Chile in general is pretty straighforward. You’re not going to arrive and notice that everything is exactly upside down and opposite from how your expected. This, in fact, leads to something I like to call cultural seasickness. Everything is just a few degrees off of what you were expecting. It’s unsettling, but eventually you get used to it.
I recently went to the supermarket (in my case, the Santa Isabel on Huerfanos) with my newgringoeyes on. Newgringoeyes is what I call it when you go where you’ve always gone, but imagine it’s the first time and try to remember what would have jumped out at you.
So the supermarket. First, there is a security guard standing by the lockers, yes lockers. The lockers are where you may (but are not required to) leave biggish things you don’t want to schlep through the supermarket, for the returned-to-you-later price of 100 pesos. The security guard though, is not optional. He will cleverly wrap a piece of unrippable tape around the neck of any plastic bag you may already be carrying, leading you to rip the bag to shreds to remove the contents later. But hey, it’s his job. Don’t make him sad; let him tape the bag.
Within the supermarket there aren’t too many surprises. Sure, there’s the nescafe and tea aisle, and the tunafish aisle, both of which seemed excessive to me. It’s always fun to check out what’s on the “international” shelf. Nutella, barbecue sauce, sometimes rosewater. No one knows why. Eggs sit unrefrigerated, so that might come as a surprise, and the milk is shelf-stable. Nearly everything, including cream, ketchup, tomato sauce and mayonnaise (which pretty much has its own aisle, too) comes in a bag. There’s a whole case of cheese that all tastes exactly the same, and is attended by a crew of cheese-and-meat workers, who count out slices all day long, since most everything comes presliced. Don’t forget to bag and weigh all your freshies, unless they say por unidad (sold singly) on them. Failure to do so will cause a major line backup and not a single bit of muttering by your very polite Chilean neighbors, but seriously, don’t be a jerk. Weigh your stuff.
At the line area there aren’t too many more surprises. We’ve recently started getting some American candy, so the impulse purchase impulse is greater than it used to be. I’ve seen snickers and milkyway, in addition to the long standing M&Ms and giant kitkat. You’ve got your old señoras with just one item who try to sneak in front of you (I usually let them, but I kind of make them say gracias), and your tottery drunkards buying another bottle of pisco at 10:00 in the morning. It’s all very picturesque.
Okay, so it’s finally your turn, and the cashier says “Buenos días.” You should respond in kind. She will then say something to you that means nothing to you as a visitor. It might be acumulas puntos? (do you collect points), tienes tarjeta Jumbo (do you have a Jumbo card?) etc. At any rate, your answer to the first question you are asked is probably no.
Then the cashier will tell you the price. If you choose to pay by credit or debit, she will ask you cuantas cuotas (how many installments) because we have a tremendous consumer credit problem here from big screen tvs all the way down to Confort-brand toilet paper (which stands in for the name of the product, like Band-Aids in the United States). You may answer “una sola” (just one) or “sin quotas” (no installments) if you want to be billed all at once. If instead you pay by cash, well then fork it over.
Here’s where you find out how well you did. If you pulled it off like a Chilean, with your body language, slang, hair and clothes just right, or at least like a foreigner who’s been in Chile for a long time, the cashier will then ask you if you’d like to donate the singe-peso part of your change. Your bill was 2,632, and you gave her 2700. She’ll ask you if you’d like to donate three pesos. Dona 3 pesos? It’s for some foundation or another, and to be honest, I haven’t really investigated too throroughly but I figure that for the equivalent of 1/6 of a US cent per peso, I’m not that invested in finding out. At this point, the baggerchick or baggerdude (who work as volunteers) hand you your bag/s, and you should, custom dictates, hand him or her some change. This might be proportionate to how much they packed, how good a job they did, how many facial piercings they have, etc. If I have 100 pesos (about 15 cents these days), I’ll give that, or maybe more if I have more change around and am feeling generous. And also if they didn’t give me the look of death when I suggested to them that I did not need eleventeen bags for the three items I purchased, or when I hand them the reusable bags I have brought.
Which is annoying because you can’t really spend the one peso coins anywhere, except the supermarket (they don’t even take them at the metro), and now you have more fairly worthless metal in your pocket. But the worst indignity of all is that the cashier didn’t ask you to donate the pesos. Which means she looked you in your gringo face and decided that your Newgringoself doesn’t speak enough Spanish to understand the question or hasn’t been here long enough to know about donating pesos.
At which point I usually trot out in my best Chilean accent “Si me hubieses preguntado, donaba los 3 pesitos” (Had you asked, I’d have given you the three tiny pesos.” And then I take my eleventeen bags and walk home.
And now: bonus coin picture! with explanations!
from left to right, 1 peso coins, 5 peso coins (nearly as useless, also accepted almost nowhere), 10 peso coins, 50 peso coin, old and new 100 peso coins (also referred to as gamba), and 500 peso coin (also called kina, referring to quinientos (500) pesos, shortened to quina, and written kina because we feel slightly subersive (but not too much) when we replace qu- with k. Like the rosewater, I’m not sure anyone really knows why.
Next time: Where can I find convenience foods in Chile?