Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Day at the Grocery Store

Current Location: Nai Han Beach, Phuket Island, Thailand
Current Position: 07 46.57 N 98 18.05 E
Next Location: Passage to Maldives (potential start: Jan 17, 2007)

Everyone thinks we've got it easy. That life aboard Billabong is one big vacation. Non-cruisers laugh or give us "the look" when we mention that we had a tough day, or that we have too much "work" to do. Okay, I'll agree that we've got it pretty good, but it's not all strawberries and pink champagne.

We don't write much about our day-to-day chores or mundane tasks. We figure that complaining about how tough life is will only lead to a rolling of the eyes or bore the few dedicated visitors that we have. But on this occasion we bring to you a day at the grocery store, just to give you a taste of the other side of our life!

First imagine YOUR day at the grocery store. Nobody loves going, but it's not that bad; hop in the car, drive to the nice, big, air conditioned, one-stop grocery store, buy everything you need, roll it out to the car, drive it home, and carry it the few steps from the garage to the kitchen, where there is ample cupboard space awaiting. Fairly simple, definitely straight forward, and no big dramas. Alright then, let's see how our day went.

We were lucky enough to score a rental car. This being the high-season, most cars were rented out, but prices were high (for Thailand anyway). We arranged a truck with a covered back (as we needed to drop of our settee cushions for repair) to be delivered to Nai Han Beach between 8:30 and 9:00am. While I waited with the heaps of stuff we had brought in Chris went to meet the guy bringing the car. We couldn't believe our luck. Most of the rentals we had been in or seen in Thailand were barely running pieces of crap. The truck we ended up with was in premium condition, had a terrific air conditioner, and a working radio to boot. On top of that, the guy was actually on time and had arranged his own ride back so we didn't have to drop him off anywhere. Our day was off to a good start.

We were happy to have a truck for the extra protection and safety for driving around Phuket. We have driven is some crazy places, but nowhere has been as bad as Thailand. There are no rules. Cars and scooters will drive in any lane they want, change lanes without looking, and even drive against the traffic on the wrong side of the road. You have to be aggressive and confident, otherwise you'll find yourself stuck at a turn for hours waiting for a chance to enter the flow of traffic. Road signs and traffic lights are only suggestions, not requirements. Red light? No worries, just zoom on through if you can make it without getting creamed! We almost took out one scooter when he passed us on the right while Chris was making a right hand turn … Chris had done everything right; slowly braked, moved to the right edge of the lane (leaving room for cars and scooters to go around us on the left), turned on his right blinker and then began making the right turn, and still this guy tries to zoom by us on the right! Luckily Chris saw the scooter out of the corner of his eye and braked just in time.

The first thing you have to know when provisioning in smaller foreign countries is that there is no such thing as running to 'the' store. Not if you want the majority of items on your list. On average we visit at least three stores when doing a major provision. Our fist stop was Super Cheap. A huge warehouse-like store where all the locals shop. Super Cheap is great because since it's a "local" store the prices haven't been marked up. On the downside, it's not as clean as Farang (white-person/tourist) stores, has no air-conditioning, and is contaminated with a ripe fishy smell from the meat section. The most difficult thing though is that there is no English to be seen or heard. Most the time it's not a big deal, I can recognize the brand, or figure out the contents by looking at the picture on the can. But it does take longer, and many times it's hard to be 100% sure that you really are buying what you think you're buying. The one item I finally gave up on was dark soy sauce. The soy sauce isle was huge. At least 20-30 different brands with about 10 different types per brand, and here's a product that truly doesn't have any pictures or English to help out. I found the white soy and the normal soy, but couldn't figure out which one might be dark soy. One of the workers kept smiling at me as I went from bottle to bottle, but in the end the best he could do to help was to tell me "Soy-a-sauce" … yeah I got that. Finally I figured it wasn't worth saving 50 Baht for … I'd just buy it at a Farang store where there would be some English. The one upside about shopping in foreign countries is that you get really excited when you find the EXACT thing you are looking for. When Chris came back to the cart he had 15 packages of the coffee we like with him - I gave him a huge smile and shouted out "You Scored!". I never recall getting so excited when grocery shopping in America.

We checked out, loaded up the car (it was nice to have rented a car and not have to lug everything onto a bus), and then were off to the next store. Our next stop was Macro. Another warehouse type store (where everything is individually packaged, but then sold in large quantities). Macro is a much more pleasant experience than Super Cheap in that it doesn't smell, is cleaner, and has a wee bit of air-con. While a lot of locals shop at Macro it also caters to Farangs, so there is some written English and a few of the workers speak a bit of English. They didn't have as much as we'd thought they'd have, so we realized that we would be adding a fourth stop to our plan.

Tops was third our list. A real Farang shop, in a high-end Farang Mall – with horrible parking. It took us about 30 minutes to find a spot - round and round the lot we drove, avoiding people and cars who didn't bother to look. Luckily it was Monday, we'd heard that the weekends are even worse. Double parking is allowed - there are signs in Thai and English that even give the rules for double parking; leave the wheels straight, the parking brake off, and the car in neutral. Then when a person needs to get out, they just push your car forward or backwards so that they can back out! Because the Central Mall and Tops cater mostly to Farangs it is fully air conditioned and quite clean. In Tops all the tags are in both Thai and English. The mall itself contains common American stores (like Gap, Bebe, Warner Brothers, etc). The huge downside is that everything is marked up. Even identical products cost more here than they do at Super Cheap or Macro … but hey, at least you know that you are indeed buying tuna and not mackerel or some other meat concoction!

Finally, after running a few other errands, we were ready to tackle our fourth market … Testco. Testco is in another mall and caters to a mix of Thais and Farangs, so most things are tagged in both languages, and prices aren't marked up as much as Tops (but still higher then 'local' markets). We loaded up on the final items that we couldn't find elsewhere, and were finally ready to call it a day. It can be a little depressing when you look at your shopping list and notice that about 25% of the items still aren't marked off. This, however, is normal. When I make the list I put down everything I WISH we could buy (within some realms of reason), of course it's all a pipe dream as there isn't a country we've been to where I've managed to find everything. And now that I have favorite food items from a variety of countries I have a feeling that even back home there will be items I won't be finding!

We've now spent a whole day grocery shopping, moving from one crowded store to the next, attempting to decipher foreign labeled foods, and dealing with crazy Thai driving in between. We are both exhausted and I can think of nothing better than sitting back with a cold drink. But we still aren't even close to being finished. I long for a garage where I could leave the groceries in the car till the next morning … or maybe even on the kitchen floor. Instead we return to Nai Han Beach, where at least we are lucky enough to have been able to tie the dinghy up to a floating dock (much easier then launching a full dinghy through the surf from the beach). First we unload the zillions of bags worth of food from the car to the top of the steps leading down to the dock. Next we go back and forth, back and forth, lugging bag after bag from the steps down the dock. Then Chris gets in the dinghy and I hand the bags over to him. With every transfer we try to remember which bags have the heavy squash-able items and which backs contain the bread, eggs, and other items you wish to get to the boat in a somewhat familiar shape. We are impressed that we've managed to fit everything into the dinghy for one trip (we thought for sure that this would be a two or three dinghy trip grocery run) – mind you, the dinghy is nearly sinking and bags are stacked quite high. I climb over everything and off we go. With all the weight every little ripple in the bay sends some spray into the dinghy and we can only hope that nothing is getting wet that can't handle it. Finally we are back to Billabong. I hop off and stand at the stern while Chris hands up the bags and I place them in the cockpit (what, are we on transfer #5 now?). Then, almost done, it's me down below, with Chris handing bags down from the cockpit. At long last everything is aboard. Unfortunately because we are at anchor, and especially because this anchorage has been known to get rolly, I can not just leave the bags and boxes for tomorrow. But there are no roomy cupboards awaiting -- just small spaces that have to manipulated and pieced together like a puzzle in order for everything to fit (and not break underway). I spend a few hours unpacking and packing, moving, shifting, storing, cleaning and organizing, before I'm just too beat to finish. I figure I've put away all the breakable items and have placed the other stuff in canvas bags under the table, so even if a swell comes in or there is some emergency where we have to move the boat, things are stored well enough and out of the way. At last I can enjoy that cold drink!!! Of course it is also well past dinner time and we are both starving, but one of the additional errands we ran was filling the propane tanks, so the bottle is not currently hooked up, and anyway, I'm to beat to cook. Croissants and Nutella it is!!!

It takes me another almost full day to get everything stored. The most amazing thing is that everything actually fit. Chris always comments that he can't believe how much stuff I can squeeze in!

So now you know that it's not an endless vacation out here, but I'll tell you what we do have – a terrific trade-off. It might take us two full days to grocery shop, and sure we don't get everything we'd love to have, but there is no question that in return we get one hell of a good time!!!


  1. And to think I whine about having to push the grocery cart through the snow / slush covered parking lot.