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Shopping my way to enlightenment

I have always felt more than a little sheepish about all the souvenirs I bring home from my journeys to other countries. After all, they are working humanitarian trips and shopping is often seen by our leaders as a frivolous venture at best. I’m usually apologetic about my desire to shop, but inside I’m resentful when I’m steered to a boring tourist store and given only one hour to get it done.
The worst case of ‘I wanna do’ hit me years ago in Russia. We visited six months after the Berlin Wall came down and all the country was jubilant over the newfound freedoms. Commerce that had been banned for decades was opening up, and everyone wanted to trade for U.S. dollars. However, it was still illegal to sell for foreign currency; therefore, deals were transacted in secrecy behind trees.
I was given one half hour to explore an open-air market of artists’ work. All week long they had dragged us into state-owned and operated stores and now they were offering us one half hour to go mingle amongst the really good stuff.
I bought paintings rendered on cardboard and shown propped on the ground by sticks. It had been only months before that Soviet tanks were bulldozing down artists’ works that had been illegally displayed. The paintings I bought were done in cheap oils that were still wet and hard to dry but the colors were tell- tale signs of the life the creator has been enduring. All that emotion pent up inside the painter came out in vivid colors and explosive strokes. It was dynamic, and I felt a part of the thrust through to freedom that history was witnessing. I still experience the enormous magnitude of the break up of the Soviet Union when I look at those paintings.
One of the most telling experiences was the silent line of local Russians who had no cash but had something to trade. They formed two lines that walked in opposite directions facing each other. Their arms were outstretched holding an item they wanted to swap for something they needed more. When they passed someone bearing an item they wanted, they looked for a nod that signaled they had a deal. An economy broken down and a people with few goods in the stores to buy made no difference, they possessed little money anyway. No history or sociology book could have given me a better understanding of why the Soviet Union collapsed after the citizenry saw the rest of the world televised on CNN.
Over the years, I have bought lace in Yugoslavia, kilim rugs in Moldova, wood carvings in Jamaica, hemp bags in Paraguay, silk in Asia Pacific, batik in Bali, and, most recently, beads and cottons in India.
Shopping in the markets of India was the best! Cattle roamed the streets, motor bikes and handcarts beeped their way through the crowds, vendors pursued their buyers relentlessly while cooking odors and street musicians filled the air. The markets were full of native citizens buying goods for their daily use and needs. It is a true glimpse into their lives today. The markets of India were indeed what we know our Main Streets were meant to be ‘ the meeting and gathering place for a community.
Families worked together in their stalls. Merchants were proud and delighted to explain the usage of artifacts of their country to foreigners who asked questions. Where else could we have learned so much about the eating habits grounded in religious and philosophical beliefs? The variety of beads used as symbols of elements of the Hindu religion were explained in jewelry shops, and statues of god manifestations were displayed and interpreted by vendors on the street. Merchants are used to conversing with foreigners and seek the chance to exchange ideas and languages. As well, we saw and used the high-tech Internet services of younger generations amidst the monkeys and squalor of the towns.
You can tell about the broader set of living conditions when you observe the market place of a country. Why are people out on the streets shopping and eating so late at night in many countries? The answer is we find that their homes are small and much socializing takes place in public places. Compare this habit to the United States where often large houses beckon us in behind closed doors. As someone who is interested in community building, this has a loud voice speaking to me.
Several times friends I have met in the various markets have invited us to their homes for a meal. Now, the honor and privilege of really being in another’s home is something most tourists crave. There, we really gain a feel for life in our host country. This was the case in India, and the differences in our lifestyle were a reminder of the lavish living we do here in the United States. Not a bad thing to be reminded of once in a while.
Now this might be a lot of rationalizing on my part so that I can continue to shop until I drop in exotic- and not-so-exotic places during my travels. It does provide my family with a vicarious experience of where I’ve been and helps them to feel a part of this global living room we talk so much about. My home is filled with reminders of wonderful days and amazing friends that have graced my life. No catalog buying or big box store can ever rival open markets in foreign places for me.

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