Today I visited the government bakery for the first time. The cost of bread there is incredibly cheap. Here’s how it happened.
A few weeks ago, when we first moved into the neighborhood, I was walking down the street and noticed a lot of people standing in front of what looked like a jail cell. There was a throng of people in front of a big barred window. Not too far from them, several other people were putting pita bread on the ground. Well, not directly on the ground, but on steps or an elevated area near the barred window. And then several other people were just standing or sitting near the numerous pita breads strewn about. I wondered what was the deal with this place, but wasn’t shopping for bread on this outing, so just tucked it away in my mind for the future.
Today was the future. I’ve been buying bread mostly at the small bakery around the corner from our apartment. Very convenient. A few times I have bought bread on the other side of the metro tracks if I was shopping at the market over there. But today, the only thing I needed was bread, and I thought I would check out this mystery place.
I put Hannah (age 1 ½) and Emma (age 3) in the double stroller, which doubles as our car around here (and conveniently, the words here for car and stroller are the same), and pushed them out to Road 9 heading North. After a few blocks, I saw the familiar sight: a throng in front of the barred window and others hanging around the pita bread strewn basically on the ground. I didn’t think I wanted the stuff on the ground, and it didn’t look like anyone was selling that anyway, so I joined the throng, after parking the double stroller right next to me in line. I watched as the people at the front of the throng got their bread in spurts…as the man behind the bars handed it to them. After a couple minutes, the man in front of me turned and said to me in basic English, “you should be there.” I noticed that the throng was divided in two parts: men on the right and women on the left. Whoops. I moved to the left line while leaving the stroller parked on the right…albeit within arms’ reach. Now, I don’t know why the throng is divided into two sections. The only guess I have is that the concept of a “line” does not really apply in most places in this country. So, there is a lot of pushing and squeezing your way either in front of people, or simply standing firm on your ground so as not to get squeezed out. So, my only guess is that it’s better to be doing this pushing and squeezing among the same sex rather than mixing. I could be way off, though, it’s just a guess.
I kept watching how things were working here while keeping one eye on the stroller. Eventually I noticed that people weren’t just being handed a bag of bread, as is customary at the other places I bought bread. So I asked the woman in front of me if I needed my own bag. She said yes. The only bag I had brought with me was Emma’s Dora backpack, and I didn’t want to put the bread in that, so I asked the woman where I could get a bag. She pointed to the small grocery storefront next door. So, keeping one eye on the stroller again, I walked next door and bought a bag for my bread. It seemed a little ridiculous to me because had I known I needed a bag, I could have brought one of the 50 plastic bags I have back at the house, but instead, I paid about 5 cents for a plastic bag. I returned to the line and had my 3 guinea in my hand planning to buy 12 pita breads…because the cost is normally 4 pitas for 1 guinea, which, by the way, translates into 4 pitas for 18 cents. The woman noticed my money or my bag or both, and asked how much I planned to buy. I told her 3 guinea. She said that the limit here was 1 ½ guinea and that my bag wouldn’t hold it all! I said, how much do you get? She said you get 20 pitas for one guinea! Wow, talk about savings! I asked her why it was so much cheaper than other places and she simply answered that it was the government bakery. I was impressed with the savings and knew Jayson would be too, but I did have to buy another plastic bag for 5 cents in order to hold my 20 pitas (since I decided at this point that 20 would be quite enough for us….especially considering our freezer space.) So, after I bought the bag and got back in line, a woman behind me said I should move the stroller to the women’s side too, which was a good idea since I was getting deeper into the throng and my line of vision was getting smaller. I moved the stroller to the women’s side and the girls enjoyed interacting with the other kids around while I waited and waited and waited in the throng. Probably the whole waiting time, including changing lines and two trips to the next door store was about 30 minutes.
As I got closer to the front, I made some observations about the bakery. It was very basic. Every couple minutes, the man would bring out a large wicker “tray” filled with piping hot pita bread…maybe about 40 pitas on one tray. Of course, since you can get 20 for a guinea, this would go very quickly so we would have to wait for the next tray and the next tray. I noticed there were some shelves behind the man…but they had nothing on them. I wondered if they sometimes had bread on them during the “down” times? I am not sure if I was there at a busy time or not. I also noticed about three or four cockroaches on the walls. Now this scared me a bit. I started to wonder if I should be buying bread at this establishment. What would I find inside the pita? The bugs weren’t moving, but I don’t know if cockroaches can die on a wall, although I’ve seen plenty of dead cockroaches on the floor. Either way, the ovens were behind the walls so we couldn’t see the condition of them or the flour or anything that went into the bread. Oh well, sometimes it’s better not to see things. I also had the thought that if people saw the 100 dead ants on my kitchen floor, they might think my food isn’t clean either, but that’s another story. I made a mental note to ask my landlord’s wife and doorman’s wife about this bakery. It only makes sense for everyone to buy their bread here…it’s so much cheaper than anywhere else, but it wasn’t the most convenient place for sure.
Well, once I got to the front of the line, that’s when the pushing and line jostling began in earnest. I was getting a bit perturbed as I felt people sticking their money up through the bars ahead of me…the rightful holder of “first in line.” I told myself that if I didn’t have two little ones who I had to keep turning my head to check on, I would be fine with letting others in front of me, but couldn’t they see I should be able to get my bread and go? Truth is it probably would have grated on me either way! Finally, the man took my money and I told him I wanted a guinea worth (remember, 20 piping hot fresh pita breads for 18 cents!) and when he brought the next tray out, he dumped them all at me on the counter. Now, I thought that before me, the man was taking stacks and putting them in people’s bags or on their newspapers…whatever they had brought to carry them in…but this time I was left to put the pita in my bag by myself. So that’s what I did, but not without burning my fingers! Were they hot! …especially when I accidentally pierced the pita letting the steam come out! A nice woman beside me helped with some of them, and I grabbed my two very full bags and made my way out of the throng to the waiting stroller.
And now I saw previous customers with their pita bread strewn about on the steps and elevated areas, letting their bread cool, and I understood why they were doing that. (Although I still didn’t like the idea of putting it outside on the ground.) I just left the pita in the bags, but left them open so steam could escape, and figured that I could lay them around my kitchen (albeit, away from the ants) when I got home. Will I go back there? It took a long time and was a hassle, but who can pass up such a deal, especially if I bring my own bags…I’ll save 10 cents from my last visit!