Thursday, December 17, 2015

Venezuela Day 5: a bureaucrat goes shopping (unsuccessfully)

It was time to take a closer look at the impact of a currency that is worth something, or not much, or nothing, depending upon your view, and so I set off on the Metro to Chacao in search of the (allegedly) fourth biggest shopping mall in Latin America.

The Sambil Mall Caracas is one of a family of shopping malls in Venezuelan cities, with further malls in Santo Domingo, CuraƧao and Madrid, and it is perfectly big enough for a non-shopper like me. Actually, that's not quite true. If I'm in the right mood, I can clothes shop with the best of them, often for things that I don't really need but like. It's not common though.

The mall was rather quiet though, and a look at the goods on offer, and the prices, somewhat explained why. You see, at the black market rate, somewhere between Bs.800-900 to the dollar, things were pretty reasonable. At the SIMADI rate, available to tourists Bs.200 to the dollar, things were very expensive. At the official rate, Bs.6.3 to the dollar, prices were eye-watering.

And, in order to import anything, you need to be able to pay for the goods in foreign currency, as nobody in their right mind would accept Bolivars outside Venezuela. Admittedly, most people in Venezuela would rather take dollars or another core currency. The Nautica outlet, for example, was reduced to a few items on one small table, with three staff trying to keep themselves occupied. It was quite dispiriting.

Another difficulty is getting hold of Bolivars. The maximum amount of Bolivars that can be withdrawn using an ATM is ridiculously small and, as a result, everywhere I went, there were long queues at cash machines.

The mall also contains the local branch of the Hard Rock Cafe chain. I passed it in time for an early lunch but would have been entirely alone, not a concept I found particularly inviting.

It was time for a walk so, escaping the air conditioned comfort of Sambil, I set forth across the city, heading back towards the Sabana Grande, where my hotel was. One of the good things about Caracas is that, whilst it is warm, humidity seems quite bearable, and with my Panama hat on, dressed down, I look a bit like a mestizo, so I go unnoticed.

On the way, I popped into a more local kind of store, to find that the shelves aren't bare, but stock unexpected things. For example, panettone seemed really easy to find, yet beer seemed rather more difficult. Some items, such as bottled mineral water, are heavily price-controlled, so a bottle of water costs Bs. 3. If you want it sparkling though, it costs more like Bs. 200. Toothpaste is heavily subsidised, which came as a bit of a surprise.

It was a pleasant walk back, on a day which seemed perfectly calm, even as the outcome of the election was beginning to become apparent. And, on such a day, you can easily forget that you're in a city with such incredibly high crime levels. Unless, of course, people are worrying about you...

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