São Paolo and Benfica – not your average trip to the mall…

Combat Shopping  – everyone should try it at least once. Not many trips to Macy’s require guards and a translator, unless you are Kim Kardashian, of course. But here in Luanda, some of the best shopping is found in the most dangerous places. There is a part of town called São Paolo where the locals go to buy amazing African fabrics at rock-bottom prices. Unfortunately, it is strictly off-limits to our company’s drivers. I was able to go two years ago, when I was here on my look-see trip. Apparently, that trip was a fluke – a result of a new and inexperienced driver falling under the charms of the gal showing me around town.

Once I moved here, I knew that would not happen again. Quite frankly, I am not that charming. To go back to São Paolo, I would have to go with someone from another company.  A couple of weeks ago, I finally got an invite to go. The lady who organized the trip (I will call her Mrs. S.) is a fellow seamstress and member of my bible study. I have been helping her make purses and casserole carriers to sell at the semi-annual craft fairs sponsored by the American Women’s Association. The proceeds from these sales are donated to a local orphanage, and I love to sew, so it is a win-win. It also gives me a reason to buy more fabric that even my husband can’t complain about.

For our trip to São Paolo, Mrs. S arranged two vehicles, complete with a guard and driver for each vehicle, plus a translator. Five helpers for five expat ladies – pretty good odds, I figured. I readied myself for the trip, hiding money in various pockets, stuffing my ID and phone in my bra, and spraying myself thoroughly with mosquito spray. I carried several large bags to bring back my treasures, snacks for the drive, and lots of wet-wipes.

Wet-wipes are an absolute necessity here. Every trip to the grocery store, golf course, or really anywhere, will leave you feeling grimy and in need of a good hand-washing. Even handling the Angolan paper money requires a wet-wipe afterwards. I don’t want to know why this money is so filthy, but I have actually considered tossing it in the washing machine. Money laundering for hygienic purposes – now, that is a new twist!

Our group of five ladies rendezvoused in the lobby of our building. A security official also met us in the lobby for a safety briefing, explaining the dangers of the area and introducing our guards and translator. We piled into a large van, with the second vehicle following close behind, and we were on our way. Initially, we arrived at a street which was not familiar to those of us who had been to São Paolo before. Also, it was much too far from the shop we were planning to visit. The driver suggested we park the car and walk to the shop, but he was quickly vetoed by Mrs. S., thank goodness.

São Paolo
São Paolo street vendors, just off the main street.
São Paolo
São Paolo market area. This is one-stop shopping – sort of like an outdoor, scary, muddy Walmart.
São Paolo
São Paolo – the produce department.
São Paolo
São Paolo – the toiletries and accessories department.

Reluctantly, the driver turned onto the incredibly muddy and rutted main road of Sao Paolo, which was teeming with pedestrians, merchants, and other vehicles. All I could see were foot-deep mud puddles that I doubted we could navigate around with so many people on the sidewalks. Thankfully, the parking gods were with us, and we were able to find a place to park which was within eye-shot of the shop – and it had a mostly mud-free path to the entrance.

Once parked, the guards got out of the car first, then us gals gathered our wits and climbed out as well, staying as close together as possible. One guard led the way, one was in the middle and the translator walked at the back. The street was so crowded that people were literally pressed up next to us. We had to push our way through the crowd and move quickly to avoid being separated. It reminded me of my one-and-only trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, except that these people were not drunk college kids intent on getting plastic beads. We knew that the crowd in Sao Paolo was full of pick-pockets, and so we held on to our bags tightly.

We made it into the shop and up the stairs safely, and finally relaxed. Our translator said we were free to wander from booth to booth and shop to our heart’s content. As before, the sheer variety of fabrics was overwhelming, but the merchants were fairly patient as we made our selections. There were many local ladies shopping there as well. Sao Paolo is a wholesale area, if you will. The local shoppers are there to buy fabric to re-sell on the street in other parts of the city. Some of the ladies were friendly to us, making positive comments about our selections and suggesting coordinating fabrics. Others seemed irritated that we had infiltrated their turf.

We spent more than an hour picking out as many fabrics as we could carry, most of which cost about twelve dollars for a six-yard piece. The prices had definitely gone up since my previous trip, due to the devaluation of the kwanza, but they were still a bargain.

Just before we were getting ready to leave, there was a loud scuffle in one corner. A policeman was pulling one of the local ladies towards the door, while she yelled and pleaded in protest. I was not entirely sure what was happening, until our translator explained that the lady had been trying to take fabric without paying.

We waited until things calmed down and then headed back to the car, heavily laden with all of our treasures, and moving closely together. Once back at our apartment building, we spread out our purchases to show each other. Between the five of us, we had bought almost fifty fabrics, and no two were the same. We were all happy with our haul and none of us had lost a wallet in the process. Success!

Another combat shopping area in Luanda is a large craft market called Benfica. I have blogged about it before, but had a very interesting return visit there just a few days ago. On my previous trip to Benfica, I bought a lovely pair of carvings – a Pescador (fisherman) and a Zungueira (lady who carries things on her head). They are both beautifully carved from a dark wood and quite detailed. The lady even has a little baby tied to her back. The real  Zungueira ladies are so amazing, with impossibly heavy and awkward items balanced on their heads and tiny, sleeping babies tied to their backs. It is one of the things I will remember most about Angola, and so I really wanted a carving to remind me of them.

When I bought the carvings, I asked the artist if it was okay to take a photo of him with his creations. He was happy to oblige – although he doesn’t look very happy in this photo!

The artist with his beautiful Pescador and Zungueira carvings.
The artist with his beautiful Pescador and Zungueira carvings.

It is a good thing I had his photo, because shortly after buying the carvings, both of them began to split as the wood dried out. The artists work, live, and sell their items without benefit of air-conditioning, and so when they are brought into a cold apartment, they don’t always fare very well. I had hoped to have them repaired, but not speaking Portuguese, I had no idea how I would find the artist again and negotiate the repair. Benfica is a huge market and I did not even know the man’s name.

As luck would have it, I have a new driver who speaks perfect English, so he is my own personal translator. His name is Jesus (pronounced zhay-zooch), and let me tell you, he is a treasure. Jesus could talk anyone into anything. I should call him Mr. Charming, but his actual name is just so fitting. Best of all, now I can say Jesus takes the wheel – literally and figuratively. Carrie Underwood would be so impressed!

So, Jesus and I went to Benfica armed with my photo and began to ask the other artists if they knew the man. It didn’t take long to find someone who knew his name, Guerra, and his phone number. Jesus called Guerra and asked him to meet us at the market. Guerra obliged and said he would arrive in a half hour. So, with a half hour to kill and surrounded by treasures of all kinds, I managed to find a few more things to add to my collection.

Benfica
African treasures (L-R): a “fly-swatter” made from carved bone and horsehair, a village chief’s scepter, a neck rest (ouch!), and a musical instrument called a Kalimba, or thumb piano.

Guerra arrived right on time and said he would fix my carvings – for a price. Of course, he needed money to cover the materials, cab fair to the store to buy them, and lunch. I’ve lived here long enough to expect things like this, so it was no big deal. The hardest thing for me was leaving the carvings with Guerra, and trusting that he would show up two days later with them properly repaired. Jesus, with his million-dollar smile, was all high-fives and handshakes with Guerra, so I shouldn’t have worried. We went back two days later and both my Pescador and Zungueira were as good as new. Thank you, Jesus!

While I occasionally miss the huge, clean, air-conditioned malls of the US, they certainly don’t have the conversation pieces I am finding here. And you know, that fly-swatter will get a lot of use during the hot, buggy summer in Texas!

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

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