Sitting in the back of an open-bed truck, I looked back at clouds swishing around like marble art, a real-life version of the backdrop from those long-gone school picture days. And today it was made for the row of people sitting up on the tailgate, facing the direction opposite mine - forwards - staring down at me. And it seemed like I was the camera and the lens in me was too small to capture it all.
We passed trees - abundant and a brighter green than any I've yet seen in Mozambique - and the passengers on my right and left dodged them as the truck chased along. Beyond the trees were mountains, and clouds peering over those mountains, creeping into the picture, tangled in foliage like the cobwebs collecting on the mango tree in my backyard.
I had left my house at 4:45 AM, to arrive at the transit stop at 5 AM. My madrinha (directly translates to godmother, but her relation to me is more like a foster mother) and I happened on a lift to Gurue, the nearest big city, at 7 AM - yes, it took two hours to actually get on the road. We did some Christmas shopping - think: less focus on gift-buying and more focus on cake-baking preparation. And now it was 5 PM and we were returning home and, sitting in the back of that open-bed truck, I was trying to remember what was in that box my madrinha had so effortlessly carried on her head that afternoon. Two bags of flour, two bags of sugar, milk, chocolate, spices, juice, and more - it had to have been 15 pounds at least. I thought about how I could explain the concept of a "badass" to her.
It started to rain and the truck kept stopping and then a huge yellow tarp was suddenly being unrolled and spread out above all of us; though the sting of raindrops in a fast-moving vehicle hadn't bothered me. After a few minutes, water started to collect on the tarp, washing away its dirt and trickling down onto us. And the girl on my left with the gap between her front teeth kept laughing and glancing over at me.
We arrived in Lioma at 6 PM, and walking down the road to my madrinha's house, I finally did find the words to explain to her how impressed I was with her neck strength. She shrugged it off because what she had done was just normal, just every day, for her.
I spent the next days, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with my madrinha and her three grandchildren - two teenage girls and a 5-year-old cookie monster. We celebrated the holiday in a manner that would have left the 8-year-old (and, let's be honest here, probably the 18-year-old) version of me in a sour mood indeed. For my foster family, Christmas is not synonymous with gift-giving and dead pine trees, though the girls have watched enough television and Christmas movies to know that these synonyms exist for others. Instead, we spent the day baking and dancing, and my madrinha took a day off from working in her machambas (farms - she has three of them spread out around Lioma). In the evening, she and I drank Amarula and the girls ate salty sweet popcorn. No gifts were exchanged.
And now Christmas has passed like all holidays do, and I keep thinking back to the expressions on the faces of my fellow truck-bed passengers, to the girl with the gap in her teeth who stole so many looks at me, to the way my foster sisters stared at the television, entranced, the night we watched Christmas movies this past week.
There's something in their expressions - it's not resentment, or even curiosity. It's something else, something guarded. It's something I can't yet read.
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