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The Shopping Carts Mystery

When I moved into the studio I’m renting in Santiago, I noticed several shopping carts parked by the elevator, in the lobby of the residential high-rise building. Clearly, they didn’t belong here, but I didn’t think much of it.

Except that every night, the shopping carts were gone for a few hours, and they would reappear the next morning.

Now, this was an intriguing mystery.

In Canada, I would have assumed that people without a car were “borrowing” a cart to haul groceries back home. But this is Santiago, nobody drives to the supermarket and shoppers don’t buy in bulk like Canadians do. Besides, I have seen plenty of shoppers struggling carrying groceries without bags but absolutely no one using a cart outside the supermarket.

A couple of days later, I overheard a conversation between two neighbours in the elevator:

“What are you selling tonight?”

“Avocados. You?”

“Bananas.”

The elevator stopped at ground level and they went straight to the shopping carts. Suddenly everything made sense. I had somehow totally forgotten that carts didn’t have to be used to carry stuff—in Latin America, they are often repurposed and used as a food stall on wheels. In their simplest form, they are just filled with fruits (bananas, avocados, watermelon or berry boxes are the best sellers). They can also be used as an unconventional barbecue or hold a deep fryer (in which case, a gas can be affixed to the handles).

Technically, I don’t need to go to the supermarket in Santiago. Lider (Walmart) and Santa Isabel are mostly places I step into out of curiosity and for a few products, mostly to see what I will buy on the street later—no lineup, vendors who call me “mi amor” and overall fresher produce, that’s the way to shop.

Last year, I discovered that Calle Catedral had turned into a hub for new immigrants from Dominican Republic, Haiti, Bolivia and Peru. During the day, it’s a street full of regular brick-and-mortar barbershops, money-wire services, tienditas with imported products and other essentials newcomers look for. In the evening, dozens of vendors sell slices of homemade cake, jugo de maracuyá (bottles filled with passion fruit juice), fried chicken, skewers, papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes), fried rice and more.

Across La Alameda, it didn’t take me long to realize that my neighbourhood was Little Caracas and Little Bogotá—everybody seems to be from Venezuela and Colombia or from Venezuela via Colombia. Different parts of Latin America, same newcomers who don’t always have a steady job and need to make as much money as possible to survive away from home and send money to relatives.

Around 6 p.m., Calle San Isidro, Calle Santa Rosa and the stretch of La Alameda between the two streets turn into a market. You can find:

  • 30-egg cartons (2,000 pesos, $3).
  • Packs of four rolls of toilet paper (1,000 pesos, $1.5).
  • Packs of cheese, ham and salami.
  • Deep fried Venezuelan-style empanadas (1,000 pesos, $1.5).
  • Carts or trunks filled with avocados, bananas, berries, grapes, watermelons, etc.
  • Tequeños, Venezuelan fried breaded cheese sticks with queso blanco in the middle (1,000 pesos for four).
  • Colombian and Venezuelan arepas (corn flour round bread) with various fillings like mechada (shredded beef), palta (avocado), cheese, etc.
  •  Venezuelan cachapas (corn pancake) with queso de mano (mozzarella-like cheese).
  • Pastel de tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream.
  • Venezuelan chicha andina, a thick drink made with blended rice with condensed milk.
  • Arroz con leche, rice pudding.
  • Burgers and hot dogs.
  • Coffee, razor blades, adaptors, underwear, socks, cigarettes, books and more, all display on a sheet of fabric.

The street isn’t that long, by the way!

Trust me, I got a crash course on Venezuelan and Colombian specialties—apparently, the motto is “fried food tastes better”—walking the street up and down several times a night, I also got to know most of the vendors.

“Hey, is anyone selling bananas tonight?”

“Mmm… let’s see… oh yeah, that guy, over there, the cart in front of the supermarket.”

“Thanks!”

Such great street photography opportunity! I had to work on this project!

But it wasn’t that easy but it turns out that selling stuff on the street is, ahem, kind of illegal. Also, many of the vendors are, ahem, kind of illegal. As for Chilean vendors, typically twenty-something around estación Universidad Católica, they sell products that are downright illegal, mostly anything cooked with cannabis.

Basically, the only police-approved street vendors are the regular mote de huesillo stands you can find all over the city. The police doesn’t like gathering of people eating deep-fried food in the evening, much less vendors selling bread from a carton or cake from a cooler.

I have to say that they’re not violent, they just kick everybody out and occasionally take the carts away.

So every night, it’s a cat-and-mouse game. They police patrols the street but all they see are people sitting around on boxes and coolers or just hanging out. As soon as they leave, the “seats” are opened, products are taken out and shopping can start.

¡Hay pancitos, hay cachitos!

¡Chichaaa!

¡Jugo de maracuyáaaaaa!”

Once in a while, the police sets up a station at one end of the street, really just a booth on wheels.

Locals are patient, eventually the police will leave, and when they do, street food reappears.

“Hey, found you!”

“How did you do?”

“Well, you’re usually on the other side, but since I saw the police, I kind of assumed you had moved to the other street corner…”

Eventually, a few vendors let me take pictures of their products.

And I must say that even if I truly hope Venezuela can find a path out of misery and that every immigrant can find great job opportunities, it’s pretty damn convenient to be able to buy a roll of toilet paper just downstairs because you’ve just realized you run out of it at 11 p.m.

Shopping carts in the building lobby, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Yogurt vending machine, Providencia, Santiago
Mote de Huesillo, La Alameda, Santiago
Eggs, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Skewers, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Tequeños, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Tequeños, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Toilet paper rolls, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Venezuelan empanadas, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Passion fruit juice and hot dogs, Calle San Isidro, Santiago
Bananas, Calle Santa Rosa, Santiago
Skewers, La Alameda, Santiago
Estación Unión Latinoamericana, Santiago
Estación Unión Latinoamericana, Santiago
Calle Catedral in the evening, when the police isn’t there
Pancitos, cachitos and cake, Calle Catedral, Santiago
Calle Catedral when the police comes
Calle Catedral when the police comes
Watermelon, estación Universidad Católica, Santiago
Marijuana truffles, estación Universidad Católica, Santiago
Space cake, estación Universidad Católica, Santiago
Space cake, estación Universidad Católica, Santiago

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