The day we met the world’s best salesman

This is the story of the day Sherry and I bought three paintings we didn’t need and didn’t even want. And yet, we got our money’s worth.

If you’ve traveled tourist destinations in developing countries, you are all too familiar with vendors selling various trinkets, clothing and cold drinks. Their demeanor can range from very polite to overly pushy. If you are lucky, they will take the international sign for “no thanks” indicated by a wave of the hand.

A few years ago, we were on a beach outside Cape Town, South Africa. It was mid-week on a mild February day (summer for the southern hemisphere).

Vendors selling their wares in South Africa.

No sooner had we found a pleasant spot on the beach, when we were approached by a man who could have been a double for Bob Marley. He had a bright smile and was carrying a box of something. Before we could even say, “No, not today,” he had laid out some art work in the sand and was explaining the situation in each painting.

One thing we didn’t need at that time was a painting. We had just sold our house, most of our personal possessions; we were living the life of vagabonds, traveling the world.

But the guy was instantly making jokes and was clearly having a good time just trying to sell us something. His painting technique — if they were indeed his works — was not all that unusual or unique: caricaturist style with neon-bright acrylic colors. But man, the guy was a natural at selling.

He had about 20 or 30 pieces on canvas. He rolled them out and started describing the back story to each one. He would attentively watch our every reaction, our facial expressions, our interaction with one another.

His dreadlocks were perched on his head and would fall over his face each time he bent over to display another painting.

Going for the close

Before we knew it, he had us engaged. He had cleverly hooked us by utilizing the process of elimination. He began to build a pile of those we had outright rejected and another pile for those we had not yet summarily dismissed. He was clearly working to close a deal and he knew the algorithm for achieving his goal.

He displayed a portrait of one man with two women.

“He has two wives. Two wives: twice as much trouble,” he said, with his bright, gleaming smile.

The lines were no doubt rehearsed but, hey, so are any stand-up comic’s. And he had the delivery and the timing down. He seemed to enjoy each line as though he had just heard it for the first time.

This is Africa!

On several of the paintings he had inscribed the abbreviation “TIA.”

“Do you know about TIA?” he inquired. We did not.

“TIA is ‘This is Africa!” We gave him a quizzical glance.

“If I am going to a party and I say I will be there at 8 but I don’t show up until 9, the guy will say, ‘Hey, you said 8.’ And I will say, ‘Hey, man, This is Africa!’ We don’t have hours!’” His laugh was contagious.

The pile of paintings was eventually narrowed down to three. There was one we both agreed on, and then there was one Sherry favored and one that I kind of, sort of didn’t mind. We were clearly the perfect mark.

He gave us a price for the one we agreed on.

“Now we bargain,” he explained, “like at the bazaar.”

He began to explain the art of negotiation, but we made it clear we weren’t born yesterday, (just maybe two days prior.)

So he gave us a price we could not refuse for the three works of art. It amounted to about $25 U.S. But, we did not have enough of the local currency, South African Rand.

He eagerly offered to accept Euros, U.S. dollars, Japanese Yen. “But not Zimbabwe dollars!” He again laughed. “Not even a million Zimbabwe dollars!” (Hyperinflation in that country has rendered their currency worthless.)

I revealed, much to Sherry’s chagrin, that I did have some U.S. currency. The problem was that the smallest denomination in my possession was a $100 bill.

“No problem,” he said. “I will take it and get change from my brother.” He pointed to the other side of the beach, where, presumably, his sibling was working other unsuspecting tourists.

Sherry’s look was enough for him to realize exactly how preposterous this proposal was. He then offered to leave all his paintings and the 100 Rand bill he had to get the change. Nothing doing, said Sherry.

No problem, he said. He would just get enough Rand from his brother and be right back. He even left his paintings and the 100 Rand note with us in good faith.

He was off in a flash and quickly returned with the change. We made the trade.

“Man, 100 dollars,” he said. “I would sell my entire country for 100 dollars.” He laughed. “But not my mother! No, not my mother. You can have my brother, though, just not my mother.”

Entertainment value

We all laughed and then Sherry and I bade adieu to our new friend. We were still smiling as he walked away. But Sherry shook her head in disbelief that we had just bought paintings that we didn’t need and that other vendors on the beach would now see us as easy prey.

Sure enough, other vendors approached us. But they were pleasant and polite when we declined.

As we left late that day, Sherry was still ambivalent: we had fallen for the sales pitch, but the guy was good at his sales job.

Me, I was a bit more philosophical about the whole transaction.

“It’s like going to Las Vegas to gamble,” I said. “If you go and know you’re going to lose but you do it just for the entertainment, then you will have gotten your money’s worth.”

The paintings are stored at Sherry’s parents’ house in Mauritius, about 1,000 miles from South Africa. That’s probably where they will stay, never to be displayed.

But as for the experience of buying them, we got our money’s worth.

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