By now we’ve read all about the hunger, the long lines to get food, the crazy inflated black market prices. With even people who were once middle class skipping more and more meals, how on earth is everyone else surviving?
Well, I live in Catia, and I can tell you: people are getting creative. Here are just a few of the offbeat ways to make ends meet you can find strolling around my neighborhood:
Can’t you find price controlled Harina PAN? Can’t afford Bs. 3,000 a kilo for the bachaqueated variety? Say no more! Buhoneros (street hawkers) on the streets sell pre-mixed, ready-to-budare corn dough to make your arepas. For Bs. 700, you get 1 kilo of the handmade version.
I asked a mother with her daughter selling the delicacy: “It’s made with crushed corn, wanna try it?” Of course I did. “You only have to knead the dough round and put the arepas in the sartén”. It tasted like the precooked, commercial counterpart but without the salt. It comes in a transparent foil bag, so you really don’t know where that corn was grown.
Sardines, which have been sold in cans only desde toda la vida, now turn up loose in buckets or frozen or fresh. At just 300 Bs. per kilo, they’re a pretty good option. I sometimes deep fry them, and it’s a delicious treat. Other types of fish can also be spotted on the sidewalks, such as pargo or tajalí; but they’re costly and not suitable for most pockets.
If you’re short of money to buy fresh tomatoes, onions or cassava, for a fraction of the price you get the less appealing, somewhat spoiled versions, usually ditched by the markets around Pérez Bonalde boulevard.
A man selling the vegetables told me “la vaina está jodida, you have to look in the trash left in the side to see if you get something you can sell. Baratico, Bs. 200 for a bag of red chili peppers”.
The process is pretty straight-forward: after the sellers leave the remainders of the day’s sales, a couple of people go and discreetly rummage through looking whatever is in good (enough) condition, cleans it up a bit to put it up for sale in the improvised tarantín.
The price of bottled water is still regulated and its botellón counterpart, a 25-liter presentation, is sold only door-to-door. Once the first became scarce, botellón sellers steadily hiked their prices, starting from Bs. 50 to the current Bs. 700.
Toiletries & home care items
Deodorant, shampoo and soap disappeared from the shelves ages ago, after the tight price controls decreed by the government forced companies to almost give them away. Imported versions range from Bs. 3,000 for Speed Stick bars to an eye-popping Bs. 19,000 for a 1-Liter bottle of Dove shampoo, sold in a fancy supermarket in Bello Monte (no kidding).
Never fear. Like any good up-and-coming hipster hotspot, Catia has gone artesanal. For a mere Bs. 400 you can get a small jar of a paste whose main ingredient is sodium bicarbonate —baking soda— plus some kind of oil to give it some aroma and moisturizing properties. I took one home from a friend who makes them and it happened to be made with coconut oil. My friend went beyond and added cornstarch to the mix. The result had a body-cream-like smell and some texture as well. Calling it “deodorant” is a stretch, but hey, no more golpe de ala!
Handmade soap bars are also available. For Bs. 500 you can get an oat flakes version. Shampoos are now available in gallon jugs, and one specific pH-neutral variety claims to precisely contain “neutral pH”, clearly defying current label regulations. Unlabeled, homemade versions of floor cleaners, bug killers, fabric softeners and other goodies are also found in the bulevar de Catia.
Most of these are packed in used plastic bottles, so there’s a recycling angle too!
The Long “Etc.”
This is where things get really odd. Take your usual garage sale and picture it along the whole sidewalk just outside Gato Negro or Pérez Bonalde Metro stations.
Items usually available at El Puente de la Av. Fuerzas Armadas such as books, magazines and CDs have metastasized over the whole of Catia. I spotted García Márquez’ “El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba” but the next day it was gone. And that’s only the beginning.
Porcelain figures, used clothes and shoes, cassettes, headphones, phone chargers, USB-cables, condoms, nail clippers, irons, blenders, old computer monitors, voice recorders, used Playstation consoles (you might ask yourself at this point how do they make sure these things work, I don’t know) and even a complete gas stove; all get scanned by passing people’s eyes. The list is long and I’m sure someday I’ll come across a valuable collectible I simply must take with me. These deals don’t last long and once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.
It’s easy enough to see what’s going on here: this is the next stage in the decapitalization of Catia’s fast-pauperizing middle class. Savings are long gone, so now comes the fixed capital: all the chintz that accumulated around your house back when times were good and accumulation was an option. I have no idea who the buyers for this stuff are, but I know that behind every porcelain figurine up for sale there’s a family that ran out of better ideas for how to put food on the table.
Social networks have played an important part in this frenzy. Facebook is morphing into a digital swap-meet where I live. There are a bunch of groups, each of them with 7000+ people, offering up stuff for sale in Caracas alone. If you see something you’re interested in, just message the person and cut a deal. If you’re in Catia, make sure the meeting place is safe for both parties.
The dynamics for this are interesting in their own: while the variety of items on offer is dazzling, people who openly bachaqueate —offering price controlled basic items for sale— are quickly bashed and banned from posting and commenting in these groups.
Naturally, there always will be people willing to pay whatever it costs a bag of sugar or the popular Harina PAN. But they are intensely resented.
Venezuela never had much of a garage sale culture. People are selling the stuff that, in years past, they’d have just thrown in the garbage. But that’s the kind of luxury people just scrambling for a way to getting to fin de mes can no longer afford.