t-shirts available for purchase that read simply “NO GRACIAS”; it’s a sentiment understood by anyone who has spent a day or more in downtown Cusco.
My best advice is to not lash out at the vendors. Try to remember that they are trying to make a living like the rest of us, and if they don’t make the pitch to every tourist who walks by they may miss the opportunity to make an important sale. And, since they do this all day every day they’re pretty aware of when they don’t have a chance. You don’t have to engage in a conversation you don’t want to have and try to explain yourself, you don’t have to listen to the entire pitch, and you certainly don’t need to yell or get upset to get your point across. If you can’t find the t-shirt simply say ‘no gracias’ and keep walking. If that proves tiresome, just don’t make eye contact. That may sound harsh, but it may save you from exploding with frustration at a later point in the trip. If you encounter a particularly aggressive vendor, be firm at first and then ignore the continued pitch.
The trickier issue for me has been learning how to deal with the (very young) children who are out selling trinkets, candy and cigarettes, or shining shoes…often into the wee hours of the morning or during the time when they should be in school. I came out of a dance club at somewhere around 3AM last week and had a little boy offer to sell me gum or cigarettes. When I asked him how old he was, and didn’t he have school in the morning, he told me he was 10 – and, yes, he had class in a few hours. I didn’t really want any gum, but I gave him ten soles and asked him to please go home. I have no idea whether or not the taxi he got in was headed to his house or another sales destination. Another way some of the kids from the more rural areas make money is to wear traditional dress and bring the family llama in to town and ask for money in exchange for taking their picture. Basically, any time you take someone’s picture in Cusco or the Sacred Valley be prepared to provide a “propina”, or donation. These kids pose somewhat of an ethical dilemma: do you buy their trinkets and give them money, encouraging them to continue selling instead of going to school, or do you ignore them – which feels terrible. The advice I got from a local who has watched this practice grow tremendously over the years is to give a small amount of money when asked for a donation, but to also consider carrying extra pens and pencils or small notebooks to give them. Bringing that drawer full of old pencils to Peru could actually be tremendously helpful to kids in rural areas who don’t have easy access to school supplies. Ultimately, it’s not an issue with an easy answer – but do your best to have patience and respect. You can always retreat to the hills and quieter neighborhoods when you need to get away from it for a while.