The USA Needs Tiendas
I had an interesting discussion over lunch yesterday with my Peruvian girlfriend and her sisters about the small corner stores that intermittently dot the maze of neighborhood streets and avenues in Latin America—known as tiendas, in the local tongue.
The small convenience stores pop up just about everywhere you can imagine, and often stock all the basics one might need in a pinch: from beer to bread to baking soda, and most any foodstuff in between.
I was remarking how common it seemed for folks to live within (and only travel within the confines of) a four- or five-block radius around their home, yet have access to almost all the things they needed on a regular basis—be it church, food, entertainment, or shopping.
The concept of a supermarket (by North American standards) seems to still be somewhat of new idea in these parts. Massive concrete structures filled with isles of goods, an abundance of selection, and enough illumination to fry the retinas of patrons are just now becoming an established part of many people's lives.
Food tastes fresher in Latin America because the food is fresher. Grocery shoppers don't seem to have the habit of purchasing food en mass, but just enough for one to three days of meals. This contrasts heavily against the practice of 'bulk buying' in the U.S., where consumers save money by getting three months of hamburger meat and tossing it in the freezer.
I think the frequency food buying in each respective culture ties in directly with mental attitudes about time, space (storage), and opportunity. In the U.S., time is money. In Latin America, space is a luxury—there just isn't room for excess.
In the United States, the allocation of time needed to drive to the market, shop, wait in checkout lines, and fight traffic on the way home can be tremendous—it's no wonder why people only want to do it every week or two. In Latin America, the pace is slower, and the necessities are closer. Here, the concept of 'urban zoning' isn't as black and white. Businesses mix freely with residential homes, and appear just about everywhere people think they can make money.
Latin Americans are use to walking moderate distances or traveling on inexpensive mass transit/taxis to get places, instead of using or owning cars. And as a result, the bubble that people move about in during the week is much smaller than a North American's, who likes (or needs) to drive.
In the U.S., I can really only liken it to Manhattan, where the density of the living environment enables someone to live quite comfortably within a few blocks of their home for extended periods of time. It's kind of like that here in Latin America—and in a good many places of the world.
Latin America, Europe, and Asia are full of twisting streets of intermixed homes and businesses built over the years without much planning or foresight. This is the norm. Only in the U.S. do we see these large expanses of land that city planners designate 'residential', forcing people to drive out of their urban maze to the nearest 7-11 for a snack—all in the name of… property value?
I grew up in the U.S., a country where neighborhoods often have Homeowners Associations that dictate the colors you can paint your home, the type of fencing you can install, and the length of the grass in your front yard. The worth of property is omnipresent in the United States. Eyesores detract from aesthetic value, and thus, diminish the worth of a parcel of land (and the structure that is, or is to be, built on or around it).
So it's rather wild for me to consistently travel in developing countries where this concept hasn't really taken root. A five-star hotel can sit right next to a one-star hotel. Beachfront propriety is coveted, but anything a block back from it might as well be kilometers from the shore. Families could care less what the style or condition of their neighbor's home looks like, so long as it doesn't allow burglars to sneak into their home. Each home is treated like a kingdom and castle unto itself, with few to no embassies abroad.
Small businesses are easy to open here, compared with the red tape, limited liability corporation formation, and insurance payments of North America. Wheels can be quickly greased (ahem—bribes) when needed, and entrepreneurs seeking to break out of low-paying jobs are numerous.
Entrepreneurs are a bit of an anomaly in the United States—we like to take our educations and go work for big business and feel secure with 401K retirement plans and all-inclusive dental coverage. It's of little surprise that many of the entrepreneurs in the U.S. seem to have recently immigrated there, or are a first-generation America. This spirit of entrepreneurialism seems to dilute the longer a family lineage has been living in the country.
The U.S. was (is?) an industrial superpower, and big machines need big corporations with big pools of employees to run them. It's a country that's grown up to embrace super-corps, with a populous obliged to fuel them. It's a country where even the corner stores are franchised.
So yes, things are mashed up, less organized, and a bit crazier in these parts, but as a traveler who seeks out such things himself, I take nothing but pleasure in proximity of my nearest neighborhood tienda.