Published on March 17th, 2015 | by Bob Thomas
Supermarket Shopping Lessons in Quito, Ecuador
Just a few blocks from Quito’s five-star Swissotel, I walked into a high-end grocery store (it has its own perfume counter) to pick up some bottled water, bananas and a few snacks for the room. This isn’t your indigenous farmers’ market and not why people come to Ecuador. However, it was very welcome after coming off a long international flight – a modern convenience.
Visiting Supermaxi, you will not generally beat the local market prices, but you will save a bundle off the prices at the better hotels. You can also find every manner of health and beauty aid. It is a familiar setting with some new elements that make learning as easy as rolling down the aisle with a grocery cart.
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Since I refuse to pay mini-bar rates and find getting out of the hotel to shop with the locals refreshing, a walk to Supermaxi takes just a few minutes and answers some basic questions: What is it like to live in this neighborhood? What do the locals (at least well-heeled locals) eat? What local vocabulary distinguishes this place? And, of course, where can I find the item I forgot to pack?
Supermaxi is a great place to pick up bottled water to hydrate yourself after the long plane ride. You will want to continually sip on some non-alcoholic beverage while adjusting to the highest (9,000-plus feet) capital city in the world. This prevents altitude sickness and beats the $3 per water bottle you will find at many international hotels. There will be plenty of time for the colorful more indigenous markets later. For now, just the essentials to make life a little more comfortable. Forget your Tylenol? Airport security take your Woolite? Supermaxi will have it all.
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The Supermaxi’s sheer size and similarity to what one would see in any major city make the store easy to navigate. Panadería (bakery), alimentos congelados (frozen foods) and pescados/mariscos (fish/seafood) are all clearly marked. The vocabulary is obvious by context even if you know little Spanish. A living vocabulary list with labels! Plus, learning new words with all the senses makes for better retention. From the smell of freshly baked pan to the sight of grandmothers squeezing an aguacate (avocado) your Supermaxi classroom comes alive.
Matemáticas at the Maxi
Since Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, it’s easy to know the relative value of things. If you are from the United States, however, you will need to make conversions to the metric system for weights and measures (except for gasoline, which is in U.S. gallons). Use a rough rule of thumb: A meter is about a yard; a kilometer is about a half mile; a liter is about a quart and a kilo is about 2 pounds. Close enough.
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What’s the Local Cuisine Like?
Hotel room service and tourist restaurants may give you a false sense of what the locals actually eat. The aisles at the grocery store will tell the truth. For example, you can buy at least three sizes of paelleras (paella pans) and an untold variety of rice, the principle ingredient of the saffron-spiced dish. The rice prices are low and Supermaxi offers both store and brand names. You will also discover potato varieties from high Andean elevations that you never new existed. Colorful, beautiful and tasty. Conclusion: These folks love their carbs and will have recipes galore that feature these foods.
Head to the galena (cookie) aisle and you will see an enormous variety of sweet treats. They are big on the drier kind of cookies that one can dunk in a café con leche (coffee with milk) or chocolate (a rich hot chocolate). You can find many of the U.S. brands such as Oreo as well, but they are pricey and, unless you are homesick, why not try something new? Ditto for candies, especially chocolates. As a top world producer of cocoa, Ecuador will keep your sweet tooth happy.
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Next, head over to see an amazing selection of produce. Besides the expected melon, papaya, kiwi and passion fruit, you will discover a world of fruit neatly labeled but completely unfamiliar: Taxo (banana passion fruit, good as an ice cream flavor), guanabana (a green somewhat strawberry-tasting fruit used mostly for juicing), naranjilla (the tangy “little orange” that is native to Ecuador, best for juice). As the largest producer of bananas in the western hemisphere, you might think that banana prices would be dirt-cheap. Not so at Supermaxi. Prices compare to what bananas go for at a U.S. Costco. However, you will never see such variety of bananas at Costco. There are better prices at the markets and roadside stands of course but, for convenience sake, you might want a few fresh treats now. Try the small orito bananas, which have a richer, deeper flavor to standard exported bananas — a perfect size for a room or backpack snack.
Cute and Delicious
Although you are not likely to want any fresh meat as a traveler, stop by the Supermaxi butcher to see the local cuts. Although not as graphic as the farmers’ markets, you will note that the Ecuadoreans use just about everything. For those of us far removed from the farm (my wife: “I like my meat the way God intended – without heads, eyes and feet and wrapped securely in rectangular plastic packages”), this will bring you back to nature – right down to packaged chicken feet for soup.
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Don’t miss the very popular meat that you will see on most restaurant menus – cuy, or guinea pig. The moist, duck-like meat and crunchy pork-like skin is, well, delicious. Especially if you do not know what you are eating. Cute and cuddly aside, they are an important protein source that can be raised in small environmentally friendly ways. I was once asked to select a live one from a box at a restaurant much like one might select a lobster from a tank in an elegant establishment. Selecting the victim (my daughter’s first pet, Sammy, flashed into my mind) wasn’t for me but the locals think of cuy as tasty food, less so as pets.
Kids and Commands
As you stroll the aisles, listen to and watch the little kids and how parents react to them. In most Hispanic countries, parents dote on their children and the traditional family is the centerpiece of the culture. In your travels you will notice fancy clothing shops just for infants and very young kids –specialty shops apart from department stores. You will often see niños in strollers decked out in fancy bows and cute outfits. Ecuador is no exception and you will see this phenomenon on parade at the upscale Supermaxi. One gets the feeling that there might be a little keeping up with the Joneses going on too.
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If you’re studying commands in your Spanish course, this is where to observe the tú (informal ) commands in action as parents manage their offspring: ¡Siéntate! (sit down), ¡cállate! (be quiet!), ¡espera! (wait!). You will also hear the negative informal commands: ¡No lo toques! (Don’t touch it!), no corras! (Don’t run!), ¡no comas eso! (Don’t eat that!). No better place to hear and observe familiar commands as they are uttered by exasperated parents going about life. Note that the kids use the informal commands with their parents too – like little Rosetta Stone vignettes before your ears and eyes.
Pleading, Whining and Getting One’s Way
Similarly, observe the universal kid skill of manipulating their padres (parents). There are many cultural differences one sees in travel, but the tendency for kids to hit up the parents around the candy aisle a common denominator. What great fun to watch a four-year-old control an otherwise mature adult in perfect castellano. Eyes enlarge. Tears emerge. A Bambi-like innocence possesses the youngster as he/she moves in for the close. And the grammar lesson is rich too since begging, pleading and asking that another do something (“I want you to buy me the sweet, PLEASE!”) requires the subjective mood (“Quiero que me compres el dulce, POR FAVOR!”). Forget the Spanish CD in the car, just stroll the aisles at the Supermaxi and you will get practice in the subjective mood all day long.
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Before you graduate from the Supermaxi and head back to the hotel, meander over to their selection of fresh flowers. A major exporter, Ecuador has some of the freshest, most fragrant and least expensive flores I have seen. Although you can get these beauties at a fraction of the cost from street vendors or local markets, the prices at the Supermaxi are still a bargain. Treat yourself to this little indulgence for your sweetheart, your lapel or room. Indulge in bon bons when in Paris, churros con chocolate when in Madrid and fresh flowers when in Quito.
As you check out at the Supermaxi, note how professional and well dressed the clerks are. Muy profesional with their ties and crisp collars. Using U.S. dollars, you likely will not get charged a foreign transaction fee for using a credit card (never, if you use the travel-friendly Capital One Visa). The entire experience takes half an hour. You get a quick language and cultural lesson simply by paying attention to the details – all while saving some money over hotel prices and making life a little more convenient and comfortable while you begin your Ecuadorian adventure.