Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Corner Pulperia

The corner store (or pulperia) next to my house
The pulperia. Nicaraguan life revolves around this institution – what is it, you ask? Well, I was also a bit confused upon my arrival here. The word contains the Spanish word for octopus, “pulpo.” Was it where they sold calamari? No, a pulperia is another word for tienda; specifically a small store, usually run out of someone’s home that provides everything to the barrio it is a part of from washcloths to sanitary napkins, from underwear to shampoo. 
Gum and candies
Soap for washing clothes
Coming from Alaska’s bulk culture where practically every resident is a card-carrying Costco member, I was surprised to see the way that pulperia owners eke out their living in such small scale operations. In the rural arctic area of Alaska where they live, my older brother and his wife pile their pantry high with provisions for the winter, bringing in goods on the yearly barge. To avoid the high “village prices” their house is stuffed with dozens of packets of noodles, tins of sauce and meat, bottles of alcohol, and even the essential Reese's Pieces.

In Nicaragua by contrast, people buy their daily goods in the exact opposite of bulk, on an individual scale. Every morning the youngest children of the house that are considered old enough to go out on their own are sent out to purchase a single bag of ground coffee, a pound of sugar and some sweet bread for breakfast. Around 10:30 AM those same children will make the trek again to buy provisions for lunch: beans, rice, oil, chicken, salt. For the afternoon coffee at 3 PM, the same – and in the evening the pulperias are full of children buying salty or sugary packaged junk food.

Chips and treats - 10 cents each
You can buy everything individually – one bar of soap, one egg, a stick of gum, a small baggie of cinnamon, one ibuprofen pill, a packet of Tang… Families have no supply of petty cash to purchase items in bulk, and many households do not have refrigerators to keep food fresh, so everything is made in the moment and re-boiled or simply sits out overnight and eaten the next day. After two years here, I have begun to believe that refrigeration is actually an unnecessary part of Western life and a scheme that the electricity companies have put on us to use more watts – highly overrated. That mold won’t kill you – just smother some sour cream on it or some sweet ketchup to mask the taste and wolf it down, verdad?
Individual packets of oatmeal
I have a feeling that when I get back to the States, I will be shocked at the mere volume of food and supplies available in the grocery stores. I will protest, “But, what if I only want one piece of bread?” “Why buy the whole box of band-aid when I only need one?” Individual item purchasing a la pulperia is really very convenient.
The "medicine cabinet"
One of my best friends in-site is a woman named Mariana. She and her husband own a pulperia in the front of their house facing the main park – a very good location. They are open sunrise to sunset seven days a week, which really facilitated our friendship since every time I walked by I would hear her voice calling out to me “Hoooola!” beckoning me in for a cup of sweet coffee or a piece of papaya. She is a permanent fixture in the town, sitting in the pulperia looking out on the town and it’s goings on. She can always share the latest news with you and gossips to a fault. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes as she goes on about Roberto what’s-his-name who had a child with Maria something-or-other and she and he were fighting last night (didn’t you overhear?!) and the baby was crying all night long! Who are these people? I have no idea, but for Mariana, they constitute her own private little telenovela or soap opera, conveniently accessible at all hours from her front porch.
Mariana at work weighing the dry goods
She sits and entertains visitors and clients who come by to spend a few c√≥rdobas. The money trickles in slowly and is measured in cents; I don’t know how she makes any money selling gum, bread and soap. I really don’t understand how any pulperia in this country makes a profit since within a 100 foot radius of any house, there are anywhere from 2-5 pulperias all selling the same exact items.
Individual batteries for sale
Single use packets of fabric softener and cleaning solution
Owning a pulperia is not so much about business as it is about socialization and being a part of your community. When you open up your home to sell items, you invite visitors at all hours – your private and professional lives are combined. You are never off-the-clock and can expect knocks at your door at all hours as someone comes for an emergency liter of vegetable oil or an extra pound of dog food.

Shampoo packets
Some of the pulperia items I will miss the most are the individual packets of shampoo – very useful for travel! Also, being able to buy hard candies individually and rosquetes, a sweet gingery corn cookie. Soon I will be lamenting the days when I could walk a few feet outside my door and find everything that a human being could ever really need, all smashed chaotically into the tiny space of the neighborhood pulperia…


Gail said...

Ahhh...now we understand a little better! While visiting Peru, it was hard to understand why so many little shops would all sell the same things.

BriAnna said...

I love this post!!! Great descriptions, great pictures! It makes it even better that I have been there.