The local grocery store, Comercial Mexicana

A gringo learns to shop in Mexico

One big advantage of renting an apartment in Guanajuato is that I get to live like a resident more than a tourist — because I have an actual kitchen. That requires grocery shopping — and a lot of walking.

I went to the grocery store on my second day here. It’s about a mile from the apartment and looks nothing like an American grocery store from the outside, mainly because of the steep flight of stone steps you have to climb to get in. Inside, it looks like a small version of a Wal-Mart: rows and rows of groceries, plus housewares, appliances, car tires and house paint. They even sell motorized scooters.

I wanted to stock up on all the necessities, but after a few aisles I realized how heavy my little plastic basket was getting. I thought about the walk back – a mile of weaving through crowds and traffic on skinny, uneven sidewalks. If you ever want to break yourself from impulse purchases, park a mile from the store and hump your groceries on foot. It’s revelatory.

I started re-tracing my route and putting things back, doing grocery triage based on weight and necessity. The grapefruit were too heavy. The family pack of paper towels was too bulky. No bottled water, no six-pack of Victoria. I ended up with three bags, which gained approximately 1 pound of weight every 5 blocks I walked. By the time I got to the apartment the plastic bag handles had nearly severed my fingers.

After that I decided to shop like most locals do, grabbing what I need, when I need it, from the little neighborhood shops that fill every major street in the city.

The walk from my apartment off Callejon Tecolote to the Embajadoras market is roughly a half mile, and I can get pretty much anything I need along the way. Embajadoras is an old-school Mexican market, with an ancient, dark building housing butchers, florists, produce stands and the obligatory countertop street food joint. Outside, a dozen or more vendors are selling fresh fruit, ice cream, cheap clothing, bread and all varieties of organ meats under plastic tarp roofs. It’s a riot of people and smells and colors.

On the walk there, Blood of Christ Street is lined with bakeries, tiny variety stores, clothing and electronics shops, pocket restaurants, you name it. Some of these places can’t be more than 6 feet wide and 12 feet deep, packed floor to ceiling with stuff. I’ve been in shops so small that there’s only room for me and the clerk. It’s a very intimate way to buy gum.

imageI like shopping this way. It’s less stressful, for one. I’m on foot, so traffic and parking are instantly eliminated. And buying from small shops is an entirely different experience for Americans used to big boxes and drive thrus. The butcher hand-cuts everything to order (including the bacon). The woman across the aisle weighs my eggs on an old metal scale with sliding weights and tucks them into a plastic bag for me. The woman at the bakery is brushing a tray of pastries with butter and singing along with the radio as I browse.

This morning I walked to Embajadoras and back and made six stops for six items. Total bill: about ten bucks. I figure it took roughly the same time it would have taken me to drive to H-E-B, park, navigate 30 aisles and drive home back in Austin. For about half the cost.

groceries

If you’re curious about the local prices, here’s today’s purchases, plus some other stuff I’ve bought:

Butcher 3 bone-in pork chops (1″ thick) $3.25
Produce stand Mushrooms (approx. 15) .55
General store Eggs (1 dozen) 1.15
Convenience store Mineral water (1.75 liter) 1.15
Coffee shop Coffee (1/2 lb, ground fresh) 3.20
Bakery 1 empanada w/ham, pineapple and cheese, 1 cookie 1.15
Taco stand 4 al pastor tacos and a coke 4.00
Water guy 5 gallons water, delivered 1.60
Gym 1 month membership (’70s prices, ’70s equipment) 20.00
Local bar

Movie ticket

1 craft beer, 1 shot house-infused mezcal 4.50

2.25

 

 

2 thoughts on “A gringo learns to shop in Mexico”

  1. The style of shopping you describe reminds me very much of what I’ve been accustomed to while growing up in Italy, even in a metropolis like Rome. There are downsides too, though. There are limited supplies of goods in smaller stores; shops keep traditional midweek closing days based on arcane laws and traditions (the butchers may be closed on thursdays, the bakers on mondays, etc); and you can forget about weekend or after hours shopping trips. I absolutely agree that the shopping experience you describe is more human, more personal, even cheaper and better at keeping consumerism in check. But in a society where there are no more housewives because women can have their own careers (and many times have to, since one income families can’t really survive anymore), where there are no more house servants to do the shopping for us, and where most people are in an office from 8 to 5 (plus 2 hours of driving on traffic), the old shopping model seems unsustainable. It’s sad to have to acknowledge once more how the social model that we’ve created in most of the Western world, and that most of the rest of the world aspires to imitate, is counter to what would make our lives simpler, less stressful, and fuller.

    1. Great points Ezio, thanks for the comment and the perspective. That’s the difference between being a short-time visitor and a full-time resident. I get to enjoy this kind of shopping as a novelty for a month or so, and I have the luxury of time to go from store to store here without worrying about reporting to work, taking care of a family, etc.

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