When we were first dipping our toes into this whole missionary adventure thingy, we found ourselves in Springfield, Missouri sitting across a cafe table from a real live missionary from Mexico City. He said he was our “Area Director”, whatever that meant. (We hadn’t learned all the organizational titles and lingo yet.) For me, it was an opportunity to allay my biggest concern about going into missions. I could ask my earth-shaking question and have the issue settled once and for all. At the end of our little tete a tete, I cleared my throat and plunged into the deep end, “Um, can I ask a little question? I know it’s silly but… where do you buy your groceries in Mexico?”
After a stunned pause in which I’m sure I saw the corners of his mouth curl up ever so slightly, he gently reassured me that there are indeed supermarkets in Mexico in addition to farmers markets that come to each neighborhood on a weekly basis. I exhaled. Oh good. My life wouldn’t change THAT much, I reasoned. At least I wouldn’t be foraging in the jungle for roots and grubs.
What I didn’t know was that my weekly chore of grocery shopping to feed the family was indeed destined for a massive overhaul.
Grocery shopping has since taken over my life. For the first 8 months that we lived in Latin America (in Costa Rica for language school), we didn’t have a car. Just stop and think about that. How does an American grocery shop without a car? Walking to and from the store meant carrying all my groceries home. It meant I couldn’t shop for a whole week at a time. It made me seriously rethink that second gallon of milk. I found myself going to the grocery store about every other day, not because my cabinets or fridge couldn’t hold more food but because I only have two hands! Every other day, I’d trek half a mile one way and shlep my bags home again. Every other day.
The half mile trek wouldn’t have been so bad except that the closest grocery store was also the most expensive store… the gourmet grocery store of Costa Rica. After a month, we realized that we were going to have to do something different because we were going broke! I looked around at the average Costa Rican woman on the street and I wondered how she did it. I saw she was wearing a lot of make-up, but I sure couldn’t afford to buy make-up at the supermarket! I saw that she had fashionable clothes and a lot of jewelry, I saw that her nails were always manicured. I wore practical clothes and had never once had a manicure. Clearly I was missing something. Either these women were wealthier than I was or they were shopping somewhere else.
Fast forward 6 years and I’ve learned how she does it.
I now have a running grocery list. I regularly shop at about 5 different stores each week because I have learned that not every store carries all you need and some stores have some products for cheaper. For example, I go to one store to buy shampoo, off brand make up for way cheaper, and school supplies whenever they are needed. I can also buy tupperware, piñatas and candy, dollar store quality toys, and flip-flops at that same store. There is another store within two blocks’ walk of my house where I can buy the most delicious fresh bakery bread, hot and steamy. They have a good selection of baking ingredients (now I have to make all meals from scratch) as well as a nice little section of scented candles and hardware. It smells like fish in there, but the prices are good.
On the low-cost end, I buy fruits and veggies from a truck on the side of the road or from the weekly “feria” (farmer’s market). On the high cost end, if I want true American products I can still go to the gourmet grocery store where they almost always have Philadelphia Cream Cheese and American cereals. Too bad a bottle of maple syrup costs $30 and imported cheeses can be even more than that! Man, I miss coupons. (The other night I dreamed that I opened the fridge and found 3 packs of bacon. We can’t afford bacon normally, so it was a wonderful dream.) If I ever need them, I know where to get them… for a price.
So my grocery list is never completely done.
Never once have I found absolutely everything I need at one store. I usually have to walk or drive to at least 2 stores, sometimes more to find all I need. And sometimes I just simply can’t find an item. It forces me to reevaluate the list and prioritize, substitute, and to take advantage of when I find a hard-to-find item. I have been known to clear the shelf when I’m surprised by good luck.
Feeding the family has become a full-time occupation. I call it hunting and gathering in the concrete jungle. I’m glad that guy from Mexico didn’t tell me all this when we were starting out. I might not have been able to leave behind the ocean of American-one-stop shopping for my puddle hopping Latina ways.