A first step for learning how to survive in another country is grocery shopping: learning food vocabulary, finding what’s available that’s familiar, learning how to use and love what’s unfamiliar. At first, it’s fun to bring home a whole chicken but after a while it’s nice to know that there are other options. Grocery shopping in Arequipa has really evolved in the last decade. For a long time, the open air market was the only option.
One positive aspect of living in a city is the ready availability of public transportation. Katie and I don’t own a car, but that doesn’t stop us from getting where we need to go. Arequipa is full of taxis, and we occasionally ride those if we’re in a rush or if it’s late. Our main means of transportation, however, is the combi.
Apart from the typical street sounds blending into our secret garden-style peaceful soundscape, we've discovered some sounds that at first we thought might be unique to our street, and have since learned make up the traditional street life of Arequipa. I was able to record a few of them for your cultural learning and viewing pleasure.
I started walking from the Smiths’ house at 3:15 this morning to meet Greg and head up to Etelvina’s home. Etelvina owns a tienda in a neighborhood a ways up the volcano. To serve her customers fresh meat and produce every day she leaves her home at 4am to shop at Arequipa’s biggest (and cheapest) open-air market: Avelino.
Our eagerness to accompany Etelvina at 4 in the morning both pleased and perplexed her. There’s no reason to go shopping this early unless you’re a small business owner, and your business depends on buying low and selling high. Avelino is a vendors’ market; it supplies both bodega owners and the smaller, neighborhood open-air markets throughout the city. It costs Etelvina to get to Avelino every morning (about 1 USD, round-trip). In turn, she buys in bulk at a lower price. Her customers pay a premium (really just a slight mark-up), trading the lower prices for convenience. Etelvina’s dedication guarantees high quality.
It is this part of the economy—in a city of 1,000,000 people with hundreds (thousands?) of bodegas—that fascinates me.
We piled into a colectivo for the ride down. All of the public transportation that runs this early is meant specifically for shop-owners and merchants; otherwise the streets are empty. This makes for an easy, traffic-free ride through the city’s central district.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at Avelino, hopped out of the cab, and got to work. The last trucks had just finished unloading their cargo and the vendors were just setting up shop. Etelvina interacts with the same shop-owners every morning. They refer to each other as “Casero” and “Caserita,” designations that solidify her status as a “regular.”
On the grocery list this morning:
- a bagful of plucked chickens
- several cuts of beef (cut with a hack saw; prepped with a vertical saw)
- an assortment of fruits and vegetables
- eggs (20 dozen or so)
- rice (110 lbs)
- soda, and
- grocery bags
Etelvina navigated the market like a champ. Listening to her interactions was fascinating. Even more impressive is how she accomplishes this shopping trip solo every morning.
Her system: from stand to stand, she fills up big reusable grocery bags. Each time that she gets to her max carrying capacity, she drops it off by a lady she knows who lets her temporarily store her purchases by her stand. After repeating this six or seven times, she hires a carretero (a man with a moving dolly) to go with her to get the monster bag of rice. The carretero follows her back to where she stored the rest of her purchases, loads them up, ropes them up (the rope is conveniently built in to the dolly), and they head out to the street. Etelvina quickly finds a fellow shop-owner from her same neighborhood (with whom she can share a colectivo) and they’re off.
We were back at Etelvina’s home with groceries unloaded by 5:40. It was just starting to get light outside. The whole operation was smooth and impressive, the result a long history of savvy negotiating and networking.
What was for us a morning of “participant observation” for the fun of it was for Etelvina a daily business trip that sustains her livelihood—all before sunrise.
PS - A tienda, or bodega (boh-DEH-gah), is a small grocery/convenience store. They’re located on every street corner throughout the city, offering neighborhoods an alternative to small, local open-air markets which are usually only open before lunch. The super-market (think Wal-mart, Target, Kroger, etc.), though it exists, is still new. This sector is dominated by Chilean retail chains, such as Metro, Tottus, and Saga Falabella (a department store).
There are several ways to get around the city here in Arequipa and we have been trying as many as we can. So here I will attempt to introduce them to you in order of convenience.
Type 1: the missionary’s car. Always a good choice if available. Very comfortable, roomy, safe driving, free and everyone speaks English.
Type 2: the taxi. Although more expensive, usually costing around 4-6 soles (~$2) to get just about anywhere we need to go, it is a comfortable way to travel around the city.
Type 3: the combi. These are small buses that are made to sit 15, but in Peru can carry up to 30. So what this means is that if you are not one of the first 15 on the bus, then you stand hunched over, holding on with the other 14 people that weren’t lucky enough to catch the combi at an earlier stop. However, they are cheap, costing 80 centimos (32 US cents).
Type 4: And then there’s the colectivo. The colectivo is a cultural experience in and of itself, which brings me to my experience yesterday when Megan decided I needed to have the colectivo experience. Let me set the stage. You pay 1 sol per person. The colectivo is a taxi that has a certain route and picks up people until the car is “full”. “Full” in my North American need of personal space would be 5 people in this car made to carry…oh 5 people.
So here’s the story: This morning, Megan, her two girls, and I head out to catch a colectivo. After a few minutes a colectivo pulls up already carrying 2 women, 1 prepubescent boy, one baby, and the driver, but they had room for the four of us! And so we all squeeze into the back seat with the two Peruvian women, kids on our laps, somehow get the door shut, and all 9 of us are off!
When our stop came, the opening of the door and exiting the vehicle were simultaneous, all while holding a 3 year-old with one arm and saying gracias.