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A Guide For Finding The Perfect Travel Souvenir
Research The Culture Beforehand
Before leaving home, do some research to find out what types of handicrafts and items you can expect to find. Some cultural souvenirs I've purchased on my travels include wooden masks and indigenous artwork in Ghana, alpaca hats in Peru, masapan dolls in Calderon, Ecuador (shown right), a Panama hat in Sig Sig, Ecuador, and hand-sewn bags in Chiang Rai, Thailand, made by at-risk women. I try to buy souvenirs that I know are also helping the locals who make them instead of large corporations. Additionally, you'll want to look up if there are any scams you'll need to be careful of, like locals commonly lying about the authenticity of a certain product, so you can be savvy about your purchases.
You would be surprised how many souvenirs people purchase that aren't allowed out of the country they're visiting or into the country they're flying to. If you remember just last month, two tourists were detained at the U.S. border for trying to bring back chocolate Kinder Eggs, which are illegal in the United States because of the potentially hazardous small toys inside. Many times when products are created using a natural material like wood, you have to be careful of how the handicraft is made and finished. Additionally, foods and drinks often have very specific laws regarding what you can transport. Mailing souvenirs home also presents potential challenges. I once spent over $100 on seasonings and pastas in Florence to send home to my parents, only to be told you can't mail food and beverage products, even if they are dry.
Make Sure It Won't Land You In Jail
Taking the previous point a step further, you also don't want to deliberately break the law just to get a great souvenir story. Sure, bringing home cocaine from Colombia may be seen by some as an interesting souvenir; however, that's only if you even make it home before getting arrested. Even softer drugs like marijuana can get you into big trouble, especially since laws vary from country to country. Research the laws of each country you visit beforehand, and skip making risky purchases.
Stay Away From Touristy Souvenir Shops
Like I said previously, it's nice when purchasing a souvenir to try to help local craftspeople. When you purchase something from a touristy souvenir shop or hotel gift store, you're most likely getting something that isn't authentic and may even have been made in another country. Not only that, but browsing local markets, especially in the open air, can be a cultural experience in itself.
Get Something That's Useful
While figurines and carvings are nice, they'll inevitably end up forgotten about on the shelf. If you can get something the person you're purchasing will actually use, your souvenir will get much more mileage. Items like hand-sewn bags, jewelry, dishes, glasses, hats and scarves are my favorite. For instance, when I was in Bolivia, I purchased baby alpaca socks, one of the warmest varieties, for my dad to use when he goes hunting. He absolutely loved them, unlike the Loch Ness Monster figurine I bought him from a gift shop in Scotland – yes, bad move, not to mention he thought it was a dragon.
Keep The Person You're Buying For In Mind
While you may think handmade shell earrings are a great keepsake, if the person you're buying for doesn't have pierced ears it will be a waste. Think about the person you're buying for and what their interests are. If they cook, a beautiful bowl could be something they'd appreciate. Maybe this person loves music. Buying them a CD from a local artist would make a worthwhile cultural present. If they're interested in fashion, purchasing something that gives them insight into the local style could be a great gift. When buying something for myself, I have only one qualification: that every time I look at it, I am flooded with strong memories of my trip.
It Fits Safely Into Your Luggage
First of all, you don't want to be lugging something heavy around from city to city. This may not matter as much to someone who is staying in one spot for their entire trip; however, as a backpacker who has to carry every ounce on her back, I always opt for as weightless and small a souvenir as possible. Also, you're going to want to make sure the item you purchase won't be broken into several pieces by the time you get home. If it's made of glass or ceramic, make sure the retailer wraps it in very durable, protective covering. Consider labeling your luggage as "fragile," or mailing it home and telling the postal worker the package contains something breakable.
One experiential souvenir idea is to make a souvenir yourself. I don't mean glue some local macaroni onto some locally purchased paper. Take a cultural class or ask a craftsman if they can show you how to make something. For instance, when I was in New Zealand I got the chance to make a small wood carving with a group of indigenous locals. Sure, it wasn't the prettiest souvenir I've ever taken home, but looking at it brings back strong memories of interacting with the culture, and reminds me of how much I want to go back.
Keep Something From Along The Way
Along your travels you may be given some items that also make great souvenirs. For example, in Vietnam I went on a tour with Intrepid Travel, who gave the group locally made chopsticks so we'd always have them on hand. Furthermore, in Morocco, I watched a local craftsman at work creating beautiful tile mosaics. After I complimented his work, he gave me one of his tiles to keep for myself.
Make Use Of Your Photos
If the souvenir is for yourself, why not make use of all the photos you took along the way and create a collage or scrapbook? Pictures have the ability to preserve memories in a visual way that not many other souvenirs can. I have made scrapbooks from almost all my big trips, and are great for helping me to remember and relive my travel experiences.
[Images via Jessie on a Journey, Casey Serin, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, Bruce Guenter]