Now don’t worry, this is not an article about me going on a shopping trip. It is also not an issue we thought was important before we started travelling long term. As a tourist you enjoy the small shops, don’t mind the limited availability of different kinds of food and you usually don’t have to replace clothes, camping gear or car parts. After all in a few weeks time you”ll be home again where you can buy what you’re used to. But if you travel for a longer period of time, especially outside the modern, western parts of the world, it is a different matter.
When we were still living in the Netherlands, I never appreciated how well stocked the supermarkets are with all kinds of food, from all over the world. Vietnamese spring rolls, Argentinian beef, Indian curry, English cookies, Turkish pizza’s, you name it, it was all there. Together with 20 kinds of bread, almost every known fruit or vegetable, regardless of season and a great choice of fresh or frozen meat and fish. Even when it was still a “one stop shop” I didn’t like going grocery shopping. Neither did Kilian so one of us would sacrifice ourself for the weekly shopping trip. Now that we are travelling it is usually me who goes shopping, simple because I am better at it. We don’t go together because if one of us stays in the van, it saves the hassle of locking everything up and taking Binkie with us. And parking the van can also be a problem. Often in a busy street, Kilian stops on the road and I jump out with everything I need. Kilian finds a parking spot somewhere else or goes to a fuel station.
Buying food is problematic outside of (big) cities. It was in Albania and Turkey and in Georgia it is even worse. What is called a supermarket is often no more than a mini market if it had been in Western Europe. And if it is a market (so no super) then it is usually no bigger than the average kitchen. Also (super) markets don’t tend to sell fresh items. So you can buy a packet of spaghetti, get some coffee and toilet paper, but no bread, fruit or meat. For those items you have to go to the bakery, green grocers or butcher. And since we travel and don’t really stay anywhere for a longer period of time, we never know where these shops are so we drive or walk around a lot to find them, although usually most can be found in the main street. And the (super)markets don’t have a great choice or variety of goods either. So often I have to go to two or three (super) markets and then I still need to find a green grocer or bakery. Often we can only find large quantities of pre-packed food, such as 2kg of frozen chicken. Not very convenient if there is just two of you and you don’t have a freezer. Often shopping takes three times as long as it did in the Netherlands. And then I’m glad if I have everything we need, let alone, everything we want! Some simple items are really hard to get, like matches, clothpegs or spices like basil.
Added difficulty is the language barrier. Often we use Google translate to ask for things like 250 grams of minced meat or to translate the list of ingredients, since I’m allergic to nuts. These things take a lot of time as well. It is especially difficult in countries like Bulgaria and Georgia where they use a different alphabet than ours. Our phones don’t have Cyrillic or Georgian keyboards. And no we haven’t found a (working) app for those either. I can translate from Dutch to Georgian but not the other way around. So unless the ingredients are also listed in the Latin alphabet, I have to put the item back. And of course the translation is sometimes wrong. Kilian eats a lot of natural yogurt. I have tried buying this three times in Georgia. Yogurt in Georgian is apparently იოგურტი, so it should be easy to find, right? The first time it turned out I had actually bought buttermilk, the 2nd time it turned out to be sour cream and the third time I decided to play it safe and bought little cups of strawberry yogurt, because they were obviously actually yogurt, although not natural and very expensive.
Being Dutch we eat a lot of bread. But most stores only sell dry, factory made white bread, it is unhealthy and tasteless. So when I finally spotted a shop that had the English word “bakery” on front if it, I was happy. But the “bakery” only sold melons and soft drinks, so yeah… I sometimes bake our own bread but for this we need to be able to buy flower and yeast, which isn’t always possible. In some parts of Georgia shops are thinly spread. Recently we had to drive 80 kms extra just to get to a small town that had three mini markets. Where I managed to buy the most basic items, not even a third of what was on my list. I also couldn’t find any of the needed milk anywhere. That wouldn’t have been so annoying if it weren’t for the many cows that are on the roads everywhere! Remarkable enough the cows are never in the meadows, perhaps Georgian cows eat asphalt instead of grass and that’s why there isn’t any milk? It would also explain the holes in the road…
Buying non food items such as car parts and camping gear is problematic as well. It often takes us weeks to find the desired item, and usually it means driving to the capital city. In the Netherlands we just bought it online, but that is not an option. A lot of shops don’t even have a website. We can’t read the websites that are available, we don’t have an address and shipping is very expensive anyway. Twice we had a package send from the Netherlands to a pick up point. This means hanging around in the area until the package arrives and both times we had to pay a lot of import taxes, on top of the already high shipping costs. Even buying clothes isn’t as easy as you would think. Sizes aren’t as universal as you would expect. What is a size M is in the Netherlands is actually a size 2XL in Albania. The first underwear I bought immediately ended up in the trash. So I went to a little shop that sold underwear, pointed at some underpants and then at myself and got some underpants that would’ve made granny very happy, but at least they fit.
Binkie eats a specific brand of dry food. As he has sensitive intestines, we can’t really give him anything else or he will have diarrhoea. When he was young I deliberately chose an high quality international brand that was worldwide available, or so their site said… As it turned out this isn’t always the case, shops simple don’t sell it (anymore) or the shop is gone. So the last time we came across it, we bought a lot. We now drive around with 8 months worth of cat food 🙂
For an issue we never really thought about before travelling, this has become quite a long article. And I haven’t even mentioned the lack of building markets and drug stores (a lot of bad hair days 🙂