Quico says: My arrival in Caracas seems to have coincided with Milk’s. Everyone was real happy about that. It was all UHT, no fresh stuff, but I guess it’d been months since there’d been any kind of milk around so people weren't minded to be picky.
Personally, I don't really have much use for the stuff. I detest cereals, don't bake much, and I always have my coffee black. Still, particularly during those first few days, people were just so damn happy to have milk, I couldn’t help but feel it’d be rude to refuse it. “Would you like a café con leche?” they’d ask all proud like, with a big smile beaming from their faces, and I’d just nod meekly, unable to muster the courage to ask for the negrito I really wanted instead.
Actually, March was a fairly benign months in terms of shortages: toilet paper, sugar, beans, chicken, and beef were pretty easy to find. The biggest problem seemed to be with rice, but cooking oil and gas canisters (which, as I wrote, is a huge problem for people who can’t get them) were touch and go, and specific stores seemed to have specific shortages of oddball stuff, like paper napkins.
Even with the newly available staples, people were still antsy and minded to stock up while they could, so de facto rationing at the cash register remained quietly in force in many places.
Venezuelans being Venezuelans, all kinds of informal, back channel methods to beat the shortages now operate. When you find a scarce product, you’re fully expected to SMS your closest circle of friends and family about it. My sister, who hosted me, seemed to get at least two or three of these messages a day. “Toilet paper at Makro La Urbina”, or “rush for cooking oil at Cada La Florida,” they'd read.
With the supply situation a bit better, the messages during my trip weren’t so urgent but, she told me, a month back any “Milk” message would see her immediately drop whatever she was doing and rush to the place mentioned. "What can I say, Quico?" she'd shrug, "I have five children and a husband and all of them are hooked on Quick."
It was pretty clear that the milk shortage, in particular, had really messed with people's life.
One day during my trip she got a message, “corn oil at Exito Terrazas del Avila, 6 per person”…and we rushed out. While the cooking oil problem was not as dire as the rice drought, getting more than a bottle or two at a time had been hard for a while, and finding corn oil specifically, which Venezuelans typically prefer, had been really quite a challenge. For a long time, all you could find was weird stuff like peanut or soy oil or some gnarly tasting and alarmingly underlabeled stuff sold as "multipurpose vegetable oil."
So the prospect of six bottles of corn oil was still enticing enough to get her moving. We braved the traffic on the Cota Mil to get to the hypermarket out there and my sister went to work right away, making eyes at the guy behind the counter, blatantly flirting with him to see if he’d stretch the 6 per person rule.
“How many people are you?” He asked.
“Three,” she lied (it was just the two of us.)
“OK, so that's 18 bottles…” he says, but she's having none of it.
“¿Cómo?" she says, teasing him with a big smile, "You weren’t so good at math in school, were you? Three times six is 24, everybody knows that!”
He laughs and quietly lets her have the whole 24-bottle pack. It’s a big score. She’s thrilled. Very discretely, she slips him a Bs.5,000 bill. Everybody’s happy.
As we come out, she whips out her cell phone and starts banging away messages right away.
"Letting everyone know you struck oil, right?" I say, thinking I'm catching on. But she shakes her head.
"Nope, this message I'm sending out to my freebie network. Twelve of those 24 bottles I'm going to give out to them."
"Huh?" I couldn't believe it. "After all that, you're going to just give this stuff away?"
“It might seem crazy,” she says, “but I figured out a long time ago that the best insurance against running out of the basics is to just give stuff out. Whenever I get my hands on a hard-to-find item, my rule of thumb is to give half of it away. Of course, that means that whenever someone in my little network finds a hard-to-find item, they give me a freebie too. You know that rice we’ve been eating at home? I didn’t buy it: our neighbor Andrea just gave me three kilos cuz two months ago, when nobody could find toilet paper, I knocked on her door one day and gave her six rolls.”
She had her distribution list all worked out. Four bottles for her best friend, and then two-packs for four other lucky members of her little freebie network, each of them a tried-and-tested sourcer whom she knew she could count on, but only if they knew they could count on her.
And then it hit me. That sunuvabitch Chavez did it! We all made fun of him when he announced it, but now it’s happening! And not in some podunk nowhere town in Apure or something but right here in foufy East Side Caracas...she may not call it that, but what Ana is doing is trueque!
We never even noticed it creeping up on us, and now the Barter Economy is here!