Ciudad Guayana. 11 a.m. The phone rings and my mom answers, after a few words she hangs up with an “OK” and goes directly to my room: “están sacando leche y aceite en Mercal”. No more words were needed, I know what I have to do.

Without thinking about it too much, I get dressed, grab a couple of plastic bags, some money, and go out. It’s my first time at a Mercal.

At my house we’ve been eating arepas for two days straight. That is, arepas with cheese for breakfast, arepas with chicken for lunch, and arepas with cheese again for dinner. The week before, the menu had been the same but with yucas or auyamas instead of arepas. In Ciudad Guayana, scarcity has hit hard, and I’m starting to get tired of arepas. Please, don’t burn me at the stake, I’m not an apátrida, I just miss rice.

Anyway, back to the story. My mission is to buy whatever the hell they’re selling, other than cooking oil, we already have plenty of that. At first I think it is going to be a really cumbersome task that I have to do, but I end up learning a few things about the art of finding scarce products. People talk in those lines. A lot. They discuss politics, talk about the economy, about some girl who got pregnant, que el catire está arrecho (the sun), how to find certain products, you name it. They bad-mouth the government, they blame it for the economic problems and el catire sí está arrecho.

The first thing I notice is the social-network-ish dynamic. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. My mom may not know the difference between Facebook and Twitter, but she is definitely doing some serious social networking. Right after she ended speaking on the phone she went to the neighbor’s house to pass key information “están vendiendo leche, no hay cola”.

On my way to the Mercal, I notice some ladies walking in the same direction as me. They have plastic bags like me, so I figure that they have the same privileged information as me. That they’re in the loop, like my mom. I quicken my pace but when I get there, the Mercal is already full, turns out tons of people are in the loop. It makes me wonder how big this loop is, and if it can be used for other purposes.

The catch is that to be a part of this type of social network you have to actually be social, so if you are like me, and have the awkwardness around strangers of Michael Cera on every movie he makes, you’re probably screwed.

Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda. Ten minutes into the line, a middle aged woman comes from Santo Tomé – a nearby supermarket – with two packages of corn flour and one of spaghetti. She says that she was in that line since 2:30 a.m., and was planning to go to another supermarket after she finished with Mercal. This is a pretty common practice. Often people go on a kind of tour of the different stores to gather the products they need. People do that because stores sell a limited amount of price-controlledproducts (if there is any, to begin with), so a way to circumvent this limitation is to go from store to store buying the maximum amount allowed at each. It works, but it takes time and energy and you don’t get to choose which products you buy, you just buy whatever they’re selling and then try to trade it later for whatever it is you need.

Which leads me to the other thing I learned: money is useless.

Seriously, when it comes to really scarce products, money IS useless. That day in the Mercal they were “sacando” (newspeak for “selling”) two bottles of cooking oil per person and one Kg of powdered milk, but I wasn’t interested in the cooking oil. Once inside, one of the Mercal workers advises me to buy it anyway so I can trade it for something else – gosh I was such a newbie.

I end up buying the two bottles and selling one to the old lady in front of me who gives me Bs.50. Later I forget to give her the change (30 bs), and apparently she forgets about it too. It doesn’t matter, because the money I keep will only be enough to pay for a bus ride, or a plastic bag.

Money is useless, and back in the real market that cooking oil is way more useful that the Bs.50.

Here’s a trick: bring your kid to the joyful line. If you bring your kid to the line, people will let you go ahead of them . In there, I see this trick being pulledseveral times. Maybe they don’t do it on purpose, maybe those mothers don’t have anyone to leave their kids with and I am being a jerk for even suggesting such a thing. All I know is that this trick works and the line-doing-mothers know it…

To buy price controlled goods you have to be +18. That’s just being responsible, we can’t let any underage kid get its hands on any powdered milk, what if they start preparing White Russians? Anyway, apparently there is a loophole for that. If you’re a teen mom and bring the birth certificate of your kid, they’ll let you buy even if you’re underage. Note: be advised that bringing your child to the line may or may not work as proof of his existence, so be sure to always also have the birth certificate with you.

I also learned that having your arm marked can be useful. Humiliation aside, having your arm marked means you can leave a line without losing your spot. That way you can use the time to do another line in a nearby supermarket.

In my line, a guy actually tries to pull that off, he tells us to save his spot while he goes to get his arm marked. He returns after about one hour all covered in sweat (remember, el catire) but we’re already inside the Mercal and we can’t give him the spot so he has to start from the beginning.

It was a shame, I was really rooting for him.

The whole process takes about 3 hours, which, by Mercal standards, is fast. Using my advanced social skill of nodding at everything people say to me, I end up getting a ride from the same old lady I sold half my quota of cooking oil to, who also gives me a soap on the way home. She tells me that she have been to some other stores earlier (you know, on tour), and that she has plenty of soap back home, so I accept it, because that’s the kind of behavior you wouldn’t want to discourage, and also, because we are out of soap at home.

25 COMMENTS

    • I’m glad you liked it. I’ve been a fan of this page for a while, so maybe I picked up a little bit of its writing style.

  1. Great writing style! I love you little “asides”:

    “(remember, el catire)”

    “It was a shame, I was really rooting for him.”

    Aside from that, it is these kinds of personal anecdotes that really bring home the reality of what is happening in Venezuela to those outside the country and thus not so privileged to shop in a MERCAL in Ciudad Guayana… with el catire.

  2. Great post friend. I can sympathize as someone who’s regularly have had to enter food queues out of necessity these last few months. I am fortunate to live in a rather developed and somewhat wealthy (at least by venezuelan standards) part of town (East side of Barquisimeto). Thankfully I have two supermarkets and several pharmacies nearby one of which is a stone throws away from my residence where products usually arrive.

    I find it amusing for some reason that the Romans would discuss politics in great forums and bathhouses and Venezuelans today do so in food lines. How far we’ve come.
    I’m less sympathetic towards mothers I see with kids, atleast for the most part. In my time I’d like to think I’ve developed the ability to differentiate the people trying to bring food home and the person that wants to resell the products downtown. Needless to say many of the people in the food queues come from all over some places which don’t even appear on the map. Many of which don’t have the fortune to find the essentials near their vicinity like I can. I’ve also seen people trying to hold spots at two queues at a time, keeping tabs on the other line they’re not in through text messages.
    The country has gone to hell I tell you…
    Well keep on the good fight friend.

  3. Cool post to read. Keep them coming coz many of us on the outside are still wondering what most people talk about in the colas, nose pero.. they seem relatively complacent, strangely tamed by now, or zombied out? And, somehow, lots of people with such impossible, utterly absurd “salarios minimos” seem to have plenty of cash, willing to spend on fancy maracucho coffee, or at least on bachaqueros for whatever can be found almost at any price. Go figure.. en general, a mi esa vaina todavia no me cuadra..

    And 6 Million voters are still Maduristas. And half the population, say another 10 Million, is placid enough or ignorant enough or enchufada enough to be Chavistoide and “undecided:, today, haciendo colas. Y El Catire ‘tarrecho, pero.. bailame ese trompo en la uña. Can’t wait to hear about what they will say in these colas after the 52/48% results el 6 de diciembre.

    • I honestly think, by way of personal experience that regime has lost it’s grasp over the majority. At least since Chavez’s death and Maduro started demonstrating his incompetence. Nobody in the food queues is Chavista, I can’t see how the regime can cope with such a loss in support (Well we all know how). So many of their people are going hungry and stuck in food queues. Yes there are still the “Enchufados” and other blatantly ignorant minorities. But their voting base which is the people in the barrios and the low income sector are the people which have been most affected during this crisis. And I refuse to think that those people will continue supporting this criminal cartel we call a government.
      Lets be honest with ourselves we all know the elections in December will be rigged. Regimes like this grow especially desperate when they feel their power slipping away. They change the rules and make compromises they drop the facade altogether if it’s unavoidable, anything to keep the money flowing into their swiss bank accounts.
      I am those with the opinion that only blood will liberate the Venezuelan people. Better our blood than a foreign army to be honest.

      • Well, no one in their right minds will be dressing in red standing in lines, and start chanting out loud viva el Masburro or even for Chavismo (same difference, but many just don’t know or conveniently forget..)

        Millions upon Millions of “pueblo people” are not only blatantly ignorant, ill-informed, brain-washed and painfully under-educated, which is always the fundamental problem for everything in Cleptozuela, they are also more often than not Complicit if not guilty enchufados and thugs themselves. Where does all that cash really come from? Do the canasta basica math, it simply does not add up, even when you add countless tigritos and “extra-curricular” activities..

        I’m tired of giving a pass to the 5 Million direct enchufados who work for Cabello’s 32 bloated “ministerios de la felicidad suprema”. Tired of saying, ah “poor people” they are victims, they don’t know any better, it’s a great country with the greatest people”. False. Tired of pampering over 10 million voters would are still “undecided”, still love Comandante Pajarito, and constantly Leech off of any dubious freebies they stumble upon. To some extent many deserve what they are getting, and many don’t deserve what they are stealing.
        .

  4. Thank you, Carlos, for your excellent piece!. I grew up in Ciudad Guayana and I still have many relatives and friend there, suffering what you suffer.

    Someone is smoking around here, because I have a couple tears in my eyes…

  5. Great article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Congrats!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You put an smile in mi face. Being you from Guayana make it even better.

    “The catch is that to be a part of this type of social network you have to actually be social, so if you are like me, and have the awkwardness around strangers of Michael Cera on every movie he makes, you’re probably screwed.”

    Dude!!!, i’m with you there.

  6. Good article, really brings the reality home to the reader. More as an editorial point, I’d like to see all Spanish translated; that way I can send my gringo friends here in confidence. If it really is critical information that “They are selling milk, and there’s no line!” it needs translation.

  7. The article is excellent, good work! Sadly, many of the comments are really dismissive towards Venezuela and its people. There’s no need to be like that. People in barrios are not as stupid or ignorant as many have stated here. Zombied out? No, that’s not it. It’s more complicated than that. I for one, having left my country and Caracas and my family almost 15 years, ago, would be hard pressed to accuse people there of being complicit, if not thugs–what is this crap?? This is just not true. Of course there are enchufados and thieves, but this type of generalization is absurd and doesn’t help anyone.

  8. […] In Venezuela today, more and more cash is chasing after fewer and fewer goods. The result looks very much like the old Soviet bloc economies, where people had plenty of money in their pockets but it didn’t help them because there were no goods on offer. In a strange way, chavismo has realized the old socialist dream of abolishing money: When there’s nothing to buy, money is useless. […]

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