Direct Marketing.

Why is there a clown on a bus?

The clown is working. Earning his daily bread. Putting food on the table. He is a mobile busker of sorts. He is taking his product straight to his audience. Advertisers would call it direct marketing, and the passengers on the bus are a captive audience.

The clown performed his 3 piece set for the passengers before we set off for our intended destination, and asked for ‘propinas’, or tips, in return for the few moments of entertainment. He livened up a very boring and monotonous aspect of travel and distracted his audience from the chaotic, smelly, noisy and ugly bus terminal in which they sat.

The clown is just one of the many salespeople who ply their trade on inter-city buses throughout Latin America in an attempt to earn a living in a region in which employment is precarious.

Comida y bebidas

Salespeople will board buses at terminals and offer their products or services to passengers who can choose to make a small payment. Some people will sell staples such as food and drink at a standard price and will rush up and down the crowded aisles trying to entice every passenger in to making a purchase before scurrying on to the next bus and the next one.

Some vendors might stay on the bus. Their sales require more time. They might be said to invest more with their audience. Thus, they will remain on the bus as it pulls out of the terminal and continue their journey until the bus stops at the pick up point on the outskirts of town. At this point, they will thank the driver, alight, and connect with another bus heading back to the terminal and attempt to market their products directly to a new audience.

A Blessing

Other salespeople are not selling a specific product. They instead offer items to passengers. Many of them will place in the hands of each passenger a card with a blessing, a positive affirmation or a religious image imprinted upon it. Once they have given every passenger a blessing, they will walk back down the aisle and collect the cards from those who don’t wish to keep them, or accept money from those who wish to hold on to the blessing.

How much do they earn?

It depends. They usually earn a few coins per card. It might also depend on whether the food and beverage vendor is also prowling the aisle at the same time – it can get quite crowded.

Capitalists call this competition. The free market.

The Pen Salesman

The best sales pitch I ever encountered during my many bus journeys was the pen salesman in Guatemala. He gave the most impressive spiel about pens that I have ever heard. He awarded his pens a value more precious than gold and more vital than water.

What did he say?

I can’t repeat his pitch here. It would be a breach of copyright. At least, I hope he has copyright on his pitch. He should.

Did I need a pen?

No

Did I already have a pen?

Yes

Did I want a pen?

No

Did I buy a pen?

Yes

Advertising gurus will tell you that the best marketing convinces people that they need something that they don’t actually need. I didn’t need a pen, but I bought a handful because the salesman convinced me that I needed a pen.

Not just any pen.

Not just one pen.

I needed a handful of his pens.

A trippy hippy island and a frightening encounter.

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The chants didn’t quite skip across the water, they bounded across the lake. The darkness served only to compound the spiritual bombardment emanating from the loud speakers on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

Our boat slid across the oil-slick bay, as if floating on a wave of divine inspiration. We disembarked and picked our way through the narrow lanes of San Marcos with just the faint light of a tiny torch, trusting that some form of higher being would guide us to our lodging.

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Our faith was restored after we reached our private little eco-cabin at La Paz Hostel. It was here that we drifted to sleep to the tunes of wellness zealots who had found a new home in San Marcos.

The wellness zealots woke us before the sun and we decided to continue our personal transformation with a session of Yoga before breakfast. Feeling aligned and centred, we set off for a walk to San Pedro and its famous market.

As we ambled along the winding road which hugs the shores of the immensely picturesque Lago Atitlan, past fields of crops and scarred hillsides not yet recovered from the recent hurricane, we pondered the presence of so many westerners chasing enlightenment in San Marcos. We questioned whether any of the local people shared the passion for self-awareness and the quest for a metaphysical metamorphosis.

We were soon to find out.

The walk and the views had prompted a degree of introspection among all of us, but we were soon rudely awakened from this bliss.

Two young local men emerged from the bushes as we rounded a bend. They greeted us, and we responded. They then demanded money. We politely refused. They demanded again, in a more threatening tone. Again, we politely refused, trying to hide the panic in our voices. The locals insisted, and produced machetes. Big machetes. They pointed the machetes at us and repeated their demands for money, cameras – anything. We backed off and as much as we tried to remain calm and assertive. We were genuinely frightened that the carefully-sharpened edge of their machetes could soon part us with our valuables, or something much worse.

We turned, quickened our stride and walked back around the bend we had just passed, checking continually over our shoulders to see if they were following. The distant rumble of a motor vehicle and the menacing swoops of birds of prey overhead were the only other sounds on this quiet stretch of road.

Eventually, we put enough distance between ourselves and the opportunistic locals, who disappeared into the bushes.

A farmer on a rise above the bend looked up and was surprised to see us round the corner we had passed but moments earlier. He asked us what happened and then offered to walk us back to the nearest village – displaying his own large machete. No thanks.

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Dazed, shocked, frightened and jolted savagely from our tranquility, we stopped and regathered. It was only through sheer fortune that we had not been robbed, injured or worse. It was also through sheer fortune that the distant rumble of a motor vehicle belonged to a taxi which pulled up beside us. We hopped in, relieved to be driven the rest of the way to San Pedro.

A brief conversation with the locals on the bus did little to settle our jangled nerves. They told us that even they are reluctant to walk that stretch of road because of the threat of robbery.

Not quite the serenity we’d expected.

Image: Rachelle Blake

 

 

Step back in time.

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Everything stopped. Everyone fell silent. Candles flickered in the darkness and threw tempered light across the rows of fruit and vegetables lined up in the market stalls.

Thinly clad feet shuffled in the soft light and murmurs surfaced from unseen corners of the vast space. Whispers of an unfamiliar tongue slowly emerged. Soft laughter and truncated sentences.

The voices spoke K’iche’, and rolled off the tongues of local women dressed in the traditional clothing which draws thousands of people to the textile market in the small mountain town of ChiChocastenango in central Guatemala.

From our vantage point on the balcony of the first floor, we witnessed a rare sight. As a blackout plunged the hall into darkness, we gazed down upon a market operating as it would have done for hundreds of years. Local people speaking their indigenous language, to the light of the candles, dressed in traditional clothing and selling produce from the land which has sustained them for generations.

A fortunate experience indeed.

Image: Rachelle Blake

 

 

 

The none too subtle art of photographing people.

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Travel offers countless opportunities to take wonderful photos. Exploration of new frontiers allows us to perfectly capture landscapes, architecture, cuisine, monuments, ruins, culture…and people.

Most visitors yearn for a keepsake image of local people in traditional attire, but capturing such an image can be problematic.

During a trip through Central America, my travel buddies and I wanted some photos of elderly Guatemalan men in traditional clothing in the villages on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

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We were mindful of keeping our distance, aware that the men may not like to be put on the spot with the request for a photo. We also wanted to photograph the men in their natural setting. Most of all though, we wanted to photograph the men because they looked so stylish.

The question was, though, how do we take a photo of the men? We could ask them to pose, but that seemed disrespectful and the photos were likely to look stilted – and we had no interest in being in the photos ourselves as we were dressed in the clothes that had served us during the last 3 months of backpacking.

We decided that two of us would pretend to pose, near our subject, while the other took the photo. The photographer would point the camera at us and just happen to catch the man in the frame.

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Despite our concerted efforts to appear natural and innocent, most of the men knew they were being photographed. One seemed displeased, others unconcerned and a few shot us a small knowing grin as they saw us fail to hide our own laughter.

We persevered with this charade for some time, and only captured a few images. We felt more foolish with each attempt and decided that enough was enough. It was time to get the bus back to the hostel.

At the bus stop, what did we find? A number of local gentlemen on their way home, looking extremely dapper. This time, my two travel buddies brushed off their fledgling Spanish and asked the men for a photo.

The men happily obliged.

I guess another thing that travel teaches you is that anywhere in the world, no man can resist the charms of two attractive young women.