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Friday, May 3, 2013

Oh love

I've said it before and I'll say it again; the quickest, and I think most pleasurable way to learn about a place is to go grocery shopping there. No museum or culture show can match the neighborhood market for teaching you what the people who live there are actually like.
In Lima, it seems the way to get your everyday foods is to go to a bodega. These are tiny, family-owned stores tucked into other buildings, and they're all over the place. You'll be walking along behind someone, oblivious, when suddenly they duck to the left and disappear into an open doorway.
 Follow them in and you will find what is generally a cramped but not unpleasant little space that contains all sorts of things. The tiny one nearest our apartment was a bit dark, but not so much that I couldn't see the fruit stand just inside the door positively groaning with beautiful piles of produce.
"Our" bodega. Note the Virgin Mary up above.
It was the enormous mangoes that caught my attention. I hefted one; heavy, even for it's size. Immediately a young man in an apron was gesturing to me to give him the mango, and I did, along with another one and some passion fruit, and two apples. He weighed them, nodded, wrote something down on a little piece of paper and carried this and the fruit into the second area of the store. There were containers of bottled water in several sizes next to the stand, and I grabbed some of these.

My policy of following the travel books' recommendation and not drinking tap water in Peru has worked well so far. No reason to mess with it.
The second space, past a display of jewelery to the counter, behind which was what appeared to be much of the rest of the young man's family; another young man, an older man and woman with squinty but kind eyes looking up at me, and then shelves and shelves of dry goods and sundries of all kinds, as well as canned food and eggs and several types of bread.

The store is perhaps 15 feet deep and 10 feet wide. You have to cooperate with the other customers to navigate.
To the side of the counter was a cooler with tidy small packages of cheeses and meats, and then a rack with all sorts of chips and soda pops.
OK, here we go. What could I buy?
Again going with what works, I asked for the things I knew how to say. Or could point to, or could cheat and read how to say by the label.
I ended up with sliced ham, despite pronouncing the j (jamón), a small round of cheese, (queso) butter, (mantequilla), some white bread (pan blanco) and some eggs (huevos). The eggs were a bit of a puzzle; the older man hefted up a large plastic bag of eggs. A lot of eggs. I wasn't sure how many were in there, but it was quite a few, maybe 30. Necessito piquito? I asked, and considering this was total gibberish (I should have said necesitará pequeña?) these folks get bonus points for customer service; he smiled and got out a smaller bag of only 10 eggs.
Perfecto! I said, instead of having to be told three times how much everything cost, the total was written down on a piece of paper and all I had to do was fumble with the 1, 2, and 5 soles coins.
The five pairs of eyes smiled patiently. Everything was carefully bagged and handed to me, and I put the packages into my shoulder bag.
If it wasn't clear earlier what an amateur I am with this sort of thing, let me just say that I wasn't out the door for more than 30 seconds before I spotted a Virgin Mary tile that I wanted to photograph. So I leaned up against a brick wall for stability while I focused...and crunch. There went two of the eggs in the bag over my shoulder.
Messy. The photo didn't turn out either.
Some bodegas had more to sell than this one, some less; in some neighborhoods the cashier was behind bars. We were a little more cautious in such places, just like you would be in the States. Often there were small children, too young to be in school, with their parents or grandparents, playing contentedly in the doorway or on the floor behind the counter.
fruit cart, Miraflores
Also in the streets were the snack vendors, and the fruit carts, the latter of which smelled wonderful; a just-broken open watermelon being hacked into rough chunks, bananas, bunches of coriander and mint and other herbs, pineapples, more elongated than the ones from Hawaii, strawberries and tomatoes, the list went on. And of course, the mangoes.
Back in the apartment, I cut into that first mango.  There was none of the fibrous resistance I'm used to. The scent of the sweet juices and that smooth, soft flesh was intoxicating.
In comparison, the overpriced, hard mangoes that go from rock to rotten more often than not in the US grocery stores must be embarrassed to even call themselves mangoes. There's simply no comparison.
I was happily surprised to find that half of a mango was the perfect amount for breakfast. By the time I was done eating this first one I had crescents of orange beneath every fingernail and was questioning the way we eat in the United States. Which was not a good sign since, you know, I live there.
There are other places to shop; similar to the sort of grocery stores that we are used to in the States, and the Mercados, open air markets, which I love. More on those later.
And of course, if there is some small something you are missing, you never know who might be just around the corner to help you with that.
Shoe brushes, cotton balls, Q-tips, all specially overpriced for the Gringa.
The cheese...was horrible. It was not what I would call mozzarella, no matter what the label said. The ham and bread and butter went uneaten. It was those mangoes and bottled water that I went back for again and again. Mangoes for breakfast, bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth  and carrying around as I explored.
Perhaps shopping for groceries told me more about myself than it did about the people who live there. 


  1. Ah, mangoes as they should be! I have trouble finding those here, so it's not just the US. Sounds like - except for the broken eggs - you managed pretty well. The bodegas sound like the little hole-in-the-wall shops in the Middle East and I also found some in Nepal.

  2. Oops! I had a feeling something not-so-good was going to happen with those eggs! The fruit sounds heavenly. How about bananas? I'm told there's no comparison - the bananas we have here and in Europe are tasteless in comparison.

    1. I never thought to try the bananas! OK, new life goal: try the bananaa, compare and contrast.