When you get on a bus in Chile, you’re not just going for a ride; you’re going shopping. Roaming vendors board and exit buses at every corner offering their wares. Last week I was riding the 505 when a man stood up front and made his pitch:
A very good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Pardon the interruption. Today we are offering a special on rulers in assorted colors that have your children’s favorite cartoon characters on the back. You may ask what could be so special about a normal ruler. These are no ordinary rulers, but rulers that are also bracelets. Just slap it on your wrist and carry it with you. You might ordinarily expect to pay 300 or 400 pesos for a ruler like this, but today we are offering them for just 100 pesos [$0.20].
Perhaps you are thinking, “Who would buy crap like that?” If so, then you haven’t been to Chile because the answer is everyone. The ruler man sold five or six in the 30 seconds between his pitch and getting off at the next street corner. If you get on a bus and sell it, the people will buy it. On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “Hey, where can I get one of those?”then catch the next plane to Santiago because that’s not all they’ve got.
On the Santiago city buses I’ve been offered gum, cough drops, Super 8 chocolate bars, ice cream, key chains, Mother’s Day cards, herbal body-purifying powder, and lanyards for the new subway smart cards, to name a few items. Once Roy, Patrick, and I watched a particularly impressive demonstration of a multi-use tool that also cut through glass and could have been ours for just 800 pesos—$1.50. In fact, it almost was because Roy is a sucker for bus merchandise and was reaching for his wallet when the fast-moving salesman exited the bus. Although the merchandise moves itself, you have to act fast or you’ll miss out.
Even if you think you know the hard sell, you probably haven’t seen the favored technique of an especially pushy group of vendors. They hand one of whatever they are selling to every passenger on the bus. Then they make a second pass where you have to return the item you’re holding if you don’t want to keep it, or fork over some dough if you do. It’s supposed to make you feel guilty. Sometimes it does. When you do buy something, you stop to wonder how many people held it before you.
Other vendors prefer to sell their talent instead of merchandise, and there’s a market for that as well. Singers and musicians play a few songs, ranging from rap and bongo drums to traditional Chilean folk music, then collect their tips. Those who can’t sing recite poetry or pass out their writing using the aforementioned extra-hard sell; the literary vendors have the least success in my experience.
When Santiago transitioned from their old transportation system to the new Transantiago, they said roaming vendors would not be permitted on buses any longer. For a brief period, moving salesmen were on the outs. In the end it was mere rhetoric; the vendors are back. Once again the phrase “go shopping” is redundant. In Chile, just go and the shopping will come to you.