I just came back from HiperLíder, which is like a SuperTarget with a warehouse esthetic and blue color scheme. Those of you who follow this blog or know me in real life are aware that I brag obnoxiously about my noble efforts to avoid Chilean supermarkets, which are overpriced when it comes to a number of products and don’t always have the best labor records. You are also aware that when things get urgent, I sometimes sell out.
I sold out today because I finally moved into a new place and needed to stock up on a number of basic household items. And while HiperLíder – just bought out by Wal-Mart, by the way – may not be the most socially responsible place to spend hard-earned pesos, it is one of the most convenient if you need to pick up a trash can, a towel, Scotch tape, yogurt and a salt shaker in one fell swoop.
As I zig-zagged with my cart through the cavernous store, I noticed that while HiperLíder may resemble SuperTarget in size and general merchandise offering, it’s very different when it comes to use of shelf space. Specifically, certain products that are an unassuming presence on U.S. shelves have set up miniature empires in Chilean aisles. Here are a few:
1. Matches. At my family’s house in the States, we only pull these out to light birthday candles or build a fire on Christmas. Matches, however, are everyday essentials in most Chilean homes, which have gas-fueled stoves and water heaters. Maybe that’s why there’s a whole wall of them at HiperLíder.
2. Tea. The supermarket near my old apartment devoted one entire side of an aisle to tea. And when you get down to it, the vast majority of the dozens of options are basically different varieties of black. U.S. supermarkets pack in exponentially more herbal-chai-jasmine-berry variety in a quarter of the space.
3. Soap. Green soap! Pink soap! Liquid soap! Scented soap! Foaming soap! I think I got a headache from sniffing my full aisle of options.
4. Rice. Before coming to Chile, I thought rice came in only two varieties: white and fried. Now I know differently.
I sometimes find these differences frustrating, like when I find row after row of tuna when all I really want is a can of black beans. Needless to say, though, there’s no point in living in another country if you're completely surrounded by the familiar. When people ask me why I choose to live abroad, I sometimes tell them that it’s because everything – right down to grocery shopping – is an adventure and a challenge when you’re far from home.