It's fascinating how distance creates an appreciation for things we tend to take for granted. Not just the big things, even more so those daily details we're barely aware of until they're not there anymore. Oh, daily life in a Guatemalan neighbourhood... The early morning crack of the whip announcing the herd of goats with their fresher than fresh milk. The scarp collector (“Chatarraaaaaaaa!!!!!”), the fish seller (fresh filet and shrimps every Friday), the cutler's pan flute (also to be heard where I live in Spain!) and the cobbler's weekly visit to the neighbourhood. The Sunday morning rush of people in their best clothes hurrying off to church and the peace and quiet in as soon as mass starts. Small gems of life that I have come to treasure.
Of course there's plenty I don't miss at all. Fireworks about 300 days out of the year? No thanks, not for me. The colourful chicken busses? Love them. But their driving is breaknecking and the exhaustion fumes are brutal. The weather (“Eternal Spring”) is pretty damn perfect, but I could do without the regular earth tremors. Not to mention the garbage you see just everywhere, which is.... No, don't get me started!
Now that I'm travelling back to Antigua next week, something I am looking forward to, is a visit to the local supermarket La Bodegona. I happen to seriously dislike supermarkets in general, but La Bodegona is different. It is not just a supermarket, it's an experience. Granted, you better make sure you you have time on your hands to fully appreciate that experience. If you're in for a quick purchase, you're at the wrong address.
Me and La Bodegona, we're going way back, from the late nineties when I used to travel from Copán Ruinas (Honduras) to Antigua to renew my visa (way before the whole C4 thing). A visit to La Bodegona was always on the agenda. Compared to Copán, Antigua was the First World and a real supermarket close to heaven on earth.
Now, Supermarket Store Layout Design, Brand Marketing and Retail Strategies are acknowledged scientific approaches, seriously applied in most supermarkets, even in Central America. But not in La Bodegona.
Starting with the layout of the store, it consists of two big halls between two streets, connected by a smaller hall, for lack of a better description. Two entrances/exits with cash-registers and merchandise in between. And that's where all comparisons with regular supermarkets end. It's more like visiting Harry Potter's school of magic with its whimsical displays, disappearing isles and unexpected combination of goods than what you'd expect from a store. The isles are narrow (while many Guatemalans tend to be WIDE) and the psychology behind the sorting and stacking of goods is completely baffling. By brand? No, not the case. By type of food? Well, sort of, but not completely. There is sort of a dairy section, but then there's this another fridge in the meat section that contains dairy too. And a few veggies. And fresh parsley.
One week the eggs are next to the candles. And then they aren't. The brand of oatmeal you have been using for years, every day? Miraculously gone never to reappear again.
Is stuff stocked by supplier maybe, according to a plan only known to the initiated? Maybe. I should ask, there are ALWAYS plenty of suppliers' stock clerks around. They tend to know where their own product is located only, so maybe that is the secret after all. In the mean time, if you need something, look for an employee with the Bodegona logo on their ever changing outfits (more about that later on), whom are numerous and omnipresent but as absent as a tuc-tuc when you need one. If you happen to find one, they're usually very friendly and helpful, although sometimes with that bored look of having to -yet again- answer a really stupid question. Dried plums? In the meat section, duh...
Branding strategy exists in having people standing all over the store (but preferably in the connecting hall, where space is scarcest and the crowds the biggest. Mostly on Saturday afternoons, of course) offering clients little bites or swigs of whatever. Guacamole from a bag, wine, all kinds of very pink cold cuts... The promoters are pretty feisty and don't take no for an answer easily. Worst is when people right in front of you decide to sample everything and you're stuck between sanitary pads, carrots and the nuts display. But this can be prevented if your agenda allows it. A friends of mine does her shopping early Sunday mornings (as early as 7am!) and that way she avoids crowds as well as promoters and store clerks. It's an idea...
A rather unique and much more sympathetic way to promote business is the way La Bodegona dresses up for each and every special event. And big time too! Not just a few Christmas streamers and a jingle here and there for the season, but bigger than life decorations and even “real” snow! Not just for Christmas either, think Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Easter, Summer, Father's Day... Huge displays, some a storey high, hang from the ceiling. Hearts! Fish! Neck ties! Suns! It might be me, but they seem to get bigger every year. And decoration is not limited to the store itself! The employees dress up in lederhosen in October (because of the German Oktoberfest) and Hawaiian shirts during Guatemalan summer. Superheroes, polar bears, Santa, sexy elves, all can be found in La Bodegona in due time...
But maybe best of all are the”atados”, the special offers, tied together with meters of tape. Not because of the free stuff you get, but the most wonderful and mystifying combinations. A bottle of whiskey with a plastic spoon. Toilet paper with a cup. I wonder if there's a full time employee at the Bodegona coming up with this stuff. I'm not the only one fascinated either, there's a group on Facebook called “Shit Taped Together at the Bodegona”. Check it out!
So yes, soon I'll free up some time in my schedule and venture into the store for a much missed fix of The Bodegona Experience.