I’m not talking about toting Portuguese ceramics around Europe or filling your backpack with I Love (insert city name) t-shirts at every stop. I’m talking about small pieces that will always remind you of your time away from home. In many places, you can get a beautiful local print for less than what a mass produced picture would cost at a Linens ‘N Things.
Here are some rules I like to live by on the road:
1.) Even if you don’t buy, interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to glimpse into local life. Window shopping is free, and can lead to some hysterical experiences, seen here as Rolf explores a market in Morocco on his No Baggage Challenge.
2.) Research what kinds of things your destination has to offer. Know the price range for a Nepali cashmere scarf before hitting the streets, and also look into potential scams. Bangkok is known for luring tourists to faux gem stores, charging customers competitive prices for lookalike gems.
3.) Analyze the quality of the item in question. Not only do most local vendors not have return policies, but you’ll likely be onto a new city or even home before you notice it’s cheaply made or broken.
4.) Look for fair trade shops when purchasing handicrafts, which ensure that the artists earn fair wages and work in good conditions. Friends International shop in Phnom Penh is one of my favorite examples.
5.) Watch out for breakables…If you’re browsing the Czech glass shops of Prague, don’t stand too close…If you break, you buy.
6.) It’s fun to say “I got this in Laos!” But make sure you’re buying for the right reasons. Do you love what you see? Is it unique to the region? Is it something that’s truly worth carrying in a backpack until you return home?
If room in my backpack permits, here are my favorite things to look for abroad:
Postcards and stationary: These are great reminders of world travel, and can also be shared with others! Each postcard or letter sent means less “stuff” in your backpack.
Handcrafted jewelry: I look for something that is unique, wearable and won’t break the bank. One of my favorite things is a small silver bracelet from the Black Hmong woman who walked with me for 5 hours while trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.
Handwoven crafts: Travels in South America and Southeast Asia have brought me to incredible villages where handwoven products often take weeks to make and cost less than 10 dollars.
Artwork: most small prints can lay flat in a suitcase or fit between a book, and can then be framed at home.
What do you think? Have you fallen into the tourist trap of useless “stuff?” Where have you gotten your favorite souvenirs? Do you have any tips for other travelers who are interested in picking up a souvenir or two?