Shopping on a rock has become a hobby of mine mainly for its entertainment value. And no, I’m not only talking about the droves of tourists buying out the whole butcher for their entire stay in Fiji while I’m just in there trying to buy a fresh chicken, which I finally get after what feels like hours of waiting.
I have found in my years of living on different sized rocks that the best way to manage some of the inherent frustrations of island shopping is just to be adaptable and to enjoy the simple pleasures and small wins of every shop. If you can’t find something, just keep looking; while this probably won’t result in you finding it, you do get points for trying.
When I lived in the Maldives, I was a 45-minute flight from the “main island” and shopping was a once in 6 month expedition usually to another Asian city like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. I found that the best thing to do was to limit these trips to only a few days so that I didn’t go back to the rock broke.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few other helpful island shopping tricks that perhaps may benefit you as well:
1. Learn The Art Of Mouth-Breathing
Foreign market smells can sometimes be difficult to adapt to with an outsider’s nose. One of the first things that hit me when I started shopping on a rock were all of the pungent smells, so I quickly learned the true art of mouth-breathing (a skill which won’t go amiss in island toilets either). Picture walking down a small alley in the Maldives, which somehow is a two-way road for the thousands of bikes there, and catching a whiff of the overpowering fish market a kilometer before you find it. Mouth-breathing saves the day.
2. Adapt To What The Locals Eat
In Fiji, there is a big Indian influence which makes curry spices, roti, and rice very easy to buy. There is every spice available that you can think of, and the roti flour recipe on the back of the bag is actually pretty accurate. Making homemade roti was foreign to me before I did it once, but it soon became a necessary addition to every curry night.
You’ll be much happier if you learn more about the local veggies that are readily available instead of buying cauliflower for $25. This homemade local sweet potato gnocchi (below) with bacon and parmesan was a new dish and a winner! It’s also a great idea to try get your fingers green and plant your own produce. We have been successful with tomatoes, coriander, lemongrass, basil, sage, and rocket.
I recently bought a bunch of belle (know as aibika on other Pacific islands) which is similar to spinach and boiled it in coconut milk. It made for the perfect side dish for any meal and is packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and flavor. It was exciting to find a new favorite vegetable by simply embracing what was available.
3. Pee Before You Go
Even if you think you don’t need to go before you leave the house, just go. Nothing is worse than having to use the not-intended-for-customers bathrooms in the supermarket where you get to see just how hygienic (or less so) the supermarket truly is firsthand. These are the ones usually tucked in a corner around the back with the flies and other wildlife. If you get into a sticky situation and just can’t hold it, refer to tip #1.
4. Planning Is Key
After a few shopping trips on your rock, you will likely find that you can’t only rely on one store to have everything you need. I frequent around five different stores in my weekly rounds – these include the shop that sells most things, the shop that has great prices on tinned goods, the butcher, the overpriced coffee shop that sells sourdough bread, and the cheapest beer and wine shop (more on this later). There are other stores which are reserved for dinner parties or special occasions, such as the how can I not pay $40 for parmesan shop, or the I really need imported ice cream shop.
5. Realize You Stand Out And May Be Charged Accordingly
As an expat living on a rock, you often stand out from the crowd at the island market and may get taken for a ride even if you’re a rock shopping pro. A local supermarket store in Fiji is well known for having three cashiers where there is capacity for eight, and 50 “sales people” roaming throughout the store. These “sales people” are sneaky ladies who do their best to not help you, that is until you pop homeware into your trolley and then they put a sticker on it to say that they sold it to you so they can obviously get commission for the sale. On one particular occasion, we were on the hunt for a mop and broom; the heads and the sticks are sold separately, none of which match each other. We decided to buy a mop-head for $4.99, but then a lady placed a sticker with a “special price” of $9.99 on it. This was soon replaced on a random shop rack and never purchased.
6. Don’t Miss The Grog Stop
The place to buy the cheapest beer on a rock is generally where the locals go, but don’t be surprised when you walk into the “shop” and find you are surrounded by a cage. These places generally get pretty rowdy at night. Our local grog stop is famous for being the best Kava supplier in Fiji – a delicacy we are yet to give up beer for.
Whenever you find yourself getting frustrated with island shopping, just remember: you’re not having to get irate because you have to drive to Level Three of the parking garage to find a spot on a Saturday, or because you’re shopping with the thousands of people who also love Woolworths. Even though you can’t find everything you want on a small island, it definitely has its perks.
Do you have any island shopping tips and/or island-style recipes to share?