Christmas Shopping, Moz. Style

I loved having Christmas in Mozambique.

Sure, I missed my family, and sure, I missed the traditional baking and gift wrapping and decorating (the Christmas tree was always my job), but it was relaxing to look squarely at the approaching festivities and reflect on all the expectations I didn't have to fulfill.

I bought three presents.


Unheard-of, right? At least in my large and generous family.

Of course, I did get to experience the novelty of Christmas shopping on behalf of someone half a world away. I was drawn into the negotiations of the annual Reinagel family gift exchange, and ended up helping Jon's mom select a present for Carla. We picked out a crock-pot, and since our house is small and a crock pot is rather big, I didn't think I'd be very successful at keeping it hidden for a long time. I decided to wait until two days before Christmas to buy it and the rest of my presents.

My first strategic error.

I suppose that the traffic should have tipped me off to my madness when I first left the house. There were cars everywhere. Street crossings were even more hair-raising than usual, and when I neared the big shopping centers, I joined a thick stream of people navigating from store to store past roadside stands and red-hatted sellers of Christmas toys and noisemakers.

The first store I entered was another warning sign. It was crowded, with people jostling overladen carts through too-narrow aisles. I was intensely glad that I'd opted for a shopping basket as I wriggled my way through the store, selected the items I needed, and then squeezed up to the checkout counter.

But even after those experiences, I was still surprised when I saw the line for the ATMs. I have stood in many queues during the course of my existence, but this was the first time I'd ever waited for 45 minutes to use an ATM. The wait was rendered even longer by the fact that two people at the front of the file were having an argument, and for about half of the time I was there, the line didn't progress at all. I waved at some acquaintances as they entered the store, and I was still there, and a long way from my objective, when they came out again, laden with bags. I shifted weight from one shoe-imprisoned foot to the other, contemplated the probability of salvaging the chocolate-topped biscuits that were melting in my shopping bag, and watched the people around me. At least there were a lot of people to watch, and the Christmas spirit seemed to be prevailing, despite the sweat trickling down our backs and the shouts of the couple by the ATM. Everyone was obviously stocking up for their revels; alcohol, in various forms, and chickens - their heads poking impertinently from the holes in plastic shopping bags - were evident in great quantity.

When I finally found myself at the front of the line, I felt that there ought to be a more fitting climax to the end of such a wait than a simple ATM transaction. Surely, someone would recognize the need for a spur-of-the-moment song and dance routine? But, alas, it was not to be. After a silent minute or two with the ATM, I was armed with a thick roll of meticais and ready to go buy Carla's crockpot. I checked my other shopping bag into the booth at the entrance of the store and went in.

Into insanity, albeit, insanity of a very slow-paced kind,

I fully expected the store to be crowded.

It was.

I didn't expect to spend the next 1 - 1.5 hours standing in a checkout line in order to buy a crock pot and two chocolate bars.

But I did.

Oh yes, I did.

And I made several interesting observations:
1. Crock pots aren't terribly heavy, but a person's arm muscles will begin to feel a certain strain after  holding one for twenty minutes or so.
2. Sometimes, being the white person with the big box comes in really handy. As when the people ahead of you in line notice your position and offer to let you rest said crock pot on top of their cart.
3. In his anxiety not to lose his place in the queue, the kid behind you might potentially ram you with one of his two carts. Repeatedly. Fortunately, if you've lived here for any time at all, your personal bubble will already be a thing of the past.

I shuffled along as the line made its snail-paced progression, steadying my crock pot with one hand and chatting with the random people who stopped to talk to me. Camaraderie was the rule of the day. Sure, we were all standing in an interminable line together, but hey! It was Christmas, so we might as well enjoy it. My insufficient Portuguese didn't deter anyone from trying to converse with me, which was lovely, but also a bit awkward, since I sometimes found myself committed to topics for which I could not find the correct words. Fortunately, most of the women were curious about the crock pot (does it cook rice? Meat? Beans?), and my culinary vocabulary is fairly good (which is to say, better than the rest of my vocabulary, which isn't very good at all).

The whole situation was imbued with the surreality that I so often find here. Christmas time...and I'm wearing a tank top and feeling intensely grateful that at least my queue is in an air-conditioned locale this time around. Christmas time...and I'm attempting to hold conversations in Portuguese over the sound of well-known English carols played on the store's speaker system. Christmas time...and there is little of the usual harried impatience that I'm liable to find in American stores. Instead, there is patience, laughter, and conviviality.

'If I have to wait in such a long line,' I reflected, 'I guess I'd rather do it here than anywhere else.'

The checkout counter loomed at last; its red number label a beacon of hope. There, I made another discovery; namely, that the crock pot box wouldn't fit in the shopping bag I had brought. So I slung my other bags over my arm and carried the crock pot in front of me, hoping that it would make it home in one piece.

Like some perspiring and beardless Santa Claus, I carried it beside the busy highway, and across. To the chappa stop, balanced on my lap in the chappa, then down the street to our apartment and up the many, many stairs. At last to be smuggled safely into the depths of my closet beneath a capulana. The box was somewhat worse for wear, but I felt confident that the contents were still intact. Probably in better shape than the chocolate, at any rate.

And that was that. Mission: accomplished. Yes, it took about twice as long as it would have in the States. But, well, I'm not in the States anymore.

Here, you get to enjoy a sense of genuine conquest after a successful shopping venture.

And the shopping itself? Way more interesting.