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.

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