Big Rock MarketThe food situation here is a little tricky. First of all, most things come in by boat. There are some things that we can get locally on the island, like fruit, eggs, some herbs and hydroponic lettuce. Everything else comes in by boat — and the boats are impacted by the weather. During the week that we had high winds, the boats were inconsistent, which meant the stores started getting depleted of food. Grocery shopping is funny here — it’s like Forrest Gump said about life & chocolates — “You never know what you’re going to get.”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want — But You Get What You Need
Here are my survival skills in changing my mindset about grocery shopping on a small island:

  • You Get What You Get – If I wanted a particular brand of food — or even a particular food — I may end up being disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, there are options at the store, but they might not be the foods I like or am used to. This is a great lesson in just being grateful for what I do have. If I spend my time wishing there were more or different products, it would put a big damper on my enjoyment of living here.
  • The Only Constant is Change – one week they may have tahini and the next week, none. If Joel starts to like Vienna Fingers cookies, they might not have them for weeks at a time. You just never know what they’ll have at the stores. This allows us to cultivate our sense of surprise — instead of being annoyed about not having what we have just started to like, we can be surprised by the new things that come in. Okay, I admit that sometimes there is a bit of grumbling when we arrive and there are still no Vienna Fingers!
  • Remove the Brand Mentality – I do have favorite brands, but here, all bets are off. They either don’t have the brands I like — or if they do, they may be outrageously expensive. You might pay twice the price here for your favorite brand. I’ll do another post on cost comparisons, but for now, suffice it to say that you may be looking for the most inexpensive item — unless you want to spend a lot on food. Here, the cheapest brand is HyTop. HyTop is one of those “store brands” that replaced generic food in grocery chains. It’s supposedly a top tier national brand from Federated Group in the US. That doesn’t mean that Hytop is always available, however.
  • Don’t Be A Produce Snob – the grocery stores here don’t have the wide selection of nearly perfect produce that we are used to in the US. They also don’t have the organic produce that I am used to — unless you count the fruit from our trees! Now produce here has come a long way in the past 2 years. 2 years ago, it was pretty dismal. Now, I can at least be sure to find some of my favorites — leeks, romaine lettuce, cilantro, ginger root, apples, lemons, basil, etc. Sometimes, there’s even radicchio, endive and pumpkin/squash. The thing is, it’s not always in peak condition. Sometimes, I won’t buy it at all because it looks so limp. Then I see locals just grab up the limp stuff. For example, once I saw a woman decide to take really limp baby bok choy instead of the fresher large bok choy. She explained that the large bok choy was “tougher.”

    Tougher or not, I like my produce fresh. If it doesn’t look fresh and crisp (and it usually does — as I said, it’s come a long way), I go for the frozen vegetables. The interesting thing is that over the course of the week, the produce looks worse and worse — yet it’s still there for sale. You could see moldy ginger root in the refrigerator for weeks — yuck! Doesn’t look like anyone is buying it, but it’s still there. It would make US produce managers cringe.

  • Compare Prices Between Stores – The two main stores here carry some of the same things and some different. You’d think the prices would be similar, but they’re not. I would like to think there is a rhyme & reason behind pricing, but I’m beginning to think differently. Sometimes prices change from week to week — could be up, could be down. Sometimes you can get something from one store for half the price charged at the other store. Why? Not sure. Someday I’ll be wise to the inner workings of the pricing system, but until then, I have made a list of where to get things in order to have the best price. It’s common to go to both stores when shopping — and they are only a couple hundred feet apart on the same street, so it’s easy.
  • Lose Your Taste For Bakery Items – there are few baked goods here. You can’t just go buy a cake for someone’s birthday — perhaps you could pay one of the bakeries or a person who bakes well to make one for you. There are no bagels and the ones in the stores are frozen & expensive. There are virtually no baked cookies on this island — and never chocolate chip cookies, so Mrs. Fields would have an open market here. Occasionally, the bakeries will bring a few slices of pumpkin bread, sugar cookies or 1 wrapped doughnut. For packaged baked goods, you can get frozen Mrs. Smiths pies and frozen Pepperidge Farms cakes. You can’t get packaged doughnuts, even frozen. If you are a pastry lover, you’ll have to go to St. Maarten to get your fill.

    The bread situation is interesting — there is no packaged bread, but the bakeries make fresh bread each day. The prices are reasonable for fresh baked bread and they typically make white & wheat. Sometimes they make rye, multi-grain and raisin bread, which is more expensive. The restaurant, My Kitchen, has just started selling upscale breads in the store for a higher price — usually between $4-$6 for a small loaf of oat bread, whole wheat crusty bread or cranberry walnut bread.

Boat Fever
Unique StoreWhen the boat comes in, the stores are full — people clamor to get first pick at the fresh produce. It’s actually not really that bad, but when a boat is late or if it skipped a week because of bad weather, it’s a mad house. Sometimes I find myself feeling like I have to get there right away to stake my claim. Do you remember hearing about the fights that broke out in Wal-Mart on their after Thanksgiving sale? Let two weeks go by with no boats and desperation for fresh produce sets in….Luckily, there are no fights in Saba. People are pretty polite — but I do see the grim determination and defiant gleam in people’s eyes as they grab their produce. Lurking under a tightly controlled politeness is probably a crazed Wal-Mart shopper — I think we all know this and that keeps us in polite mode.

It’s actually really fun shopping here — quite an experience — and a good chance to practice patience and acceptance. We like the store owners and chat with everyone at the register. It’s like a community gathering — and a great place to get the island news. I have a feeling that when I visit St. Maarten or go back to the US, I’ll experience culture shock from all the choices. I’m not sure if I’ll be paralyzed by the choices or if I’ll end up with 2 carts full of items. Time will tell.