August 21, 2006

Grocery shopping in La Ceiba

That is only a slight exaggeration of my grocery list − I don't go to the hardware store to buy avocados, although they are sold there on occasion. My grocery lists never, ever get checked off and thrown away the first time. There is no one place that will have everything — ever! Even the most ordinary of supplies, like sugar or coffee, can take two or three trips to the store because: no hay (there aren't any). Sugar and coffee are produced in this country − it makes no sense!

There are a few things that I've had on my list for years. I transfer them to a permanent wish list. It includes, among other things: Dijon mustard, chocolate chips, dill relish (apparently only sweet relish is approved for importation here), and fresh mushrooms of any kind. You know, real exotic things. ;-) I find Dijon mustard every year or two. Chocolate chips − I found those once in December 2002, but I didn't notice that the package had melted and rehardened into one giant glob of chocolate. Mushrooms are available about once per year.

Don't misunderstand − we have two large, modern grocery stores, relatively well-stocked and clean, mas o menos (more or less). It's just that what a store carries one week doesn't mean they will ever have it again. I drink a lot of iced tea in this hot and humid climate. The stores seem to stock tea bags about every three months and if they run out after two weeks — well, that's it for the next two and a half months. So I buy four or five hundred at a time and maintain my own inventory.

If I'm going to eat canned tuna, I like it to be chunk white tuna packed in water. Well, I waited three and a half years for a tuna sandwich. When I finally found it, I bought 18 cans even though it cost three times as much as the oil-packed versions. Blueberries are grown in Honduras for exportation and maybe for the big cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Wherever they go, the grocery store powers-that-be have decided that we in La Ceiba are not worthy.

Overall groceries are very inexpensive in Honduras. Some examples (in U.S. dollars): ground beef $1.70 per pound, mystery cuts of beef $2.10 per pound, pineapples 40 cents, avocados 27 cents, sugar, flour, rice, and beans about 30 cents per pound, bananas and lemons, about 5 cents each. Most vegetables are 40 to 60 cents per pound, but the variety is very limited. All items except for the most basic foods carry a 12% sales tax. I haven't bought groceries in the U.S. for five years, so I really don't know how these compare. I do remember paying $5 U.S. for a pineapple!

It is crucial to check the expiration dates. Sometimes I think that when some products get too old to sell in the U.S., they are exported here to Honduras. For example, cream cheese: In the U.S. when you buy cream cheese, the expiration date is usually about six months away. Here I've never seen it more than three weeks away. Pretty suspicious to me. Worst of all, if it doesn't have a date, that means that it IS expired and the store employees have scraped the dates off of the packages. True, I've seen it being done.

I also cannot make any assumptions about the food I buy or that I will be charged the price on the label. I can't assume that the product is fresh, edible, bug-free, or even that it is what the label says it is.

Translation of front label: Azafran = Saffron. Translation of back label:
100% Curcuma = 100% NOT Saffron

Of course, in this case, I knew that I couldn't buy a whole bottle of saffron for 75 cents!

So many of the things that we take for granted in the states are apparently considered luxury items here because the price is three or four times as much as in the U.S. One example is paper towels — $2.50 to $3.00 a roll. Plain old American cheddar cheese costs $6.50 per pound and European cheeses can be as much as $15 per pound if they have them.

Sometimes I just do without things because I feel like the price is such a rip-off and other times I splurge. A few months ago I found dried cherries, L.350 for a 20 ounce bag (about $19). No kind of cherries, fresh, frozen, or dried, are ever available in La Ceiba except that goopy canned cherry pie filling. I couldn't resist. El Jefe thought I was crazy, but I made cherry muffins and cookies several times, doling out those cherries like they were made of gold.

I'm always on the lookout for English-language magazines. Every now and then, I find a boring Better Homes and Garden or a Newsweek. Once I went into a gas station store to buy hamburger buns and happened to notice that they had a Cook's Illustrated magazine! I ran out to the car with tears in my eyes to tell El Jefe. Again, he thought I was crazy.

Things are getting better though. The two largest grocery stores in La Ceiba both have been bought recently by multi-national corporations. We are already seeing a greater variety of products in these stores. One company was from El Salvador or Mexico, I think. We know a young man who works there and he says that the new owners are treating the employees much better now. The other is a big Central American company that is partly owned by WalMart. Hooray for WalMart! (Wait, I know what you are thinking! But I think that the competition will open some eyes here and get store owners to start thinking of offering a better and fresher variety of foods, not to mention about treating their customers better.)

The store is not a WalMart or anything close to it, but I noticed immediately that it was cleaner and smelled better. I'm still hoping that we will get a real WalMart someday − they are all over Mexico. (Don't say it − if you were HERE, you would wish for a WalMart, too.) I can't imagine being able to go to one store to buy potting soil or vitamins or cleaning products or contact lens solution or books or magazines like I used to. I would be in heaven. Now only if Home Depot would come.... No, I mustn't be too greedy. I'll settle for a WalMart.

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