Ten things you notice at the supermarket in La Paz

This may not sound like the most promising of blog topics. But trust me, everything over here is a little bit crazy, and so going to buy some food can become a bit of an adventure. Especially when you go with certain ingredients in mind…

10. As soon as you walk in the door (or possibly even before), your bag will be confiscated. No matter how large or small, it is deemed likely that you will use it as an accessory to the theft of something very expensive (probably cheese), and so it will be taken from you and placed in a locker, for which you may or may not be given a piece of card with the number on. Variant 1: your bag is too big (eg. your bag is slightly larger than a small handbag), and so it will just be placed behind the cashier. Very secure, obviously. Variant 2: you answer in the affirmative when asked if said bag contains a laptop. And so you can keep it. Because owning a laptop and being a shoplifter are obviously mutually exclusive…

9. There will be no baskets to be found anywhere. Short of crawling under the till to retrieve one from there, or whipping one from behind another shopper’s back and dumping their shopping or adopting it as your own. They must be hidden somewhere, since other people acquire them, but they are clearly not for the use of foreigners…

8. In a desperate attempt to fit as many products in as small a space as possible, the aisles will be incredibly narrow. As in, turn around too quickly and you’ll knock something off the shelves on either side, probably something highly breakable, just to cause as much of a mess as possible. And if anyone wants to pass, they’ll either have to crawl between your legs or leapfrog over you.

7. Utterly disconcertingly, everyone handling food in any way in the shop will be wearing the kind of face mask beloved of surgeons and anyone remotely near an epidemic of some nasty disease. Not only does this mean that buying something from the deli counter goes something along these lines:
Customer: Can I have 100g of that cheese please?
Server: Nmmm nnnnmmmm nmmmnmmnn.
Customer: I’m sorry, what was that?
Server: Nmmmmmmmm nnnnnnnnnmmmmmmm nnmmmmmnnnmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Customer: Erm… yes?
Server picks up scarily grizzly-looking hammy thing and heads for slicing machine.
Customer: Nooooooooooo! Cheese! Cheese! That cheese! Please, not that! Anything but that! The CHEEEEEESEEE!
Customer runs away in fright, and ends up buying pre-packed cheese off the shelf.
But also raises worrying questions about exactly what they think is floating around. Does the server have some deadly disease that they’re trying not to breathe on your chicken? Do the sausages have something deadly that they don’t want to inhale? Or is it just like the shoeshiners who hide their faces: chopping ham for a living not being a very glamorous job and all?

6. Everything will be packaged to within an inch of its life. Want one carrot? NO! You can’t have it! You’ll have to buy a bag of about twenty. Aubergine? Only available in pairs. And if you do manage to find something loose, it will be hurriedly snatched from you for weighing. And then put in a bag. Even if it’s a single head of garlic.

5. You head to pick up bread. You notice that there is an enormous roll, twice the size of its fellows. Yippee, you think, this is my lucky day. And then you realise that bread is sold by weight, and so you aren’t in fact getting extra dough for your money. (Note: this is not the case in normal bakeries, where things are sold as units, as you would expect). And woe betide you if you try to buy a baguette, because it just won’t fit in any bag. And when two are stuck together, one always falls off. To cut a long story short, by the time you get home, it’s in two pieces, or folded over at an odd angle.

4. Everyone pays cash for everything. Obviously. Attempts to pay with a card are met with utter bafflement, possibly the fishing out of a dog-eared sheet of instructions and almost certainly the application of a policy that makes absolutely no sense (writing down your driving licence number, anyone?).

3. Should something not have a barcode, expect to wait for a good half an hour as somebody gets lost in the whole massive space that is this tiny supermarket, trying to find another of the same kind of bread rolls. Giving up and doing without them will not be accepted as an option.

2. Coherence in the layout of products is not to be expected. Why would tea be anywhere near coffee? Flour clearly belongs with rice, but neither of them are anywhere near pasta. Crisps, wine and tomato pasta sauce all obviously belong together. Cream cakes balance on top of the freezer cabinets. Orange juice is stacked up in front of the vegetables.

1. As with anything else in Bolivia, the answer when you don’t know something is just to make it up. Are there any avocados? No. So what are they? Erm… Where are the tin openers? To your left. Oh, no, what’s that over on the right? In the end, it may be safer not to ask at all…



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