As travelers we often pick up things on our journeys. So often that there’s even a name for them: souvenirs.
Today we’re going to have a little chat about the kind of souvenirs you should take home with you, and the kind you should leave without.
To make things easier for you, I’ve come up with four categories souvenirs typically fall under. Keep scrolling and we’ll discuss the significance of each…
CATEGORY I: junk
When I was in high school I spent three weeks in China, one in a hotel in Beijing and the other two with a host family in Chongqing. I somehow managed to bring along a purse, a duffel bag AND a massive suitcase (keep an eye out for my upcoming post on travel minimalism). It was ridiculous. I really didn’t have room for anything else… But because I thought souvenirs were so important, I crammed EVERYTHING I touched into those bags. Paper menus and receipts, the free comb at the hotel with Chinese characters on it, food wrappers… Most of which I ended up throwing out less than a month after I came home. This is Category I junk, defined as anything you would regard as trash in your hometown. Just because you are overseas or in a new city doesn’t mean every chopstick wrapper is special. What on earth are you going to do with it when you get home? Unless the answer is “frame it”, you should leave it behind.
CATEGORY II: gifts
On this same trip to China there was a big emphasis on gifts. I gave my host family some things from Seattle, my host family gave me a bunch of things from China. My classmates were all buying things for their friends and family, so, without considering what my family might actually want or like, I bought a bunch of odds and ends for them.
Gifts are a tricky form of souvenir, especially in a country like China where it’s an expected part of a cultural exchange. The important thing in this kind of situation is that you graciously accept a gift when it is given to you. No “oh, I already have one of those” or “nah, it’s okay, thanks though!” No, when you are given a gift, especially while traveling, accept it with thanks and figure out what to do with it later.
Unless it’s sketchy and you suspect drugs are hidden inside the gift, which is rare but does happen. Then you can refuse the gift.
Anyways, when you get home, if your gift has meaning or value to you, keep it! If not, well, you can donate or re-gift it.
As far as gifts for other people… Consider what your loved ones might actually appreciate. If they don’t love a lot of kitsch and clutter, don’t buy them a handful of Buddha figurines and waving cat thingies. Think about what they like and do and bring them something that relates. Do they like to cook? Bring back some regionally spiced salts. Are they an accessory fanatic? Find a scarf or necklace made by a local artisan.
With gifts, always make it a point to get people things that are truly foreign, really from the area you are visiting, versus a T-shirt with “I went to country X!” or something written on it.
CATEGORY III: things you can use
Having learnt my lesson in China, the only purchase I made in Reykjavik last year was an Icelandic wool hat. Maybe a little touristy, but it’s super warm and something I’ll actually wear every winter. Every time I put it on I’ll also remember the freezing cold horseback ride through rocky terrain in Iceland, wearing that hat and being so, so grateful I’d bought (it was so cold that later when they gave us coffee I was shaking so hard I knocked the cup over).
Things like that are good souvenirs. I actually like waiting to buy some things until I’m traveling for this reason. Say you’d like a great pair of shoes. Maybe save up to buy them during your upcoming trip to Italy, you know?
A bag of coffee is another favorite of mine to pick up. If you’re a coffee drinker, bring a bag of the local coffee home with you! I know it’s not a possibility everywhere, but you can also grab some tea, chocolates or other packaged edibles. Just remember customs might not allow fresh things back into your home country. Also, be careful because sometimes they think bags of coffee are bombs and you’ll have to wait while they swipe them for residue (this actually happened to me trying to bring bags of Peet’s to my parents in Texas). In general though, anything that’s edible is worth taking home to share.
CATEGORY IV: things that have meaning to you
It’s important to remember that everyone has their personal preferences. Maybe cheap souvenirs are meaningful to you- maybe you love displaying them or telling people about them. Maybe your best friend loves the cheesy T shirts you bring her after each trip.
But be wise. At the end of the day, you’ll know what has most meaning for you and your loved ones. For me, the only things I keep are photographs, journals and a few useful things. Unless it’s something I’m going to use on a daily basis, I don’t buy a lot of items, because I’ve never looked at something I’ve purchased in another place and thought, oh YES that time was so fun!
Instead, I’ll hear The Proclaimers and remember waking up to to “I wanna be 5000 miles” in a thin-walled apartment in Paris. I’ll eat pineapple and remember buying the same fruit cut into stars from an old woman on the stairs in Chongqing. I’ll glance over at my bookshelf and remember reading “The Night Circus” on my way to Singapore for the first time.
These are the things that bring me back, never the dress I bought or the wooden utensils, pieces of paper with foreign writing on them.
I think, too, that when you focus on the experience of travelling and less on what you should bring home with you, you get much more out of the journey.
You stay present.
You stay in the moment and are aware of the world surrounding you.
You come alive.