Sell on Wheels: Pitching and Rolling
on the Lean Streets of Quito
by James McEnteer
Quito you’re either on the bus or off the bus and many are on it. Ecuador’s
long, narrow capital city lies between rows of volcanic Andean peaks. Though the
urban area stretches nearly fifty kilometers from north to south, it’s possible
to traverse most of that distance for twenty-five cents (twelve cents for
children and seniors), transferring from one city bus to another. Of course this
cheap, reliable public transportation is very popular.
Quito bus riders are also captive audiences for all sorts
of sales pitches.
Hawkers may come on peddling medicines, for instance. They
will make a brief introduction, apologizing for the intrusion, as they move
swiftly down the aisle handing out samples of their wares to anyone who will
accept them. They launch directly into the long list of benefits their miracle
pill or powder can bestow, the many ailments it can cure or prevent.
Or someone might chant the praises of a cookbook full of
many fabulous recipes. The sales person may run through some or all of those
recipes, a litany that sounds something like an auction, to entice customers to
buy. This prodigious feat of memory may provoke hunger as the bus passengers
listen to the long list of meat and fish dishes, or the many deserts one can
learn to cook from the proffered volume.
More entertainingly, sales folk pitching CDs pass out
their samples and then play excerpts on a small computer or a portable CD
player they wear around their necks to keep their hands free to pass out their
products or collect their payments. Whether the products on offer are medicines,
cookbooks or music, most passengers accept the chance to hold them in their
hands while they listen to the pitch. Inevitably, no matter how much the sales
person claims their product is worth, they end up asking one dollar for it,
just to keep things simple. The U.S. dollar is the largest common coin in
A man dressed as a circus clown boards a bus selling
packs of magic candy, two for a dollar. He says if you eat one, you’ll be able
to speak English. Eat two, and you can speak French. Three, and you’ll be
fluent in Quichua (a local indigenous language). But if you eat four you’ll
As in any profession, some bus vendors excel at what they
do, while others are hopeless, rattling on in a rote, unconvincing singsong. Or
mumbling their inaudible spiel beneath the drone of the bus engine and the
cacophony of city traffic. Some vendors are too shy for their chosen
profession. They should probably stand passively with their wares on a street
corner, as many do in this lemonade stand economy.
In some cases, a bus sales pitch has little to do with
the product. One man who hawks packets of plastic garbage bags spends most of
his time describing the community of orphans that stands to benefit from his
sales. Of course, what can you say about a garbage bag? That it can hold all
the stuff you could buy on a bus?
and crippled vendors board the busses too, sometimes with children or other
helpers, to throw themselves on the mercy of the passengers, urging them to buy
candy or simply to give them donations. Handicapped vendors wear official
government name tags which certify their afflictions as genuine. Considering
the meager gleanings of the disabled bus vendors, it is a wonder that their
helpers make enough to get by.
Two or three strapping young men may start rapping along
with their recorded music and breaking out dance moves down the center aisle. I
tend to donate to these guys, whether or not they’re any good, to encourage
their show business aspirations, so they don’t have to fall back on crime,
mugging pedestrians on the street if their bus performance gigs don’t pan out.
Performers especially, but all vendors, must time their
bus sales to avoid the crush of standing riders during peak commuting hours.
That makes for a short, intense work day, hopping on and off one bus after
another, every fifteen minutes or so after the early morning crowds ease off
and before the late afternoon commute begins. Is there a training school for
bus vendors? Maybe there should be.
Annoying, amusing, always on the go, Quito bus
vendors offer random interactive diversion for passengers shuttling from here to
there at bargain rates, whether or not you buy what they’re selling. They make
online pop-up ads look slick and remote by comparison, and way two-dimensional.
James McEnteer is the
author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of
American Political Documentaries (Praeger).
He lives in Quito, Ecuador.