Village shopping is a delightfully inefficient practice rendered obsolete by grocery stores. Shopping in the old world sense, or perhaps even the way shopping can still happen in parts of New York or San Francisco. It is just called shopping, or compras, in most of Latin America, including the villages surrounding Lago Atitlan. For freshness you shop nearly daily, and for variety, you visit at least 3 shops. In San Juan La Laguna, typically the stops for us as a family involve the produce market for fresh fruit and vegetables, the dry goods market for grains and spices and the like, and some variety of meat, cheese, olives and other specialty items. Coffee is sourced, literally tree to cup from our friend Edwin on the other side of town, whose cafetales we walk through every time we go to our favorite swimming hole in the mountains. His teenage son walks across town to deliver the beans to our door. In San Juan La Laguna shopping sometimes means a visit in tuk-tuk to the neighboring town for choice items as well. It could take up to a half-day multiple times a week. I find myself inclined to be a casero, or regular patron, but others prefer to spread their shopping out to different vendors. Choose your own adventure. I enjoy the casual conversations with my regular visits to familiar faces, deepening relationships with each visit. Sometimes an extra few carrots are thrown in on top for free, or an especially creamy avocado. Or a seasonal fruit like the jocote. Try as one might, this is inconceivable in Nearly Everywhere, USA.
In San Juan La Laguna the kids can participate in the compras. From the alley where our front door sits, Celia and Mason scramble up cobblestone paths to buy milk, avocados, juice. They greet the vendors and practice Spanish. They can walk nearly everywhere in town by themselves. What freedom.
Walking to school for them is down the cobblestone path the other way, passing Dona Mikaela and Don Luis’s urban oasis, where the kids go to buy eggs and passion fruit, and heading along the lake-shore path, through milpas, to the Eco-Escuela Spanish school. There they spend 10-20 hours a week of their homeschooling time.
Our car is parked nearly always. There aren’t too many places to go with a vehicle. We sometimes take it to go to our favorite beach just east, at the toe of Volcan San Pedro, but otherwise this is a place for walking, tuk-tuk and, occasionally, boat rides around the lake on the water taxis. Lake Atitlan is feels kind of like an inverted island, still oriented towards the water, as islands are, but with shores extending outward rather than inward. Perhaps this feels more the case here compared to other lake communities because access to these towns on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan is still difficult overland, through rugged volcanic and jungle-clad terrain.
In an era where shopping, even for the life-sustaining nourishment and miracle of food, is becoming hyper-efficient and impersonal, I find myself nostalgic for the inefficient village shopping rhythm If I were to do the math, it may take 6 hours to shop for our family of 4 each week. A pre-ordered Amazon/Whole foods pickup approach may take 30 minutes for the same outcome – food for the family. But what web are we weaving of connection and relationship by walking the streets and making the rounds on our compras? What further disconnection and isolation have we cultivated in building large grocery stores and, even more-so, in moving towards online shopping? Things are breaking in this new set of norms that are hard to see and harder to quantify. Things more important and consequential than a few broken eggs.
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