Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bringing Home The Bacon

I told Anna to grab a jacket - unsure of what was going on outside, the suddenly unpredictable climate here produced rain yesterday along with some sunshine. I needed to go to the supermarket, and Anna is great insurance in cases like forgetting something important the moment after I walk out of the store – if I am alone, I have to make two trips, but with Anna, I can send her in while I wait.

"Do we have to take the cart?" Anna asked, obviously hoping for a quick trip

"We’re taking the cart."

How embarrassing for her! To be seen with her father toting along one of those carts that the old ladies use to carry their goods home must be a traumatic event for a teenager. To keep Anna’s mind off of it, I handed her my camera, and told her to shoot whatever she wanted to.

"Except for me pulling the cart," I added. "That’s off-limits."

The other thing I reminded her was that taking pictures inside of a business in Mexico is technically not legal unless you first get permission. If I had been the one with the camera there would have been trouble, or at least they would have wanted money for the privilege of photographing their shiny offerings. A fifteen-year old native, however, innocently practicing her hobby, would either be overlooked or else warned to stop.

Off to the market we went.

Calimax Fiesta. Calimax is a large chain of grocery stores in Mexico. At one time they nicknamed each store, and one could actually navigate Tijuana using the different stores as road markers.

* * * *

Even fifteen years ago, many supermarkets here were not well stocked nor regularly maintained. My initial perceptions, tainted by the clean markets with an abundance of inventory in the United States of America, were not based so much from what I was experiencing but more from what I had experienced. I saw the stores as dirty and inadequate. And they were, except that Tijuana has changed a lot in seventeen years. But back then there was no way to quickly build more supermarkets.

I love these chiles. From left to right, serrano, güerito, jalapeño, california, pasillo, and morón (or bell).

Chile California, also known as Green Chile, is always sold fresh here, it is difficult to find it canned.

Imagine San Diego with no more than perhaps thirty supermarkets. Most of these supermarkets would become so overcrowded with customers that no matter how much labor it took in order to maintain the stores, it would quickly turn into a somewhat hopeless endeavor. And supermarkets operate on the principle of selling in large volume in order to lower their profit margin and be competitive, which precludes spending money unless it’s necessary. The solution, or at least the best solution, would be to build more stores.

Fresh strawberries. In January.

Cilantro, radishes, and green onions belong together, they are all garnishes for tacos here.

Tijuana was in a constant state of flux twenty years ago, acting as a leaky portal into the relatively stable economy on the other side of the big metal fence. The population grew at a rate where Tijuana’s infrastructure, already inadequate for the population that existed even twenty years prior, became so heavily burdened that every large storm was a disaster and systems designed to provide the population with basic necessities failed regularly. Mexico’s economy, for a wide variety of reasons – including an often-corrupt government and a lack of sound regulation in banking and finance – was in a constant state of crisis.

Building new stores was not an option for most of the supermarket chains. Who would finance them?

The scales weigh in kilos and the prices are in pesos. Other than that, and some of the produce and fruit sold, it isn’t all that different than anywhere else.

* * * *

There will always be differences in supermarkets when comparing Mexico to anywhere else, most of which are cultural. Anna was born and raised in Tijuana, and while she’s seen supermarkets in the United States of America, she has not experienced the changes that I have in presentation concerning the stores here. I didn’t pay much attention to what she was up to, but I did catch her taking pictures of the dairy section.

"Why are you shooting that?"

"Look at all of this milk!" she said.

"Honey, most places have milk."

"Yes, but dad, look at all the milk!"

I shut up after that and concentrated on shopping. Anna, when not shooting pictures or poking fun at some of my purchases or not advising me on the brand of toilet paper that mom prefers, took every opportunity to use any mirror that she ran across in order to assure that her hair was still perfect. I never realized what a priority this is for a teenaged girl until recently. I always thought that the supermarkets used mirrors in order to promote the perception of inventory depth, obviously a mistake on my part.

Produce. I sent Anna to get me a head of lettuce. I guess she wanted a souvenir.


There are items, and large sections of all supermarkets in Mexico that I find endearing. While the markets have begun to prepackage many meat and poultry products, the butcher counters here can’t be beat. And cheeses, I have never seen so much fresh cheese before, the variety is amazing. Twenty years ago, I never imagined that there was such a thing as a style of chorizo, but there are so many styles I couldn’t even begin to explain it all in a sentence or two. These are the most profound differences compared to the supermarkets that I grew up with.

The locals love their eggs, which are relatively inexpensive here.

Mexico’s supermarkets offer a vast selection of sugary goo. Don’t even begin to ask me, I have no idea what the attraction is.

* * * *

The supermarkets in Tijuana began to change during the approach to the twenty-first century, whether by coincidence or by the effects from several changes that occurred at the time. The big metal fence, once porous and relatively easy to traverse, became increasingly difficult to get through, around, or under, and Tijuana’s permanent population began to cement itself, and less migrants arrived for what once was simply a pit stop. Concurrently, the economy in Mexico began to stabilize, in large part due to the diligence and patience of the Zedillo administration. Banks and other financial institutions were scrutinized, and regulated, and financing became an option once again.

More types of picante and chile sauce exist than I ever imagined. Appropriately, lime presses hang nearby, because chile and lime go into everything here. Soup, shrimp, potato chips, and whatever.

Many supermarkets here have their own bakery inside. The breads are outstanding, although the locals seem to prefer pastries from the smaller bakeries.

It didn’t take but a few years into the twenty-first century before supermarkets started popping up everywhere in Tijuana. Most are now clean, well stocked, and not so impossibly crowded as they once were. Notable exceptions still exist in the more urban areas, where building more stores is not so much an option due to unavailability of land. While the peso is fluctuating and the World economy is volatile and affecting Mexico as much as anyone, so long as this squall can be ridden out, Tijuana’s supermarkets every bit as wonderful and often times better than anywhere I have ever shopped.

As much as these people love their beans, you would think that I could find a kidney bean somewhere in all of this. Not a chance.

And this is just some of the packaged cheeses. There is more in the other side of the case, and a long counter that sells fresh cheeses.

* * * *

The last stop in the supermarket was the tequila section, where a young lady kept trying to assist me with my selection. This was nice of her, even if it is her job. Both me and Anna kept attempting to politely hint to her that I was fine left alone to browse the massive inventory and choose my own poison, but it wasn’t until I put a bottle in my cart that she stopped trying to be helpful. We found a short line - any other Saturday in the afternoon in that same supermarket around the time that Anna was born and we would have been in line for checkout for at least on hour. These days, it is the easiest thing about grocery shopping here.

This is my counter is my nemesis. Here is where you purchase Chorizo, bacon, lunchmeat, and so on. The last time I was here, there were thirteen people behind the counter, I stood there for five minutes looking at them, until finally someone asked me if I wanted anything. I was then asked five times if I wanted some hamon de pavo (ham-flavored processed turkey). Just bacon (unpackaged, you can buy it in whatever quantity you need) and chorizo, thank you.

Check-out. Young boys and girls bag your groceries for a small tip.

Anna and me rolled our goods over to a counter near the exit where, upon entry, people are encouraged to check for storage anything that they happen to be bringing into the store. We were there for the cart, the embarrassing thing that I use when I don’t wish to carry forty pounds of groceries for a few blocks. We had to wait for an older man who came in to do some shopping, he was having the young lady behind the counter stash what he had brought in with him. Two stacks of aluminum cans, three very long and sharp and heavy steel rods (try bringing that into a supermarket in your country), and a minute later, we got our cart.

It’s nice to know that some things here will never change, no matter what the economy brings.

(Photos courtesy Anna M. L. de Dodd)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've been having a field day with the new camera. I guess we all do enjoy sharing/giving tours to a certain extent. Keep up the good work and continue to include pretty pictures to keep me amused!

8:47 PM, January 27, 2009  

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