What do fresh pomegranate juice, phone chargers, roses, fleece jackets, and sopaipillas all have in common? The answer: you can purchase all of those things a few blocks from where I live. Great, you’re thinking to yourself. Isaac lives near a BoosterJuice, BestBuy, florist, North Face outlet and sopaipilla restaurant. Nothing too striking about that. But none of these products are being sold in stores, or really any sort of formal location of exchange. They’re all sold on the same street, but you won’t find a place there where you can pay with credit card. And you most certainly will not receive a receipt after purchasing. This particular street block near my apartment is one of many here in Santiago, where confused gringos like myself ogle at the sheer variety of things you can buy on the street. Opportunistic vendors, selling anything from sushi rolls to laundry hampers, create ‘pop-up’ markets around areas with high foot traffic. Metro station exits, busy pedestrian streets and public squares are popular gathering spots. The vendors are loud, they’re quick, they’re possibly in a legal grey area (I’m really not too sure), but most importantly they’re a cheap and convenient source of odd things you forgot you needed. No Stone Unturned is the title of this blog, because when it comes to seeking out value opportunities in Santiago, there are no niches, crooks or crannies that go unused.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that not all commerce in Santiago is undertaken in the informal manner I’ll describe in this blog. You can buy your coffee from a guy with a thermos on the sidewalk, but you can also get a cappuccino in a ritzy café that wouldn’t look out of place in Westboro. Cooking pots can be bought from stalls on busy streets, but can also be found at upscale kitchenware stores in the massive Costanera Shopping Mall (think the Rideau Centre but five times as big, and with five times the brand offerings). It’s not as if consumer products in Santiago aren’t sold in supermarkets, department stores or shopping malls. Many people in the Chilean capital exhibit similar purchasing routines and patterns as consumers in Canada, especially in the wealthier ‘communas’ of the city (dark green on the map). What stands out is how distinct the different approaches to selling the same product can be, striking a contrast between different areas of the city (and sometimes between different parts of the same street). The informal and opportunistic way that many products are sold has really interested me over my time in Chile so far, especially as a Canadian accustomed to neat, orderly shelves in stores with municipal permits framed over the cash register. In Santiago, vendors and consumers stretch from one end of the spectrum to the other, creating a fascinating and diverse mosaic of commerce that I still don’t fully understand six months after arriving.
The first thing that stands out is the opportunism. While Chile is a relatively developed country within Latin America, income inequality is still huge and ever-present. Informal methods of making a living are the only opportunity that many people have to earn and provide for themselves and their families. But the creativity and hustle in seeking out these opportunities is impressive. I am struck by how people can sustain themselves economically through, for example, walking up and down subway cars selling chocolate bars. Or by how creative some vendors can be. I’d point here to the coffee and pastry vendors who set up shop next to the morning queues outside of government service offices. Who said bureaucracy couldn’t create business value? Taking a nap in Parque Forestal is difficult, due to the sound of “HELADO, HELADO FRÍO, HELADO HELADO HELADO” approaching from what seems like every direction (ice cream, cold ice cream, ice cream ice cream ice cream, for my non-Spanish speaking readers). You would be hard pressed to find a spot in Santiago where you can walk for more than two blocks without passing some type of stand, corner store, or person trying to sell you something. And you can find almost anything you need. Walk out of a busy metro station, as I mentioned above, and you’ll find yourself in a fully functioning outdoor department store, just without the whole “we got a permit for this” formality.
It goes beyond household items like jackets, frying pans and bike tires. Street food is everywhere in the Chilean capital, from post-work sopaipilla stands (a personal favourite/addiction) to the guy who sells coffee next to morning lines outside the police station. The lack of brick-and-mortar investment (physical shops and such) mean that these vendors can strategically relocate themselves based on demand. As commuters head home from work, busier street corners become contested hotspots, where the phrase ‘first-mover advantage’ takes on a literal meaning. While we have our reservations about street food in Canada, anyone from high-level government officers to skateboarding teens in Santiago may stop in the city centre to grab a bite off the street. It’s just a part of the environment.
In one of my classes at the Universidad de Chile, an economics professor commented on the fact that these “informal economies” actually contribute greatly to the incomes of many Chileans, and people in Latin America at large. Recent travels to Peru and Bolivia confirmed this, in my eyes. In the Bolivian capital of La Paz, residents buy all of their groceries from individual street vendors at huge, multi-block markets such as the Mercado Rodriguez. In my three days in the city I didn’t come across a single supermarket. Perhaps a lack of opportunities for education and training push many people into working in more informal sectors. In large cities that I have been fortunate to visit, such as Santiago, Lima and Buenos Aires, there is a much lower presence of street vendors in wealthier areas than in the central and poorer areas. The opportunistic and creative tendency of these vendors comes from fierce competition over the few opportunities they have to provide for themselves and their families. So while visitors may appreciate the convenience and affordability of these vendors, it is important to keep in mind the context that has created these informal economies: a lack of opportunities for more formal work.
This blog is intended as an observation, more than anything else, of one of the more striking aspects of day-to-day life that I’ve noticed while living in Chile. As a foreigner who has only been here for half a year, I’m sure that I may have missed some of the nuances and unturned stones of the street-economies in Santiago. But they have definitely been one of the most apparent differences I’ve noticed between life in Canada and Chile. I wonder how much they may change as Chile, and Latin America as a whole, evolve and develop in the 21st century.
See you all at the next blog!