Here in Santiago, a bus is more than just a means of getting from A to B; it’s also a mobile marketplace. For a dedicated group of hawkers and vendors, the city’s buses provide a valuable opportunity to peddle their wares. Without paying the fare, they board the voice and in a loud voice they make their sales pitch.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” it always begins. “This morning/afternoon I am here to offer you these delicious [food product] at a very reasonable price…”

Like reality TV contestants, the vendors sometimes add a tale of hardship in search of some extra sympathy: “I was recently made redundant from my job of 23 years,” or “I am selling these goods to provide for my seven children”. But most of them get straight to the point.

As they talk, the hawkers’ eyes roam up and down the bus while the passengers desperately try to avoid their gaze. When the introduction is over, they move slowly along the aisle, waiting for a sale. If it’s a good bus, four or five will dig into their pockets and pull out some coins. The other passengers continue to avoid their gaze.

In the hotter months, iceblocks are the vendor’s product of choice. Carrying makeshift eskis, they hop from bus to bus taking advantage of the warm, dry climate and the absence of air conditioning on Santiago’s public transport.

“I have cool, refreshing iceblocks which are perfect for a hot day like today,” they say. “They only cost 200 pesos and you can choose from a wide range of flavours: strawberry, chilimoya (a local fruit), chocolate and pineapple. Only 200 pesos. Cool, refreshing iceblocks…”

Other popular items include cold drinks, chocolate bars, chewing gum and lollies. But it’s not just food that you can buy on the bus; items of stationery such as small notepads or children’s crayons are also quite common.

Once I saw a vendor selling small staplers: “They’re very useful for attaching two pieces of paper together,” he kindly explained. Unfortunately for him, no-one on that particular bus was interested in attaching pieces of paper together and he moved on without a single sale.

Unless they are drunk and disorderly, the hawkers are always extremely polite. They thank each of their customers enthusiastically and make an effort to give a nod of appreciation to the driver before disembarking.

Santiago’s buses also provide a captive audience to a special breed of performing artists: the bus buskers. Armed with a battered guitar and strong – though not necessarily tuneful – vocal chords, they find a strategic spot in the middle of the bus and address the passengers who studiously stare out the windows.

The bus buskers begin in the same way as the vendors: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to perform two beautiful songs for your listening pleasure. The first song is a love song written by [artist’s name] in the 1980s. I hope you enjoy it…”

With a knack for balancing themselves and their guitars on the crowded buses, the bus buskers somehow manage to make their voices heard above the din of the diesel engines. When the songs have been sung, they move along the aisle, holding out their palms. On a good bus, three or four people will cough up some loose change. On a bad bus they won’t get anything.

And while guitarists are the most common type of bus busker, they come in other forms as well. The other day, a clown in full costume with a painted face and red nose, boarded my bus in the city. After finding a comfortable place to stand in the centre of the bus, he began telling a story.

At first, everyone else except for a lone student pretended to ignore him. She listened attentively and a smile broke out across her face. The clown spoke quickly and although I found it difficult to understand him, I was able to pick up that his amusing tale had something to do with cocaine and marijuana.

As the story dragged on, more and more people started to smile and some even laughed. By the time, the clown got to the punchline, almost 10 minutes after he had begun, most of the bus was listening carefully and a couple of passengers gave a brief applause before thinking better of it. It was a good show and the bus busker took money from more than half a dozen passengers.

While the clown was still collecting his takings, a vendor boarded the bus selling marshmallows and chewing gum. It was a tough act to follow and to make things worse, this man’s salespitch was flat and uninspiring. Nobody responded. With the clown, he stepped off the bus at the next stop.

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