Adventures of a traveling salesman in Central America

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By Dan Schell ’59 / Guatemala

Guatemala is known as the land of eternal spring. It was the first country on my initial international sales trip for Ames Irrigation International in the fall of 1964. My directive was to work in Central America selling agricultural equipment for banana, coffee, cotton, sugarcane, pineapple and tobacco plantations.

I was elated as the four-engine DC-6 flew into Guatemala City, Guatemala. I looked out my window and saw a nearby canyon that had an ancient Spanish-built aqueduct supplying potable water into the city. This was ringed by mountains with nearly constant volcanic activity. I came to learn that in the evenings, one could see the red glow of the molten lava streaming intermittently down a nearby active volcano. The plane touched down on a runway, which had been carved out of the lush tropical vegetation visible on both sides of the airplane. 
I quickly fell in love with Guatemala, which became the site of many memorable adventures over the next few years. 
Forgotten Checks: Bank of America had offices in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1960s, so I purchased my travelers checks in the United States before leaving for my first sales trip. Unfortunately, after a week in Guatemala, and running out of the cash I had brought, I discovered that I had neglected to bring my travelers checks. I went to the local BofA office with my receipts and wasn’t sure what to do next. As serendipity would have it, the BofA bank employee was a fellow graduate of Thunderbird (called the American Institute of Foreign Trade until 1968). He immediately replaced all my checks without any issues.

Interior Lights: Mario, the salesman who accompanied me around the country, often shared his stories of previously being one of the revolutionaries who had been fighting in the country for more than ten years. His station, in this role, was to stand with a machine gun inside the government palace. When we drove in the car at night, it was standard policy for drivers to keep their interior car lights on and to drive slowly to discourage nervous police- men from opening re in a panic. Mario explained that a few years previously, a priest had been shot and killed because he didn’t have his interior lights on and had a broom handle sticking up between his seats. The police feared it was a rifle and opened fire. We always kept our interior lights on!

Turtle Eggs: Mario, who knew how to handle a plane as well as a ma- chine gun, was in the local pilots association. One night he had decided to have a party in my honor at the local fliers club. The party was really fun, a local exotic dancer had been hired and danced on the banquet table against the backdrop of planes landing and taking off—no one noticed the noise. The menu that night included raw turtle eggs, considered a local delicacy. I had learned to be more culturally and culinarily open, so I popped one of the eggs into my mouth. When I bit down on the yolk membrane, a supremely unpalatable liquid oozed out. I immediately drowned the taste with a long swig of beer and swore off that particular delicacy for life.

Nervous Day: The day following my first and last taste of turtle eggs, Mario and I started driving to the Pacific coast. While negotiating the road over a range of mountains, we passed a convoy of army vehicles. We later found that their purpose was to locate a group of revolutionaries who had appeared out of a cane field and had killed several people. We also passed a truck carrying the bullet-riddled victims. I spent a nervous day hoping that the perpetrators had decided to go back into hiding.

Mow the Grass: On one sales trip, a client flew us out to his farm near the Pacific Ocean in his single engine plane. This client’s agricultural product was lemon grass, often used in citronella. As the plane came in for a landing, I was glad that it had a tricycle landing gear, because the field we landed in was carpeted with grass about 18 inches high. We completed our landing rather abruptly in about 100 feet. When our trip was over, a few days later, before we could take off again, the landing strip had to be mowed.

Leaving the lemon-scented farm behind, we flew back to Guatemala City passing directly over the crater of a smoking volcano.

Las Flores: Mario and I went to the small town of Cobán, located in a 92 Thunderbird beautiful valley northeast of Guatemala City. At that time, it was the center of flower growing for the international market. Despite the absence of decent highways leading to it, they maintained a flourishing flower business. Landing there was very beautiful; we were always rewarded with a magnificent array of varying oral colors and fragrant scents.

Carving out a Future: Early one morning, I was picked up by an elderly farmer in predawn to visit his farm. He drove a one-ton truck. As I got into the truck, I noticed a young boy sitting in the back of the truck. I wasn’t sure who he was, or why he was with us. However, it soon became obvious what his main function was: when we had to stop on a rising incline, the boy would jump off the bed and place a rock behind a tire to prevent the truck from sliding backward. When it was time to start moving again, he would pick up the rock, toss it back on the truck and jump on. We all proceeded slowly up into the mountains on the side of a narrow canyon, feeling the rumble of volcanic activity from the mountain.

When we finally arrived at the farm, the farmer proudly showed me a turbine operation he was setting up to provide power to the farm. Several workers were manually chipping away the stone to make a tunnel. The workers were a few hundred feet into the tunnel measuring several feet wide and about five feet high. The temperature inside the tunnel was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and close to 100 percent humidity. The tunnel ascended gradually and was to end at a small lake he was constructing to provide water for the future turbine.

Before driving back down the mountain, we had a lunch of a selection of several types of delicious tropical fruit that I had never seen before or since. He also served me the sweetest coffee I have ever tasted made from the freshly roasted coffee beans that were roasted in a tray under the oven.

Alternate Crops: One call took me out to a sugar plantation surrounded by a 10-foot high chain link fence. The owner was an ex-general in Fidel Castro’s Cuban army. When we arrived at the gate, an armed guard phoned the owner to announce our arrival. A Jeep with another two armed guards escorted us to the plantation office. The owner was clad in a brown uniform. To this day, I am convinced that growing sugarcane was not his primary crop or activity.

Starting Over: One of my clients was a dairyman, who was originally Thunderbird School from Germany. As we drove out to his farm he told me his story. He said that he was a young man when World War II started. The U.S. military showed up, taking him from Guatemala to the United States for internment. They subsequently sent him to Argentina. Since security was not strict in Argentina, he escaped. He worked his way slowly back to Guatemala. The war ended four years later, and he started all over again to put his life back together.

Mayan Rituals: Guatemala wasn’t all work. I visited some amazing archeological sites, too. Two young boys escorted Mario and me to the Mayan ruins of Iximche, which were constructed around 1470. We spoke with them in Spanish, but when we entered the temple site, they spoke to each other in a Mayan dialect. I spent a magical afternoon learning about the ancient temple. People entered the temple on one end of a clearing. On the other end, a pool had been constructed. This was the pool in which virgins would bathe for 24 hours before one of them would be selected for sacrifice on a nearby altar on a small pyramid. The altar had a concave platform containing a drain for the blood from the sacrificial offering once the beating heart was extracted from the body.

I visited many places during my career in global sales, but Guatemala al- ways will remain one of my favorites. The saying goes that “You never forget your first love.” I will never forget touching down on the runway in Guatemala City in 1964 and falling in love with the land of eternal spring.

Dan Schell graduated from Thunderbird School of Global Management in 1959. At the time of this writing, he was residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and involved in international business.