Live-blogging "la cola"

It's number time!

It’s MY day.

It’s not my birthday. And Saint Anne’s Feast Day is July 26th.

It’s my day because, on Tuesdays, Venezuelans with ID numbers ending in 2 and 3 can buy price-controlled products in a supermarket that I’ll call the No-Kwik-E-Mart.

Since this is Holy Week holiday, I decide to venture out and stand in line, whatever it takes. My mom’s ID also ends with  2, so we can at least share the adventure – for lack of a better word.

8:04am: We get in line, or as Venezuelans call it, “la cola.” (Literally, the tail) According to Google maps, it is a 60 meter line. Since it isn’t an orderly line, we estimate –al least- 250 people in front of us.

The minute I get in line, security personnel from a close-by store yells out: “hay Ace y papel tualé” [there’s Ace laundry powder and toilet paper].

Jackpot! (The Ace, not the car)

We hear one lady saying that the toilet paper had arrived the day before, but since it wasn’t “her day” she couldn’t buy it. And it was the one product she desperately needed.

In line, you’re doing pretty much nothing, so there are basically two types of entertainment: monitoring the passing bags, and gossiping with the other folks in line.

We see a man walk around with a plastic bag from the No-Kwik-E-Mart … with toilet paper and Harina Pan, the corn flour that Venezuelans cherish beyond words. Its yellow wrapping paper is all too appropriate – it’s grocery-store gold.

Another man passes by carrying two bags containing Head&Shoulders shampoo, Carefree sanitary pads, and Valmy nail polish remover. The bags are from a Farmatodo drug store that is only 3 or 4 blocks away. We don’t want to risk losing our spot on the line, so we agree to stay put and go afterwards.

At this point, people are still pretty polite. You can even get some coffee or chamomile tea from a couple of street vendors.

The ladies that are behind us are really chatty. In just a few minutes, they tell us that they have come to the No-Kwik-E-Mart because one of them is on sick leave, and the other has the day off at work … that the son of a friend has constipation problems … another friend spends 10 kilos of washing detergent per week because she has to wash her sick mom’s bed sheets on a daily basis … the beautiful macaws they saw on the soccer field of Colegio Americano … that her son was mugged a couple of weeks ago … es que en este país ya no se puede vivir … and so on and so forth.

The most shocking story: the husband of one of the ladies was the driver of the bus that was robbed on Friday March 27th in the Prados del Este freeway and produced one death at the scene.

9:06am: we pass the one hour mark. We still have about 100 people in front of us. But we can at least see the No-Kwik-E-Mart entrance.

People are getting tense. Many are trying to cut la cola. Others are asking people in line if they can get in with them, and the answer is a rather simple but strong “NO”. The closer you get the door, the higher the stakes. Nerves are fraught.

Old people are in on the action. They decided to form a line for the tercera edad (senior citizens, which in Venezuela are curiously called “the third age”) without any permission. Younger people are not supportive at all. Security personnel dissolve the line, but the oldies have a way of cutting the line. They just do, sneaky wrinkled bastards.

A lady and a girl pass us by eating a couple of empanadas from an “informal entrepreneur” (i.e. a street vendor) making a buck while taking advantage of the situation.

Out of nowhere, my mom says: “¿para que ir a la playa en Semana Santa, si acá agarras el sol parejo?” [Why go to the beach on Holy Week Break, when you can get as much sun as you like right here?]

9:14am: an old lady with hair-rolls asks us: “do you grab the number first and then get in line or should I get in line at once?” She doesn’t ask what the line is for. She doesn’t ask what products arrived. She must only know that it’s her day.

9:19am: the sun is merciless. My purse is like the Mary Poppins bag, so I grab a small umbrella and hand it to my mom so she can use it to shield herself. But the guy in front of us goes straight to the cardboard shade.

It’s not a fort… it’s a cardboard shade!

9:23am: it’s number time. Security personnel from the No-Kwik-E-Mart hand me and my mom a number. It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll find the price-controlled products. It’s more of a control measure: to know how many people in the group they’ll let in next.

It's number time!
It’s number time!

Just as I get my number, National Security Guards arrive at the scene. They are carrying mighty big weapons. People stare with concern – is it a prevention tactic, or is there something going on inside?

9:27pm: we finally get into the No-Kwik-E-Mart. Not bad. We only stood in line for 1 hour and 23 minutes. As we cross the glass door, the scene is utter CHAOS. Hundreds of people frantically looking for the things they need, while dozens stand in line waiting to pay.

Next, you hand in your number and ID, and get a ticket for the price-controlled products. Let’s call it the “catch of the day”. They tell us we can have Ace, toilet paper and fabric softener. We both ask for Ace and toilet paper, sans softener, and the lady says: “se ve que ustedes compran con conciencia” [you are the kind of people that buy conscientiously]. My mom doesn’t understand. I simply say thanks.

Catch of the day!
Catch of the day!

We run to the back part of the No-Kwik-E-Mart and snatch a box of La Pastoreña skim milk. We are not sure they will let us buy the whole box, but we decide to go for it.

Then: aisle 4.

That’s where the No-Kwik-E-Mart employees are handing out the catch of the day. People are getting rowdy.

Old ladies are trying to cut the line. This time, no one is going to take it.

We hand in our tickets, and a guy marks it and lets us through the aisle to get our quota: six 1-kilo bags of Ace, and four 4-roll packs of toilet paper per person.

A National Police member is monitoring the isle … and also “helping” a couple of friends to cut line.

9:40am: amidst the chaos, we decide to go straight to the cashier. It is not “the day” for the lady in front of us. Nonetheless, the cashier helps her pass a couple of bottles of fabric softener. I would have gladly helped the lady if she had asked, but she choose the “I didn’t know I couldn’t but today … you sure I can’t?” technique that I hate.

9:54am: I pay for my catch of the day. My mom pays two minutes before me, and is able to buy the box of skim milk.

As we leave the No-Kwik-E-Mart, we notice that the line is still long, the sun is more picante, and people are simply resigned to stand there as long as it takes.

10:05am: we know it is a long shot, but we go to the Farmatodo drug store a couple of blocks away from the No-Kwik-E-Mart. There is no shampoo left.

At least my mom gets to register the evolution of one of her chosen economic indicators: the Bin Bin Index. The Bin Bin is a Jelly Bean of sorts. My mom had paid BsF 52 for a pack on Friday. It now costs BsF 83.

Just another morning for regular Venezuelan consumers.