By Stan Stalla | Dec 23, 2009

It's mid-December. I'm standing in the broad aisle of a large chain discount department store on the East Coast of the United States. Christmas music plays from the store's sound system. Looking for deals, shoppers scrunch over shelves of perfume, toiletries, clothing, electronics, sports equipment, bathroom supplies, pots and pans, toys. Because it's below freezing outside, everyone is wrapped in winter coats, now unbuttoned and unzipped as a concession to the store's heating system.

I feel out of sorts and out of place. Perhaps I've spent too long in the Third World tropics? It's not easy to switch moods, like a flick of the light switch on a living room wall. When rice paddies and coconut groves, street vendors and smiling tuk-tuk drivers are still so fresh in my mind, it's hard to think of pre-Christmas shopping alongside the winter-clad hordes as fun.

As usual, I think about "the human condition." I try to draw a line, a connection, between people on opposite sides of our planet. Watching a nicely-coiffed mother with two rambunctious preschoolers tugging on her patience, I think of her Sri Lankan alter-ego, back bent by the swing of a scythe, each swipe yielding handfuls of ripened grain. Outside the store, a tall, erect, man in knit cap and fleece-lined jacket pushes a flatbed cart of purchases to a customer's car. My mind flickers to another man pushing his rustic wooden cart of king coconuts along the streets of Colombo, barefoot and stooped with years of unrelenting daily toil, a dirty sarong gathered tight around his skinny waist.

As I watch three women pawing through a bin of discounted toiletries, the word "foraging" comes to mind. Hunting for deals, are they any different from the women following a narrow jungle path, searching for a bees' nest in the tangled limbs of the forest canopy?

Trying to put a finger on my discontent, I come to the conclusion that it's not the quest for things that rankles me, but the way we go about it. In a large discount store like Target, if you don't know the price of an item of merchandise, you can run its bar code under a scanner conveniently located in every department. In many chain grocery stores these days, you can use the self check-out line and never speak to another human being. A scan of your foodstuffs and a swipe of your credit card, and you're out the door and on the way home.

How sterile to think that numbers, followed by the percent symbol, can determine a shopper's satisfaction! "CLEARANCE -- 30 % OFF" in block letters brings a smile to a determined bargain hunter's face, and anything marked "50% OFF," or more, widens that smile to a grin.

By contrast, a Third World market is all about human interaction. It's about reaching into a pile of grain to feel its texture. It's the scooping and weighing and pouring. It's about unfolding and dangling a shirt or piece of material in front of you, to discern the texture, color, pattern and size. It's the haggle over price, buyer and seller cajoling and yielding according to time-wrought custom.

I remember the other day, shopping for a son's bedding with a friend. Stupefied by the numbers of brand names, each with a range of sizes and designs, I lumbered down aisle after aisle in a mind-numbing state of lassitude. In a remote corner of the store, we came across clearance items that included a twin-size duvet in a torn plastic bag and two pillows soiled from repeated handling.

Quickened by a momentary flashback to Middle Eastern and Central African bazaars, it occured to me that I should negotiate a great deal for my friend. Surely, a ripped-open plastic carrying case and soiled throw pillows were good bargaining material. Surely, eager to unload his unsold inventory, the cheerful manager of Bed N' Bath would react just like the friendly gap-toothed shopkeeper 10 time zones away, reeking of incense and three-day old sweat!

With a look of incredulity, my friend prodded me back to reality. It's better to read the discount labels and be jazzed about the percentages. We meekly ran the items through the check-out scanner. The smile and casual banter of a check-out clerk named Gloria brightened my day. It was practically our only human encounter during the entire foraging session. Coats once again buttoned and zipped against the winter wind, we searched the rows of parked cars, plastic bags in hand. I noticed wisps of grey clouds in the late morning sky. I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the tropical skies of Sri Lanka.

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