Catia Chronicles

Home made Baygon, pre-kneaded masa, repurposed vegetables...to survive the crisis, people in Catia are having to dig deep into their reserves of ingenuity.

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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:

La Papa

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.

Straight to budare: Pre-kneaded masa.
Straight to budare: Pre-kneaded masa.

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”.

Some vegetablesThe 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!

Artesanal deodorant. This one I bought was made with coconut oil

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.

Lettuce, mangos, pirated movies and clothes.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.

 

18 COMMENTS

  1. Alexis, thanks for a great down to earth article. A lot of people commenting on this blog have been repeating over and over again how most people in the country are enchufados and/or corrupt because the lines to buy stuff are still there s there must be a lot of money around. This article proves otherwise, and what’s happening in Catia is also happening in some nice places in eastern Caracas. Of course there are still people that have more money than God, but those are probably much fewer than 5% of the population.

    • Imported stuff @ paralelo has no price cap. In the same supermarket I’ve seen a box of condoms (Durex) for Bs. 22,000 or an Old Spice tri-pack for Bs. 34,000. And, people pay for that.

  2. Venezuelans can learn a lot from the Cubans. When I was there, a common street business was refilling disposable cigarette lighters. They did it with some sort of needle, but I didn’t look close enough to say in detail how. Another thing they could do was to fabricate car parts by machining them from a solid piece of steel. But, it looks as though Venezuelans are not far behind and I have confidence that, with more experience, they can exceed the inventiveness of even the Cubans.

  3. “Another thing they could do was to fabricate car parts by machining them from a solid piece of steel”

    Interesting…

    How in hell they got their hands on carbide endmills/inserts or even cheap ass HSS tools is a mistery.

    I was in the machine/mold making business just before running away from that dump, and cutting tools were a long extinct animal by 2014. Also most steels.

    • How in hell they got their hands on carbide endmills/inserts or even cheap ass HSS tools is a mistery.

      Stealing from the state that forbids others to possess is a time-honored strategy in communist countries. Given the criminal penalties the Cuban state imposes on free enterprise, I can’t say I blame them.

    • Maybe you are too first worldlish. I learned to use a lathe in Cuba when I was 13. We also made shapes with hand files. It took days, and I got blisters when I started, but it seemed to work. A very popular application was making adaptor pieces so you could put a 1965 Lada water pump on a 1957 Chevy, and so on.

  4. “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.”

    Where does the money come from? If a minimum salary buys you 3 harina pan, or 30 “minimum salaries” buy you 10 arepas and perhaps an electricity bill, how do they survive with 2 or 5 kids, and the wife, and the rent, and the car, and school expenses, medical expenses, and they have cable tv too?

    They must be making WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY more than “minimum salary, somehow…….

    • The problems is that those making wayyyyyyy more than minimum wage is a relatively small group. A good portion of the country is forcefully following the Maduro diet. They’ve eliminated sugar, bread, arepas and a lot of proteins from their diet because either they can’t find these products or can’t afford them. Even many in the middle and middle upper clases cannot afford to pay bachaqueros for all their basic needs and use them only for very urgent items.

      • It just doesn’t add up. If you can only buy 3 sandwiches with a ‘minimum monthly salary’, how do you send kids to school, pay for all other expenses, and then even go out on vacations to the beach? Beacause they do, Morrocoy and Los Roques and La Guaira are also full of customers.

        They either earn wayyyyyyy more than ‘minimum salaries, or they mysteriously make money elsewhere, somehow.. legally, or illegally. Enchufados, or not. My guess is a lot of people are into some murky, cheesy deal. The entire country is vastly corrupt, at all levels of society, not just the chavistas.

        • That’s the whole point of what I wrote Juan. You have to earn more than minimum wage to get through. While a mother sells the masa, her son might be driving a taxi cab or selling stuff in the streets. Obviously, some are mugging (metro mugging is a common form of robbery in Caracas these days) and the most painfully part, some are just skipping meals.

  5. There’s a lot of poverty in Venezuela; which forces more than one family to live in a single household. So you may have grandparents, children and working grandchildren contributing their incomes. They may not likely be paying electric, water and/or gas bills. They will not be buying sandwiches but making their own at home. These people don’t even dream about going to Los Roques and just maybe to Morrocoy. They don’t own a car so they take the bus to go to La Guairá. In the lines to buy subsidized products you will many times hear of people skipping meals so they can feed their children. They do have a very low standard of living, even by many other Latin American countries, and represent a rather large chunk of the population.

    Bachaqueros, who may be included in the poor people group probably make enough money for them to buy “cachitos y refrescos”. If they bought a kg of Harina PAN/day at Bs 200 and sold it at Bs 2,500, you’re talking about Bs 69,000/mo for just one item/day. If one assumes 5% of the population makes wayyyyyyyyyyyyy above average, that;s 1.5 million people, enough to pack the beaches of Los Roques, Morocoy, etc. Even if it’s only 2.5% of the people, that’s still a lot of people packing up Venezuela’s beaches and other tourist attractions. Those making the murky, cheesy deals are part of this 2.5-5%. Of course, this is my estimate from what I see and hear and I can be totally wrong.

      • What I’m saying is that there are still enough people who, on a regular basis, go shopping, to the beach, etc. But they represent a rather small portion of the country. They are the same that have always have the most plus those in the upper and middle echelons of government. The rest of the country used to enjoy what the country has to offer, but not as often. Now, everyone but the upper 2.5% is too busy trying to survive.

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