I was in Peru during Christmas and New Years many years ago. I was part of a small tour, with a young guide and a seasoned roommate. It was decided that we’d play Secret Santa, with each of us selecting another’s name from a hat. The problem was that my seasoned roommate, who only traveled with a small carry-on strategically packet, was given a rather bulky chess board as his gift. This led him to spending the following night trying to figure out how to rearrange everything so that he could bring it back, along with his other modest possessions. Souvenirs don’t always cooperate with the concept of traveling light.
I never head off with a souvenir in mind; I just see what catches my eye. If nothing does, then I’ll bring home some currency. Early on in a country, I’ll set aside a few striking coins and maybe a few small denomination bills. These bills are subject to use, however. I once gave up a crisp Azerbaijani manat note I’d been saving when the desire for coffee at the airport overpowered my desire to keep a crisp manat note.
I do keep my eye on slim or small items. I find it’s the story behind the item and not its size that matters. Some of my favorites over the years include:
- A cornhusk flower purchased from a young Honduran girl named Areseli, who tripped and hurt herself while walking beside me and then needed to be convinced that she could accept my US currency.
- A puzzle statue purchased at a charity shop in Siem Reap, where the owner eagerly showed me how to take it apart and then struggled putting it back together.
- A singing bowl from Lhasa purchased after being held in place for twenty minutes by not one but three vendors who really wanted me to haggle. (I actually ended up with two bowls and donated the other to a Buddhist center where I used to study meditation.)
- A weathered temple bell from Thailand that I searched every souvenir stop for, wanting something between the cheap tourist pieces ever present and the authentic bells that should remain in the country.
- A small silver cup purchased in Telavi, Georgia, after being followed three blocks before the vendor finally drops his price to what I was willing to part with.
Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. For instance, while in a carpet factory in Lhasa, I came across a small prayer rug I wanted to purchase for my mom, that I was hoping to ship back to her. Unfortunately, the salesman informed me that such small rugs often don’t make it to their destinations when shipped and he recommended I carry it on me. I did, tucked into the bottom corner of my duffel bag for over two weeks.
And there was the time my wife insisted on purchasing a silk bedspread in Varanasi on one of the first stops of our seven-week summer trip. The tightly packed bundle resided in her backpack throughout the remaining three countries.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote that, “He who would travel happily must travel light.” While one tries one’s best, exceptions can sometimes be made.