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13 min read

Super-Cheap Scenes

With her blog called Escenas baratonas (Super-Cheap Scenes), the writer Margarita Arribas Zamora has renewed the well-known Venezuelan genre costumbrismo (depictions of daily life). Here we are invited to share in a few daily scenes from 2013 to 2018 that depict the soaring inflation in Venezuela, the hunt for food basics, the massive food queues, and people carting enormous bankrolls to the market to buy fruit and vegetables.

Credits Text: Margarita Arribas Zamora Translation from Spanish: Tanya Almada January 22 2019

20 Liters
August 18, 2018

Saturday, 4:00 in the afternoon. It’s the day following the last economic announcements. Maracaibo.

I'm looking for bread. Or something, whatever you can buy and store. I get little to nothing. I head for a bakery located on the Ziruma Avenue. It’s closed. They have written a message on a paper attached to the roll up door, but I do not bother to read it. I continue my journey. Then I see the queue at the gas station in front of the old rectory building. It is short. I figure about eight cars ahead of me. I have a half-full tank, but I'm worried about the empty half, so I decide to stay. The sun is relentless; the air conditioning tries to give it a fight. Being still, I can look around: everything is ruined, everything is garbage, everything is closed. In the opposite lane, an old truck with its arse almost touching the pavement is moving in my direction. Not only is it overflowing with people on its bed; above the roof, it is full of parcels and, among the packages, more “passengers”. The truck tries to avoid a hole and I see how everything—parcels, people, truck—tilt to the right, without the driver slowing down. It whizzes by my side.

The queue moves forward with the laziness of the afternoon and sunstroke. When I go far enough to see what is happening at the service station, I understand the delay. Inside there is a swarm of cars that I have not seen in the queue, all of them at the age of having grandchildren. They are large Malibus, LTDs, Fairlanes, Impalas, Caprices... a rusted fleet of cars whose doors do not close; whose trunks have a hole through which a rope comes out where there should be a lock; whose rear-view mirrors are mirrors of powder compacts attached with super glue. Cars without license plates, patched a thousand times. Cars that give you tetanus just by looking at them. Cars with a kind of headlights that tell us they are—perhaps they have been—shared taxis. In my eyes, they are parked around without any particular order. But then I realize that they make up a complicated choreography directed by the yelling of the gas pumpers and those who open and close the secondary doors through which they enter. Then I notice the other swarm: the men, many men among the cars inside the station. Most are shirtless. Others wear their flannel rolled-up over their bellies. Some are barefoot. Others drag their flip flops. Several groups huddle around the gas pumps with empty yellow plastic bottles. They are right next to handwritten sign that says: “No filling containers allowed.”

Part of the tetanus-inducing cars are waiting for a pump to be available and then enter backwards, before the car that is next in the queue moves forward. I then see the gas pumpers well and I think they do not look like gas pumpers; what's more, I do not know for sure that those who look like they are employees of the gas station really are. None of them has a trace of a uniform, they are all carrying handbags and seldom touch the pump: everything is done by the drivers of the jalopies themselves, who yell and gesticulate, get off from the cars barefoot and put in and take out the hoses from the pumps without any intermediary. The car in front of me—a double cab truck with two fuel tank lids on its left side—finally gets beside the pump and I see with terror that the driver gets off leaving the truck running. He waits until the pump is activated—we still use that damned gasoline electronic tag—and then he lets a jet escape through the nozzle before introducing it into several of the bottles that are brought to him by the swarm that surrounds the place. He fills out several large bottles and then puts the nozzle inside the first of his tanks. Next to me, the only gas pumper with a shirt who identifies him, is busy controlling the access of his smugglers into the place, vociferates without much emphasis that they be careful, that we will all end up blown-up in the air, that this is not the way to do things. The truck guy gets in it again before the first tank is full, he goes in reverse with the hose still attached to the vehicle. For some reason, he backs up a bit, aligns with the pump. He gets off the truck again, with the engine running, and then removes the nozzle, drops a jet again, fills other bottles that members of the court that surrounds him pass around, and then puts the nozzle in the second tank.

I start thinking that, indeed, we are going to be blown-up. Another car cuts off and tries to get into the next pump, and then the pumper complains angrily and says that the lady has been waiting for a long time already, that it’s her turn. I realize in that moment that the lady is me. What’s more, I am the only woman in that crowd. I am there surely in the wrong place.

Finally, my turn comes. I am afraid to get out of the car to put in gasoline, because I have never understood how the tag works. I cry out to see if someone can help me. A boy who is carrying a wad of cash in his hand finally approaches and starts filling my tank. I'm the weird one who turns off the car while filling the tank. He finishes and yells at me to move, without even pretending to charge me. I leave as soon as I can. I'm scared.

May 27, 2016

Mid-morning, a bank. There’s a lot of people. I am waiting for my turn. When my number is finally called, I approach the counter, where the previous client, an old man, hasn’t left yet and is mad as hell with the teller, a very young man with greased hair.
Client: (Stooped over and leaning, trying to be heard through the slot through which the teller usually slides the bills and savings passbooks.) So, according to you, I should know that you have nothing else but ten-bolívar bills in this joint and that you’re going to pay me with twenty kilos of bills, right? I mean, according to you, this is my fault ... (Faced with the boy's impassivity, he turns to the customers and leaves, gesturing.) No, man! Oh, boy! How am I going to carry that?
Teller: (Signaling at me to approach and alluding to the client that has just left). Can you believe it? That one is crazy. He says we’re supposed to give him a bag for the bills! He is crazy… Everyone knows you should come here prepared.

A while later, in a pharmacy. I'm in line to pay for the only medication available from the four I'm looking for. In front of me, a woman in her thirties is paying and discovers that, behind the cashier, on the display shelves, there is condensed milk for sale.
Client: (Pointing to the small cartons of condensed milk) How many cartons can I take?
Clerk: Two per head.
The client turns around and looks among the other clients for a familiar face. Finally, she sets eyes on me.
Client: Excuse me, are you buying condensed milk?
Me: No.
Client: Oh, madam! Could you buy two for me? I had already given up for real, but I see that they have it here… I’ll give you the cash in full.
Me: No problem.
She finishes paying and stays by my side to go out of the pharmacy with me, because you have to show the bags with your purchase and the tickets at the door. She takes out her purse and starts counting over the counter the fifteen hundred-bills that she will give me. Behind us in the queue, there is a man who has not lost a detail of our operation.
Man: One-hundred-bills? That’s worth more than the condensed milk cans. (Addressing the client who asked me for the favor) Madam, don’t you want me to buy two other cans for you?

I stop at a store that only sells chicken. I get out of the car and approach the door, which is open. Leaning against the wall, arms crossed, is a boy with a flannel shirt that has the shop logo embroidered on it. He doesn’t move when he sees me approaching. He just looks at me.
Boy: (Immensely annoyed) Madame, there’s nothing at all. There’s no light either.

Pedestrian exit of the Costa Verde mall towards Bella Vista. Not a second after I crossed the glass door, a boy who looks not even 18 years old jumps on me. He’s carrying a big can in his hand, it has a big slot in it, like a money box, and he is shaking it vigorously. The can is wrapped with a piece of paper that says, “Third fundraiser for…” and that’s all I can read. I see two other boys doing the same, jumping on other pedestrians.
Boy: (Bouncy and talking very fast, walking beside me.) Good morning, ma'am. I like your style. Would you chip in for a study trip for us?... (I don’t say anything; I keep walking with him and his pot next to me.) We have a cash desk... We take wire transfers... We take dollars... We take chicken... Pretty lady, compliments are free, but the trips are not... We take Visa and Mastercard ... We will settle for twenty bucks... (Already beaten up, stopping while I continue walking, but without losing the sense of humor.) Okay, but then don’t complain if I get into drugs.

May 11, 2015

A booth in a beauty salon. The lighting is gloomy. The stretcher where I’m lying on my stomach is covered by a pink coarse cotton sheet. The masseuse works on the aching muscles of my neck and shoulders. The playlist offers an instrumental version of ABBA’s hits. Dancing Queen is fading out. Through the partition, a murmur begins to sneak in. Little by little, the murmur acquires a pattern, a cadence, and reveals itself for what it is: a moan, an opaque cry. I say nothing. Neither does the masseuse. Mamma Mia! starts playing. The crying becomes more and more cavernous and impossible to ignore. However, the masseuse does not stop kneading on my shoulders. The musical selection is still festive. The woman who is crying alone in the adjoining booth—because it is a woman, and she is the only one who can be heard—barely interrupts her moaning whenever she gasps and lets out her trembling breath. During one of those interruptions, she says two unintelligible words in a whisper. The masseuse stops her task for a moment. She has two pinches of skin between her fingers and squeezes more than necessary. I raise my head slightly to release my right ear. The crying disappears. Mama Mia! is all that can be heard. I lean my head down again. The masseuse continues. She finishes the massage in silence to the sound of The Winner Takes It All. Her hands smell of menthol.

January 21, 2015

Wednesday, 9:00 in the morning. A man is pulling some bags out of the trunk of a car parked in front of an office. He is so absorbed that he doesn’t see me walking down the sidewalk, also carrying my bulky shopping bag full of fruits and vegetables. When he notices my presence, I'm already close. He closes the trunk with a stroke, puts the keys in his pants and stares at me as I go on. He sees something in me that calms him down; he opens the trunk again to continue unloading his provisions. When I am very close to him, I feel a motorcycle behind me. I flinch, cross my shopping bag over my chest and turn around. Two boys park right next to us and, talking to each other while they take off their helmets, not paying attention to us, they get off the motorcycle and enter the office. The man has stopped taking things out of the car and is staring at me again.
Man: (Shaking his head) Not this time.

There isn’t any
May 8, 2013

Wednesday, almost nine in the morning, De Cándido de Santa Rita supermarket. Inside, there is that strained environment concocted by the queues of those who expect that they take out some scarce product (margarine, toothpaste, toilet paper, chicken ...) out of the warehouse; people looking from the corner of their eyes at the neighbor's cart, to see what they got; shelves that have been destroyed; the haste of the customers trying to finish filling their cart and pay before the smugglers appear and the queues at the register translate into inevitable labor absenteeism. Behind me, in line to pay, a young woman, more like a girl, holds two packs of toilet paper, two cans of tuna, and a bag of oats in her arms. I tell her to put her scant purchase in my cart while we wait for the slow advance of the queue. She thanks me and does it. A few minutes later, I see her, she’s silent and nibbling on a fingernail, her eyes filled with tears and her face congested with the effort of holding back. She looks at me with an air of defeat and fury.
Girl: (Wiping her eyes with a smack) I haven’t been able to work for three days, going from here to there, searching here and there, the diapers, the baby food, the Cerelac, the milk… Three days. Over there at La Limpia, where I live, they wanted to sell me Cerelac in 150 bolívares. They are crazy! But you can’t get any, you can’t get nothing. And now I have to go to the pharmacy, see what I find.

Margarita Arribas Zamora is a poet, narrator, journalist and editor. She worked as a professor of journalistic writing at the University of Zulia until her recent retirement. Her blog, Escenas Baratonas, has renewed Venezuelan Costumbrismo, a genre visited by notable authors in each generation of this country.

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