Friday, 10 December 2010

Moments in Chaco Time: Saturday Evening

Where Saturday afternoon it had been a virtual ghost town, Saturday evening everything and everybody comes back to life. The municipal water tanker vainly attempts to dampen down the sand and dust, market stall holders splash buckets of water across the road and then set out plastic tables and chairs.s An alfresco eatery appears as if by magic outside a private house. Corrugated tin sheets are swung up and out of the way, to reveal dark caverns of mixed merchandise. Chinese cottons and watermelons, cycle pumps and crash hats. All mixed together. Need a new wooden balustrade? Try over between the washing powder and the lemons.

We need to forage for supplies for tomorrow. Bread might be useful, maybe something to go on it, something with a bit of flavour or just some interest. We’re well used to the autoservicios, we know that we won’t get everything that we need in one shop, yet we enter more in hope than in expectation. There will be no illumination, there will be a shelf of yerba mate often with the chemical cleaning products stacked right on top. Around the corner might be pasta right beside the toothpaste. A chiller fridge will have six brands of beer, yet the cheese and yogurt shelves will be empty. We emerge with a packet of dried pasta and a tin of tomato puree. It’s a start, a very slow start. Now for the optimistically names super carniceria, only there’s no meat today - it’s open but there’s nothing for sale. Next the fruit and veg. We find the shop a few blocks away. One part filled box of cosmetically challenged oranges and a pyramid of four watermelons, the sum total of supplies. Not a lot of calorific value in here. We try the next autoservicio we find, and it’s a carbon copy of the last. It does have 20kg bags of refined white flour, and the soap powder is now stacked on the porridge oats.

The one constant in all these places will be a young member of the household feather dusting what little that is available. We are starting to get desperate - we haven’t achieved our objectives, so it’s off to find the panaderia. One look through the door - no we can’t window shop, there are no windows - confirms that we’re back into dry white rusk country. True, there are a selection of shapes from one bit balls to fancy round rings, but it’s same ingredients in them all: super refined white flour, such that when you break one open they explode in a cloud of fine white dust. Useful as a substrate for dipping in dulce de leche, but so would cardboard or cottonwool. Sustenance rating: low.

Eventually we manage to put together the semblance of some road food; we’re near certain that there won’t be another re-supply tomorrow. It takes time, a lot of time to shop and this is a small town where all the shops are reasonably close together, even if it’s difficult to tell shop from a private home, and what exactly are they selling. The vet’s surgery in Dragones that sells bread, the farmacia in Mollinos that would sell you a bedside lamp.

The forager has developed a policy of trying to glean some information before entering: is it meat, vegetables or a chemists?  That way you can prepare an exit excuse for when what is on offer is so sub-par, you can leave the deserted place without offence. Asking for bananas in the fruiteria when you can see that there’s none, a tin of tuna - we can always use a spare one, or claim vegetarian status in the carniceria.

Bread - but not as we know it

Having achieved our objective, we can reward ourselves with a visit to the heladeria, the ice-cream shop. Every town has at least one, the problem is that the towns are at least 100kms apart.

We’re having a rest day in Embarcacion, an agricultural supply town on the main highway between Bolivia and Argentina. I’m using the foyer for the WiFi, the sports channel is on, but nobody is watching , but the ads. are informative. Images of organized, supermarket aisles, stacked with produce. One advert is for low cholesterol cheese, another for the seductive power of one bite pizza tartlets, neither, I can guarantee will ever be available in any of the Chaco towns.

Whilst the accommodation is very reasonable , a result of a strong exchange rate, we found the food expensive. If it’s like that for us, I find it difficult to understand how the locals afford it. Although the 20kg bags of flour and the vast bulk bags of pasta should give me the start of an answer.