CHUISU CHOCALAJA, Guatemala -- Flor de Maria Contreras straightens her sea-foam green suit, wipes the mud off her high heels and raps on the door of a hut, her perfectly painted lips chirping into the mountain air: "Avon calling."
Here, in a town unmarked on most maps, 7,500 feet high in the Guatemalan mountains, the cosmetics traffic is flourishing. And in many communities of this poor Central American country, Avon perfume is more readily available than running water.
Ms. Contreras, the Avon director for the Quetzaltenango region in western Guatemala, is one of 8,000 Avon Ladies who tote their wares from hut to hut throughout this nation of 9 million people, most of them Mayan Indians.
To bring their 300,000 customers delicacies like Fancy Feet foot powder and Wild Country cologne, they dare slippery mountain passes and wild animals, even the tumult of a civil war.
"An Avon lady here has to be a brave woman who sees no obstacles and who never looks at the negative side of things," Ms. Contreras says as she veers around a cow standing in the road.
"But we do have to be careful."
In 112 foreign nations
On this day, three hours from her turf in San Marcos, the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas are engaged in a fierce firefight.
No matter. "Avon is like a cancer," Ms. Contreras says proudly, "it gets everywhere."
And these days it virtually does -- to 112 nations outside the United States.
During the 1970s and 1980s, changes in the lifestyle of the New York-based company's best customer, the American woman, cut deep into its profits. Suddenly, as more and more women entered the work force, it seemed no one was around to ring doorbells or answer them. So the world's largest cosmetics firm was forced to seek new markets. It found them abroad, on five continents, in places like the remote villages of Latin America.
Today, more than 1 million Avon Ladies sell billions of dollars' worth of products outside the United States.
James Preston, chairman of Avon Products Inc., said last week that he is confident corporate earnings will rise again in the fourth quarter of 1993, even if U.S. sales remain stagnant, because of strong performances in Latin America, Europe and the Pacific Rim countries.
The Avon cadre
In other words, because of employees like Ms. Contreras.
The 38-year-old director oversees a small army of 290 Avon Ladies, each with about 30 clients, who ply their trade both in the city of Quetzaltenango and in the villages of the countryside.
With telephones scarce, Ms. Contreras visits the members of her team personally, logging 5,000 miles in the past seven months on her 1985 Toyota.
Since her arrival to the sales zone two years ago, she has launched a tireless recruiting campaign, bringing on an estimated 30 new sellers a month -- attracted by the 25% commission they receive.
'The perfect brew'
Ms. Contreras and her staff, who work in just one of 26 Avon zones in the country, sell nearly $1,000 worth of products a day.
In a nation where the minimum daily wage is $2, such revenues are testimony that vanity is universal.
"Guatemala is the perfect brew for Avon," said Edley Bernard, the company's director for Guatemala. "Avon needs women in their homes surrounded by other women in their homes."
Avon's sales team includes women like Leonarda Pec Quim, 20, an illiterate Mayan Indian who conducts business in her native dialect of Quiche. Instead of filling out an order form, Ms. Quim simply makes a mark beside the photo of the desired item in her catalog and hands in the book.
She says residents in her conservative hometown of Almolonga initially criticized her for transacting business with men, unthinkable activity for an unmarried woman. But now, it appears, most people care more about the catalog's contents than gender relations.
In one recent two-hour period working merchants in the Almolonga market, Ms. Quim sold $75 worth of merchandise, earning herself a $15 commission.
More than makeup
Though scaled to a Guatemalan price range, Avon products still are costly for those whose salary barely makes ends meet. But to most here, the cosmetics are more than just daily makeup. The goods are saved for special occasions or given as gifts.
"There are many bad smells out here in the countryside, and when we go to a party, we want to smell good," one customer explained.
For Sandra Julieta Pum, 22, and most of her co-workers, Avon is a first job. The homemaker says Avon enables her to make friends and earn extra money. She says the work has given her more self-confidence and a greater sense of self-importance.
Measure of independence
Most of the women use their extra earnings to buy clothes and food for their children or previously unaffordable health care: eyeglasses and expensive medicine. Some use their profits to go to school.
Rumblings of economic independence have ruffled many a Guatemalan husband and some forbid their wives to join the Avon squad. But many women, Ms. Contreras says, continue to sell in secret.
As for the customers, bottles are cherished and reused, the colorful packaging turned into decorations in many households.
One woman even hoped her new perfume would serve as a good-luck charm. "Maybe this will get my boyfriend to ask me to marry him," she said.