September 2, 2006

Can I mini-size that for you?

Before I left the U.S., the warehouse stores had become really popular. Even the normal grocery stores were getting into bulk sales and restaurant-sized packaging, and many shoppers, including me, seemed to enjoy the value and convenience of large-scale shopping sprees. When you buy army-sized boxes of cereal, 12-packs of canned vegetables, cases of soft-drinks, or 10-pound packages of chicken breasts you don't have to go shopping so often.

That fad hasn't hit La Ceiba, Honduras, yet. A 2-lb box of something generally will cost exactly twice what a 1-lb. box costs and a 4-lb box will cost four times as much, sometimes even more, oddly enough. I often notice that, for example, one bar of soap will cost 7 lempiras and a 3-pack will cost L.24. Doesn't make sense to me.

Because food spoils so much more quickly in this tropical climate, it often isn't even wise to stock up on anything, although I have to admit that I still do. I take my chances because I really don't like to go grocery shopping.

Almost every colonia (neighborhood) in La Ceiba has one or two or several pulperías (neighborhood convenience stores). These are usually a small room in someone's home with a heavily barred window where people can go ask for the groceries or paletas (ice cream bars) or aspirins that they want to buy. El Jefe tells me that they didn't use to have bars on the windows before crime became so rampant in Honduras.

These stores are the Latin American versions of the 7-11's or mini-marts in the U.S. but often without the proper refrigeration facilities. The
pulpería owners will even provide medical advice about which pills should be purchased for a sick child. They often extend credit during the week, keeping detailed records of everything purchased. But heaven forbid that the bill isn't paid on Saturday or the whole neighborhood will hear about it.

Many things that are clearly marked "Not to be sold separately" are. The
pulperías buy large bags of staples and sell sugar, flour, and beans by the pound or half pound. In these pulperías and even in some of the smaller grocery stores, it is possible to buy one egg, one aspirin, one bouillon cube, or even one cigarette.

Sometimes when a
pulpería has been very successful, the owner will open a "mini-super." Mini-supers are in a separate building and are larger than pulperías but smaller than supermercados (supermarkets). Mini-supers will usually have meat and a few more household supplies than the pulperías. The customers are allowed to enter to shop and pick out their own meat and vegetables. Prices at both types of establishments are much higher than the large grocery stores, but people shop there because it is more convenient or because they don't have transportation.

The custom for many Hondurans, especially the poor, is to go out each day to buy what they need for the day's meals. There are several reasons for this:

  • Money: Many people don't have steady jobs and get paid for a day's work at a time.
  • Credit: A neighborhood pulpería will often allow credit to someone who couldn't get it at a grocery store.
  • Refrigerators: Many households don't have one so perishables have to be bought each day.
  • Electricity: The uncertainty of electrical power can result in the food being spoiled even if you do have a refrigerator.
  • Companionship: The pulperías are the neighborhood hang-outs. It is where people can visit with their neighbors and hear the latest gossip while their children play and the teens flirt with each other.
Pulperías are not allowed in our colonia so we have to go to the mini-mart at the Copena gas station on the highway where they aren't nearly so neighborly. I'll be adding one or two pictures of pulperías later − Sorry, I couldn't get them today.

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