Monday, September 4, 2017

the Fugalei Market, and grocery shopping in Samoa

(I wrote this as a sort of "day in the life" post, about grocery shopping, but no one wants to see a bunch of pictures of grocery stores.  So these are pictures taken at one of the 2 main outdoor markets in Apia, the Fugalei Market.  The market is a huge open air setting, covered by a high tin roof.  Vendors at one end sell flowers, clothing and crafts, a few in the middle sell precooked food, and the other end is packed with vendors of fresh local fruits and vegetables.)

Taro leaves, Taro root, and coconut: the staples of Samoan diet

As the girls eat breakfast, I sit down and write a list of the basics we need.  I can’t menu plan, because you never really know what you will be able to get at the grocery store each week.  Some weeks you can get cheese, or chicken breasts, or cabbage, and some weeks you can’t.   We are going to the beach tomorrow, so I brainstorm some fun portable snacks. I’m also happy I picked up some cash in town yesterday-- that will save us a trip to the bank, which is a bit out of our way. 

The girls are ready fairly fast, and we luckily only wait a few minutes for the bus, which runs right by our front gate.  The buses run their routes in a loop, which means there is no set time for buses, but you usually don’t have to wait more then 20 minutes.  We luck out again-- for some reason, the buses vary in their route, and I haven’t figured out when or why they sometimes take a different street.  Today the bus goes down the street I need, with grocery store #1.  Our ride is 10 minutes and the fare costs 1 tala 50 cene (about 60 cents).

Vendor selling baked breadfruit and taro, and palusami, which is taro leaves baked in coconut cream

We jaywalk across the busy street because the nearest crosswalk is a few minutes walk down the street.  This first store nearly always has cheese in stock at decent prices (and sure enough, later I see the same cheese at a different store for 3 times the price).  I also pick up some chips, they have a nice selection.  That’s about it for this store today.

A quick dash across the street again and a 5 minute walk later, and we are at grocery store #2. I always get meat here, because their deli section seems the cleanest of all the stores.  And by cleanest, I mean on more then one occasion at various other stores, I’ve seen roaches crawl across the meat case.  Today I get some pork chops and chicken breasts, and ask them to slice some ham roll.  Lunchmeats are fairly impossible to find here, and even though the ham roll resembles spam strongly, it will work for our beach trip tomorrow (Later, unfortunately, I threw it all out because it tasted strongly of chemicals).  This store has a fairly good grocery selection, but the prices are ridiculous.  40 tala (around 16 US) for a pound of mushrooms, anyone?   The girls are asking for a drink, but better to wait till our next store.

Another 5 minute walk, and we are at the fruit and veggie market. We pick up some oranges and some coconuts.  The girls love drinking fresh coconut juice, so that will be fun for tomorrow.  I’ve forgotten to bring my backpack, and at this point I’m struggling a bit with all my bags and a kiddo hanging on to each hand.  Fortunately our last grocery store stop is right across the street.

This last stop has the best variety and most reasonable prices, so I do the bulk of my bigger purchases here.  I’m planning on taking a taxi home, so I don’t have to worry about carrying things.  Bread, eggs, flour, rice, some other odds and ends, and the long awaited strawberry milks (the girl’s drink of choice).  I wanted some canned beans but didn’t see them in any of the shops, hopefully there will be a restock soon.  

handprinted lava lavas

There are always taxis outside this store, and we hop in to air-conditioned delight.  Our driver today is the typical chatty sort, and I spend the 10 minute ride home making polite sounds of agreement to a conversation I’m not really following while trying to referee 2 little girls who both want to sit in my lap and do not want to sit nicely in their seats.  8 tala for the ride, but I wouldn’t be able to handle everything on the bus so no choice there.  

a vendor making arrangements for a church
Start to finish, about 2 hours, a pretty successful morning-- not too hot, no rain, no one had to do an emergency potty break :)  I usually do a bigger shopping trip once a week, we do have a little village shop down the street if we run out of basics mid week.   

For the curious: We spend 60-80 USD a week on groceries, cooking everything mostly from scratch and not eating a ton of meat.  People definitely live on less then this, using family farm produce such as taro or bananas and lots of ramen.  It’s also possible to spend a lot more then this, if you want imported fruits and vegetables, lots of meat and dairy, and prepackaged anything. Eating out is by far the most expensive activity to do here, so we save that for very special occasions.

More than you ever wanted to know about buses in Samoa

our village bus

We don’t have a car, and taxis can be expensive, so we ride the bus.  A lot.  This is not an experience that many non-Samoans have, I think, probably because riding the bus isn’t particularly comfortable or convenient.  Most tourists rent a car, most long term residents buy one.  I often get surprised looks, but I also usually get a seat and can sometimes avoid being sat on because people assume I’m a tourist and don’t know bus etiquette :)

Buses here have a 60/40 split between the old and the new.  The old are really old:  wooden frames build on a chassis from the 1950’s.  The outsides are brilliantly painted, and the insides are often decorated with fake fur, tinsel, or hanging ornaments. They have hard wooden bench seats, and the windows are empty unless it rains, when pieces of plexiglass are cleverly inserted into the window wells.   The new buses are air conditioned with soft seats... but lack a bit of character.  All buses probably should seat no more then 30, but during the rush hours of school time and work commutes, stacking everyone on laps 3 or so deep lets around 100 squeeze on (with a few hanging out here and there).  I’ve seen some newspaper interviews on the topic of buses, and most people seem to think each has it’s pros and cons (wooden buses- easier to escape from the windows if the bus crashes, new buses- more comfortable :)  Buses also don’t run at all on Sundays, because that is a day for Church and family, not work.  Most everything is closed on Sundays anyways, but it does make getting to Church a bit more difficult for  those of us without cars.

The bus has a hierarchy that fascinates me, although I haven’t quite clarified every aspect.  At the front sit the older ladies, the women with small children, and respected older men.  The middle is for kids and younger women.  The back is for boys and men.  Respect and politeness are huge in Samoan society, and it is strictly observed  (and taught) on the bus.  When I get on with my girls, if there isn’t a seat open, someone will always move (in a year of riding the bus, I’ve never once had to stand).  Hands reach down to help an unsteady kiddo up the steps, and if the bus is full someone will usually grab one of the girls and plop them on their lap.  Any time an older woman gets on, someone will move to open up a front seat for her, even if there are seats open in the back.  And heaven forbid a child doesn’t pay attention and move fast enough to give up a seat to an adult-- “aunties” from all sides will poke until the little one realizes what is going on and moves.  Kids have the short stick on the bus-- they are the first to be stacked on laps when the bus starts to fill, and often end up squashed together standing in the aisles.  And it doesn’t matter in the least if you are friends with or even know the person with the free lap-- if the bus is full, prepare to be stacked.  (This is why I always travel with 2 of my own lap sitters :) It also doesn’t seem to matter if the bus is completely filled, the driver mostly will stop to let more people on even when I am really, really sure that there is no possible way more people can fit.  Somehow, more people are crammed on.  (Although once I was quite amused when sitting at the bus station, watching a police officer count people exiting a bus.  It was like a clown car-- people just kept coming and coming and coming. Apparently there are rules regulating passenger numbers, because he ticketed the driver, but in over a year of riding the bus that is the only time I’ve ever seen that happen). 

There are areas of town that I still haven’t figured out how to get to by bus, because there is no bus route map.  The buses have a name of the town or area of the final destination as identifiers, but as far as I know the only way to figure out where they stop along the way is to ride them.  And lots of buses go to similar areas, but might take a different street here or there.  If you ask someone which bus to take, you’ll get a string of words that are really hard to identify unless you speak Samoan, and tend to sound a lot alike. Moa Moa vs Mulele vs Mootutua vs Malua?  It’s a bit stressful.  The main bus station makes me amused or indignant depending on if I’m in a hurry that day. It is an open air lot by the sea, consisting mainly of a parking lot and a row of benches with a roof.  All the buses park parallel to each other in a row.  The buses park at the top, middle, or bottom of the row depending on what area they serve; so, for example, the buses that run to the area of town where the hospital is always park at the top of the row.  The problem is that buses aren’t on a timetable, and there aren’t enough spots.  3 buses might want to park in the same spot.  If there is another bus parked in its spot.... the next bus just waits for the spot to open up.  And since there is only 1 lane to access the parking spots, alllll the other buses behind have to wait too.  This adds up to a lot of sitting and waiting for buses... in Samoa, like many islands, being on time is not a thing, really :)

I have to admit though that figuring out the buses has made me feel a lot more at home here.  I feel quite smug when I figure out how to get to a new area by bus. The bus drivers from our route know me now, and often will stop when they see me walking down the road in town to check if I’m ready to ride back.  The best though is how accustomed the girls are to buses.  We’ve had a few experiences with buses breaking down (which often evolves into all the male passengers offering help, advice, and a push start).... so now whenever the bus stops for a time, Lu turns to me and asks, “Mommy, do we need to push?”  
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