Señoras y Señores

10 Jan, 2013 | Niall Flynn

Urban living

Derived from the Quechua word for owl, pajpaku is the term used in Bolivia to denote the innovative salespeople who operate in bustling city squares, inter-city buses and crowded market places. They rely on nothing more than their own business acumen, rhetorical prowess and inventiveness. They are artists and masters of oratory, yet seen by some as charlatanes...Niall Flynn talks us through his experience of the pajpakus.

‘Le ha robado algo?’. ‘Did he rob you?’. The primary assumption as to why I might want to locate one of these public salesmen is petty street theft. This quick fi re answer - the response of a kiosk-working Cholita upon my request to discover the whereabouts of a pajpaku - speaks volumes about these characters. It explains, quite plainly, that no-one goes looking for pajpakus, but rather, one stumbles upon them and often remains entranced against their own conscious will. It explains their societal image: they are con-artists. It explains that they are viewed as people who are toothless when it comes to making money.

Photo: Joel Balsam

As I stood and watched a man in El Alto’s Plaza de Autos selling medicine for colon cancer, I was struck by three particularly impressive traits: his ability to attract and retain a crowd, his humour (despite his complete lack of spontaneity), and his apparent confidence in his product. Underneath a parasol by his portable kiosk, the pajpaku stands equipped with a bucket of his remedies in eyedrop sized vials, several A3 prop cards with a host of graphic pictures, a microphone headset, and a bucket full of cash. He starts, just like every pajpaku,by politely addressing his audience. ‘Señoras y señores, estimados amigos...’

From here on in, it is a battle between his persuasive sales technique and your sometimes subconscious desire to leave; a battle frequently lost by the client. He addresses the crowd throughout his pitch, starting every sentence with ‘amigos’ or ‘estimada gente’, continuously capturing the attention of the stream of potential clients walking by. He boasts confidence in his product by offering a sample to each and every member of the surrounding circle. He lies, I presume, about his product’s popularity and common use in Europe and North America, places he can be almost certain the majority of his audience have never visited; places that breathe confi dence into his product’s effectiveness. The serious matters that have to be confronted are presented with light-hearted humour. ‘Si estas embarazada, por favor no tomes, si lo haces, tu bebé va a salir caminando’. ‘If you are pregnant, please do not take it, if you do, your baby will walk out’. He doesn’t stop talking for longer than a second.

Pajpakus are also known to frequent the seemingly interminable bus journeys, waiting in the congested streets of El Alto to hop onto a flota - Bolivia’s inter-province coaches - where the hard work of attracting a crowd has already been done for them.

On a 12 hour journey from La Paz to Sucre, a man in jeans, polo shirt, denim jacket and baseball cap jumps on board and stands at the front. Just when you thought you had a chance to get away from the chaos and commotion of the city; a chance to escape the frantic hustle and bustle and spend some quality time alone with your iPod. And then you’re reminded that you’re in Bolivia. A loud, booming voice greets the passengers in identical fashion to the man in El Alto. ‘Senoras y Senoras, estimados amigos...’ Just about to nod off and my much needed slumber is interrupted. I suddenly wished I’d never got on the bus.

For the next 30 minutes, he hypnotises his audience, starting with a question (unapparent if it is rhetorical or not) to engage his clients; ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, what do you lose when you fall in love?’. The previously uninterested passengers are intrigued and start to yell a series of answers until someone finally brings the charade to an end: ‘the heart’ is the answer. He has achieved Step One in capturing his audience. Now it is time for him to introduce his product, and a pajpakus introduction wouldn’t be complete without an impossibly verifi able claim to begin with. ‘This is real silver, ladies and gentlemen’.

He unfurls a display of silver chains and necklaces, rhapsodising about their necessity in everyone’s life. He explains the quality of his product and the incredible deal on offer. ‘This necklace, ladies and gentlemen, sells in jewellery shops for 150 Bolivianos. Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I will be selling it for a mere 50 Bolivianos’. He marches down the central aisle of the bus, handing out a necklace for each passenger to inspect closely, not once breaking his speech, casting a spell of trust between himself and everyone on board.

Then he goes in for the kill. He hits you with an unrefusable offer. He announces that he’s willing to reduce his own price, and brings it down to 20 Bolivianos for the chain, plus 10 Bolivianos for each attachable ‘charm’ or pendant, in the shape of hearts, moons and crucifixes. And that’s not all. Having made his initial sales, he cheekily unveils a rack of smaller chain bracelets, which he is willing to sell to those who have already purchased a necklace for the bargain, discounted price of 5 Bolivianos. At this point I asked myself, who, upon boarding the bus, actually wanted, needed or would think about buying a necklace like this.

Despite initially disregarding the pajpaku as no different from the average door to door salesman back home, two friends travelling on the flota fell victim to his ploys and made purchases. And what can I say about the alleged silver: last time I checked, real silver didn’t rust that quickly.

Pajpakus are much more than just excellent public speakers. They combine a range of skills that make them scarily perfect for their job: public speaking, persuasion, salesmanship, deception, hypnosis, psychology - the vast majority of these entrepreneurs never finished school, and yet they have appropriated the techniques taught at top sales schools around the world.

There is one major difference between the vendedores callejeros and pajpakus. Their success depends on much more than a client approaching a stall. It depends on their loquacity and ability to put any fear, embarrassment or timidity to one side and manipulate their audience. In their arsenal, they have an ability to deceive with confi dence: to talk for hours with enthusiasm, as their crowd stands fixated and hypnotised by the ludicrously inviting techniques used to draw and retain their attention.

Similar to the ‘Bid TV’ sellers in the Western world, a lot of their language, although cringe-worthy to some, is incredibly effective. At times, their mouth seems to work faster than their brain. Many of them attended oratory classes, obtaining instruction over diction and pronunciation. According to an article in La Luciérnaga, José Cahuana, who sells biographies of former Bolivian President Rodríguez Veltzé, not only took oratory classes but practiced for months in front of a mirror before selling his products in public each Sunday. ‘Seducing people is an art’, he believes. Watching a pajpaku, captivated by their charisma and enthusiasm, it seems unlikely that just anyone could master such an art.

Being a pajpaku is a rare gift. Apart from being a trade, it is also a personal survival strategy. They have discovered a way to live based on persuasion and opportunism. They are master entrepreneurs, testament to the country’s inventiveness and need to adapt to unpredictable marketplaces with both innovative products and differentiated sales pitches. Whether up in La Feria de El Alto on Sundays, amongst the stolen electronics and second hand clothes, or on an inter-city fl ota, they will stand and reel off their rehearsed speech once again. ‘Señoras y señores, estimados amigos...’

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