October 5, 2012

A small shop in Mongolia is called a delguur. The storefront is usually one of the doors to a house, and the delguur to resident ratio rivals that of a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts; from one, you can easily see at least 5 others. They range in size, but the footprint might max out at half the size of a 7-11.

More often than not, the prepackaged items are stocked in an orderly manner on shelves behind the counter: giant boxes of imported chocolates get prime shelf space, a few cans of peas, milk in a box, mayonnaise in a bag within a box, single toilet paper rolls, sea-cabbage for making a type of non-fish sushi called kimbab, or eating plain like I have come to do. The counters are always glass and underneath you will find smaller goodies (candy, spices, tea, single serve 3-in-1 packets of blended coffee, sugar and creamer). Eggs might be sitting in those egg-shaped cardboard trays on the counter and they are purchased individually. You tell the clerk what you want and he or she gets it for you. The money is kept in a cardboard box on one of the shelves, and if they can’t make exact change because of the pesky 10, 20, 50 tugrugs (10<penny), they make the difference in your favor.

I can imagine that going from shopping in a Supermarket—with over a dozen aisles, frozen foods, prepared foods, a deli, a bakery, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen and canned—to shopping in a room with <1% of the stock would seriously distress someone who hadn’t already expressed that the sheer number of options available to Americans was overwhelming. Since I am the person who bemoaned so many brands of XX, it was a bit of a relief to walk into a store and choose *the* loaf of sliced bread, or *the* jar of pickles (we have pickles!!!), or *the* bag of dehydrated tofu. In and out in 5 minutes.

I can also imagine that there are people who, upon seeing less than perfect produce, would turn up their noses and shop elsewhere. Thankfully for me, I was the person who would have chosen the slightly damaged package just so that it wouldn’t get tossed out. And, yet, I was also the person who once asked a coworker who was peeling a full-sized carrot during lunch why she went through all that trouble?! This is what growth looks like, people. Transitioning from so-called “baby carrots” to the carrots-straight-from-the-earth was less of an adjustment than I would have thought. It’s one of the changes I plan to keep when I return home.

All the delguurs are variations on the same theme. They all start with candy, flour, tea, potatoes, onions, carrots, juice, salt, sugar, jam, soda, vodka, beer, single serve ice-cream, toilet paper. You know, the essentials. Maybe half of the delguurs will add some or all of these: cabbage, garlic, butter, yogurt, apples, eggs, milk, frozen chicken legs (loose in the freezer, take your pick). And a few of those will add cheese, bananas, peanut butter or cereal. So that the store that has cereal (which we helpfully refer to as “The Cereal Store”) has yogurt but neither eggs nor butter. The store that has cheese (which we call, yes, “The Cheese Store”) sometimes has chicken, sometimes has bananas, but hasn’t yet had peanut butter. Depending on what’s on your shopping list, if you guess right and the stars are aligned, you can get everything with just 3 stops. But, then, when you can walk across town in 20 minutes, it’s just a dusty, uneven aisle.