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Souvenirs in retrospect: what seemed a good idea…


Sometimes, no matter how ridiculous the shape, size, or weight, regardless of the practicality, that special something just defines a trip, promises to carry with it all the magic. Most of the time, I get caught up in some local craze, discovering I’ve somehow bought ten pashminas or a dozen crocheted juggling balls, nine of them at my feet while struggling to keep three in the air. Souvenirs are fickle morsels of extra baggage that congeal into something big and wrong, a mistake you might have prevented if there had been some sort of guide to steer you right.

My first taste of international trade came in the form of driving from Orange County, California, to Tijuana, a journey of maybe two hours and, yet, a world apart in terms of souvenir shopping. I could buy wooly woven blankets, a dozen for thirty-eight…thirty-seven…thirty-six dollars, or strong-scented leather products with pyrography stenciling citing place of origin, or pot pipes in the shape of cock-and-balls. A wondrous place where prices plummeted, a teenager’s candy store of off-color t-shirts, drug paraphernalia, and tequila lollipops—Tijuana has never fully gotten out of my system: Not needing ten of an item, whatever the discount, still doesn’t matter.

Even so, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from my mistakes, useful tips with today’s shrunken weight limits and baggage allowances. My mid-twenties have turned into my thirties, my back a little less willing to make the physical sacrifice for the material benefit. I no longer have a bachelor pad. The dwindling remains of my belongings are in a few boxes in the guest closet of my dad’s house. I’ve become a professional traveler, carrying only his extra-large wheel-y duffel pack and a Swiss army computer bag with no less than three devices that work on WiFi.

Tip 1: Fashion Faux Pas

Lying on a beach in Koh Chang National Marine Reserve on the far east shores of Thailand, it’s easy to forget about the marvelous convenience of buttons and zippers. You become enamored with your mass-produced, three-dollar Vietnamese-style fishing pants, the cool ocean breeze cutting through the wide-open sun, the lingering scent of tropical fruits. You begin to believe it can be forever encapsulated if only you had a wardrobe of these one-size-fits-all trousers with the marvelous tie-waist, never forcing you to face having had that extra pineapple pancake. But, the truth is the whole world isn’t comfortably fisherman-clad for a reason: These pants are an impractical, fleeting fad of holiday hosiery destined for the bottom drawer of your dresser.

I know, I know: If you are in Southeast Asia at the moment, this thought seems ludicrous. How could you ever go back to jeans or khakis? Looking around you, the world is clearly being taken over by this revolutionary clothing, every dreaded, braided backpacker dressed for a spell with a net in the Mekong Delta. If you’ve already been to Khoa San Road, you’ve likely learned of big discounts for buying in bulk, perhaps persuaded yourself to purchase no less than half-a-dozen. I’m not judging you. I was there. I was there when the shit hit the fan, a shopping frenzy of epic proportions impregnating my backpack—and no disrespect to the hardworking hawkers of Bangkok—with crap, the biggest part of my heap being those cool Thai clothes.

Now, here’s the tip, and I’m going to give it to you Dr. Diet style: Indulge a little, sample a short ride on that vacation fashion train, but have a reasonable portion. One pair of Vietnamese-style fishing pants is plenty for anyone who isn’t a Vietnamese fisherman. This isn’t picking on Southeast Asia, either. Mind yourself in markets worldwide, where there is always some ex-pat garb that everyone’s wearing, except the local selling it to you. Buy more than one and you’ll just be stuffing your bag with junk. Maybe you are adventurous enough to wear a Mayan textile skirt back home, but you’ll never wear it so regularly that you need multiple selections.

Tip 2: Size (and Weight) Matters

That overcast afternoon in Melaka, I could not escape the fact that size does matter, only in the case of souvenirs, the needs being reversed. I bought a two-foot long oblong slab of wood with facial features carved into it: A mask. That beautiful piece of craftsmanship, for my remaining week in Malaysia, jutted out of the top of my front pack, actually masking my face from any direct onlookers. I was forced to peek around from the back of this inanimate set of eyes in order to see where I was going, meet whom I was talking to, or browse the next market stall. It is highly possible I was cloaked as a tribesman preparing for a hunt.

Two years prior, after an evening of petanque (boule or bocce ball) in a park in the Czech Republic, I knew that a. my life would not be complete without a set of these six shot-puts, basically, and b. buying them immediately was my only chance at achieving this dream. I ignored the fact that pentanque is not even a Czech game and getting a set required a trip to Tesco rather than a local market. My new yard game packed on a good thirty pounds, easily fitting but doubling the weight of my bag for the rest of my Eastern European travels. I played the game once more, during an eight-hour wait outside a train station in Budapest. When I got home, I gave my set away to a friend who, to my knowledge, has never played with them either.

Don’t buy big and/or heavy stuff. It seems simple and obvious, but in the heat of the hunt, in the high of the party, much like romantic endeavors, it’s easy to wake-up with something outside your weight and size limits, something you’d rather not have around but find yourself stuck with for a while. When caught in the throes of contemplation, for just a second, take off your holiday goggles, consider the carrying, the miracle that you can buy nearly anything on eBay, and wait until the morning to see if you feel the same. Luckily, with souvenirs, if you do slip up and have to ditch, in most cases, they can’t follow.

Tip 3: Keep It Real

To this day, I have no clue how to play mahjong even though, negotiating in a cluttered shop in Beijing, I swore to learn, justifying the purchase of a fabulously authentic box of tiles. The pure China-ness of this souvenir had caused a picture bubble above my head, me and a Confucius-like character smoking long-stemmed pipes whilst contemplating our next shrewd move. I have never, outside of Hollywood depictions, seen a Chinaman playing mahjong, but the peddler had distracted me by starting his price high and letting me work him down to a fifth of where we’d begun. The deal was too good, so like that, I bought a set to prove I don’t know how to play.

When I lived in the Middle East, I become a master of the hubbly-bubbly, nargile, argile, aka the hookah. A mixer of tobaccos, ever in search of the perfect smoke-drink combo, my head resided in cloud-like puffs of sweet apple, strawberry-chocolate, banana-mochacino. I smoked daily, all too pleased to undertake the grand preparation, the sticky, syrup-coated tobacco, battle to get the coal alight, then spend the night lounging about like a Persian prince. I miss it even now, but not enticed by the aroma wafting out from cafés, it’s a habit that devalues, from coffee table to the bottom shelf of the bookcase to the closet behind that pair of boots bought on the trip to Dallas.

So, embrace the carpe diem vibe, and increase your adventure while you are there: Try out mahjong (if you can find someone to teach you), smoke the hookah with all the aplomb of an Arab, but realize these experiences, the atmosphere required to have them, are why you travel in the first place. If it were common as muck to do at home, carried the same weight of importance, if our friends there were into this, then it wouldn’t be so damned fun abroad. By keeping it real, you’ll only appreciate where you are and what you’re doing, freeing up some closet space for all those fisherman’s pants you’ll buy on a next year’s trip to Southeast Asia.

Postscript: Key Chains & Magnets, Postcards & More

With so much blacklisted, you’re probably wondering what keepsake you can get, what qualifies as suitable, and though I can sense the sarcastic tone, I will oblige, even encourage you to go after some tat. Why say no when it feels so good to say cuanto, ne kadar, skol’ko, how much? When you shell out the clams to travel, survive the dodgy stomachs, overcome the language barriers, it’s only natural to want something to commemorate the event. Even caveman got to sport their mammoth hides and smear adventure paintings in their caves, so far be it for me to block what’s always been: a commemorative plaque.

To the point, I think the souvenir gurus of old had it right way back when: Key chains, magnets, and postcards recapture a place more readily, more manageably than anything out there. Each culture puts its own spin on these items, these stimulators that allow you to tell the story of getting lost in the desert in Jordan or picking coffee beans in the mountains of Guatemala. They are easy reminders that won’t get mistaken for Pottery Barn knock-offs. Buy a small painting or a stunning photograph, something that sparks a memory rather than trying to recreate the place.

I used to buy a mask from everywhere I visited, periodically repacking one of those boxes in the bottom of my father’s closet. At some point, the smell of the lacquer on them grew so strong that he wrapped the box in a giant, reinforced Glad bag. I haven’t seen the masks for three years. I can’t bear the thought of making them all fit back into the box if I unpack them. I don’t have anywhere else to put them, but with an heir of sentimentality, I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. And, that’s definitely not the point of a souvenir.

Now, go forth and shop responsibly.

Jonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog. Dashing, daring, intelligent – and lost.

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