When I was getting ready to go on my first international trip as an adult, my mom’s sister, Aunt P, called me up with an offer I couldn’t refuse. She told me that before she left on a big trip the year prior, her husband had handed her a few hundred dollars with the explicit instructions to buy one item that she normally wouldn’t dream of buying. (Frugality is usually the way we roll in my family and buying something expensive just because you want it isn’t something that we do.) Aunt P was offering me the same advice and to celebrate my maiden voyage, she was generously providing me with $200 to purchase my souvenir splurge.
Why the splurge?
Ever since that trip, I have made it a point to buy one thing each time I leave the U.S. that is a little frivolous and that I know I will love forever and that will remind me of that particular trip each time I look at it. Now, I’m not saying I only buy one thing each trip. Goodness no–where’s the fun in that? But as B and I are not high rollers and we usually try to keep the costs of our adventures on the lower end of the scale, I can keep room in my budget for that one item that will be my special memento of the trip.
When looking back at these treasures, I don’t regret buying a single thing. On your next trip, I would highly recommend following my Aunt P’s example and splurging (whatever that means to you) on one item that you know will be one of your favorite things. Here are a few of my favorites that I’ve collected along the way.
Murano glass vase: Venice, Italy
On that first trip I took to Italy, my friends and I were wandering around St. Michael’s square. Our Rick Steve’s guide book recommended a specific shop that sold good quality Murano glass so we stopped in to look at their wares. I found a vase that was simply beautiful–I have always been a sucker for blues and this vase just spoke to me. As our group was fairly large and several of us bought items, we were able to group together and ship our precious purchases back home safely so we mitigated the threat of breaking as it bounced along in my backpack for the next few weeks.
We actually ended up spending enough money collectively in the store that the owners brought us into their back room and gave us a demonstration on how they blew the glass. It was amazing–in about 30 seconds with a puff of air and some twists, this maestro whipped up a glass kitty cat.
Mayan face mask (replication): Flores, Guatemala
My two friends and I spent about a month traveling around the Yucatan area of Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Mayan culture abounded (a dream come true for a history grad like me). We were able to visit several famous archaeological sites like Copan and Tikal, but pretty much everywhere you looked there were Mayan items or pieces inspired by the Maya. Toward the end of our trip, I hadn’t yet made my special purchase but I knew it was going to be something that was related to the Maya.
Sure enough, when we walked into one store in Flores, Guatemala, a magnetic force pulled me towards some replication Maya face masks. I hadn’t seen these anywhere else on our trip (luckily, otherwise I would have had to cart the thing around), which made me like them even more. I have no idea what these were made of, some sort of rock veneers, but I can guarantee I don’t have anything else like it!
Spondylus/coral ring: Quito, Ecuador
B and I took joined a tour group when we visited Ecuador and our tour guide, Patricio, had some slightly sketchy practices of bringing us to places where we suspect he got a kickback of our purchases. On our first day in Quito, he took us to one such shop and because we were annoyed that he was doing this, we didn’t buy anything. But here’s the thing: the stuff in this shop was gorgeous. I wanted it desperately. Alas, our tour continued and as we traipsed all over various parts of Ecuador, I still had that jewelry in that back of my mind.
On our last day of the trip, we were free to explore Quito on our own. Naturally, B and I made our way back to that shop. Luckily it was open and I was able to purchase a gorgeous ring. A slight language barrier precluded me from knowing what it was made out of. I believe it either comes from coral or a seashell that is found in Ecuador’s coastal waters. It reminds me of that trip and our shady guide whenever I wear it.
Alpaca sweater: Arequipa, Peru
If a person goes to Peru, I can pretty much guarantee they will come back with some variety of item made of either llama, alpaca or vicuna fur. It’s practically impossible not to. You see the stuff at just about every store and on every corner of every street. Hell, I even managed to buy a pair of mittens on a trek in the mountains, far away from a town or city. Since this was the predominant export of the country for tourists, I decided I wanted to get something as my special souvenir made of alpaca.
What you will notice if you spend time in Peru is that not all of these wares for sell should be treated equally. I’m pretty sure most stuff I bought was sheep with a little llama thrown in for good measure. But for my special souvenir I needed something of a higher quality. I went into a swanky looking shop in Arequipa and selected a beautiful black sweater made of alpaca. You can tell what branch of the family you are buying as alpaca is much softer than llama. The only problem with this sweater is that it is so blasted hot I very rarely find an excuse to wear it. Instead I pull it out and pet it every now and then.
Amber and turquoise necklace: Warsaw, Poland
After doing a little research, C,B, and I learned that the Baltic countries are renowned for their amber jewelry. In case you guys missed Jurassic Park, amber is fossilized tree resin, so it basically looks like chunks on solid honey. Very pretty. C and B picked up some earrings, but I purchased to a lovely amber and turquoise necklace. It was funny, I picked one out and was trying it on and the shop lady must have seen our clothes and thought we weren’t the kind of tourists that spent a lot of money. She offered me a similar necklace with smaller beads. Since this was going to be my big purchase of the trip, though, I was able to spend a bit more and buy the one I really wanted.
As I am preparing for a trip, I will do a little research into what the country or region is famous for. You will most likely be able to figure this out on your own once you arrive as that item will be prevalent. But how sad would it be to come home empty handed from a country that is the best place in the world to buy a particular thing just because you didn’t realize the country was mecca for that thing? I shudder at the thought. Try looking in the ‘what to buy’ sections of your guidebook or wikitravel.
B and I like to use backpacks when we go on trips. Space is at a premium in those things and you have to think very carefully about what you want to carry around. Jewelry, in addition to being fabulous, is usually very small and can fit into tiny spaces in your pack.
If you love it buy it
B has a rule that if you know you will regret not buying something, you better buy it. It was rare that we were able to return to the same store in Quito that sold jewelry that we loved. On most trips, you are in a town one day and gone the next. If you come across something that speaks to you, you should really just go for it and hand over the credit card. Crazy things can happen even if you are in the same place. In Helsinki I decided I was going to purchase a gorgeous reindeer rug. However, the stores were all closed the very next day, thwarting my rug purchase. As we were flying home early the following morning, I was unable to make my purchase. Sigh.
Trips are expensive. It helps to make a mental (at least) budget and know how much you are going to spend. I highly recommend adding a line item for a souvenir that you normally wouldn’t allow yourself to purchase. I know I have never once looked at these special items and regretted buying them for one single second.