grocery shopping

One of the things that has been difficult for me to adjust to is the grocery shopping. In the states I had two large freezers, one large refrigerator (with yet another freezer up top), a basement stocked with dozens of jars of canned goods, and a pantry stuffed to the brim with sacks of oats, wheat, gallons of oil, etc. Here, I have one medium-small refrigerator with a small freezer on top, a few small baskets for storage, and no stash of home-canned/frozen foods to draw upon.

Oh, and no vehicle. (How I long for the ease of loading up the back of a van with bag upon bag of groceries and then driving directly to wherever it is I want to go, no waiting, no paying, no walking, no hauling, no flagging down of taxis or buses, no getting my toes squashed…)

This means that anything purchased in town has to be lugged—via taxi, bus, or foot—to our house. A gallon of milk is heavy. An open flat of 30 eggs is cumbersome. A watermelon, two pounds of potatoes, a bag of sugar, and a bottle of oil will break your back, given a mere twenty minutes of toting.

jelly and peanut butter: the empty containers make perfect drinking glasses

That, combined with the sticker shock—Q22 for a box of cornflakes! Q42 for 8 ounces of cheese! Q26 for a 3-quart jug of milk (it’s about Q8 to the US dollar, so even though the prices might be reasonable, or even cheaper than in the States, it feels everything is through-the-roof expensive)—means that I can hardly stand to buy more than one of each item. “Stocking up” means spending hundreds of quetzales in one quick go which is oftentimes more than my psyche can stand.

So…here’s how I do it. Every day on the way back through town, I (or my husband) pick up some groceries. If we space out the acquisition of the melons, flats of eggs, jugs of milk, loaves of bread, and dozens of bananas, then it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming.

mayonnaise: the condiment of choice in these here parts

Despensa Familiar is the name of the one grocery store in Chamelco. If I understand correctly, it was recently bought out by Pais, another grocery store chain, which, in turn, is owned by Walmart. Which means that I get my groceries at Walmart.

shelf-stable regular and lactose-free milk: we keep a collection always on hand, for just in case

La Despensa, however, doesn’t look anything like a Walmarts in the States. In our little Despensa, there are about three aisles of food (about half of which is cookies, soda, and candy), and tiny sections each of produce, meat, and frozen goods. There are several aisle of toilet paper and shampoos.

fabulous, wonderful, oh-so-delicious honey

Upon entering the store, shoppers are required to place all bags and packages into one of the lockers right inside the entrance. There are keys dangling in the locks—lock your stuff up, take, the key, go shopping, and then fetch your stuff before exiting the store, leaving the key in the lock for the next person. The couple of bored guards stalking around the entrance are added protection should the locks not be adequate.

Once the stuff is safely stashed (often times I feign cluelessness and keep my backpack on my back—I have yet to be reprimanded), I grab one of the drag-along-behind wheel-y baskets and begin the task of searching high and low for grocery items. Often on my list: oil, butter, yogurt, milk, cornflakes, bread, rice, baking powder, spaghetti sauce, pasta, coffee, jelly, flour, sugar, crackers, raisins, etc.

an eight-ounce block of butter: it’s good

At the checkout line, the cashier runs everything through and plops it into baskets. If I want plastic bags, I have to tell her how many and she’ll scan them, too—each one costs a few pennies. After paying, I haul my basket of goods over to the counter by the door and bag them up. I retrieve my stuff from the lockers, nod to the guards, and stagger out the door, past the destitute father and daughter crouching along the wall under the sign that cautions parents against leaving their children unattended in cars (see, this is Walmart!), and across the mostly empty parking lot to the road and the line of waiting, beat-up taxis.


  • Unknown

    The grocery stores (I use that term loosely) here are also half candy, cookies and soda. Even Tim noticed this! We had Anchor butter in HK and I loved it. We also have soured butter from the Parsi Dairy here that I use for baking. Someone staying with us asked if it had turned 🙂

  • Margo

    I do recall difficulties grocery shopping in Russia, but I was a teenager, not trying to supply a family of 6! I think your method is smart, a pattern of shopping that I've seen where many people don't have cars. No wonder people come to the States and look at our huge grocery stores in shock!

    • Jennifer Jo

      I haven't looked into the origins of my butter. So far, if it's there, I buy it. People are much more likely to use margarine or shortening, so butter is a specialty. I do buy a homemade butter from a local vendor, but it's soured—perfect for baking, but not for fresh eating.

  • Mama Pea

    What a lot of culture shock to deal with. I'm not envying all that you're going through. A lot of admiration sent your way for your good attitude and willingness to muckle on!

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