Travel Souvenirs: Bringing the World Home

Words by:

Nyssa P. Chopra

I never consciously thought about what I’ve accumulated from my travels over the years or how my souvenir style has evolved over time until I read a recent NYT article and blog post regarding souvenirs (links below). I used to be an avid collector of shot glasses, keychains, and snow globes, but I’ve moved on since then and have proudly handed those collections over to my younger brother, who seems to also have outgrown them now, sadly. The novelty of those souvenirs probably wore off because I started traveling so frequently, with calling a new destination home every year and living out of 2 suitcases. With such a drastic lifestyle change, my love for pretty trinkets was sure to dwindle, only to welcome a heightened sense of practicality in my newfound souvenir style: books, accessories, foods, jewelry, postcards, and fashion. They all not only evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, but also are a part of my daily life, jetting me off *mentally* to a new corner of the world almost everyday.

Consistency is my mantra when it comes to travel souvenirs, so what I tend to buy in one destination, I try to look for, with a local twist, in my next destination. Silk scarves, for example, are one of my fashion favorites. Wherever I go, especially big cities, I’ll scour the markets for silk scarves that depict the country’s rich cultural history, celebrate the acclaimed emblems of the city, or simply highlight some part of that destination. Whether I’m always successful in finding something I like, that’s a different story. But through the years, I’ve built quite a collection that brightly showcases the iconic pride of Paris, the rich vibrancy of Indian colors and designs, the Mexican tradition of Otomi dolls, the chic flair of New York City, and much more.

Jewelry is another category of souvenirs that relays volumes about the host culture. No matter where I go, whether I shop locally or internationally, my eyes always gravitate towards bold statement necklaces and cocktail rings. One of my favorite souvenirs in that sprawling collection is a turquoise crystal necklace with a matching ring from Mexico City. My friend and I stumbled upon this quaint little shop purely by chance, while we were trying to find our way. The lady was standing at the door, smiling warmly and hoping a customer would take notice soon. Judging from the shoddy exterior, it wasn’t a shop that I ever expected to find something I’d like, but I took an instant liking (I love when that happens!) to the lady and decided to check out her loot. Lo and behold, after a few minutes of perusing, a beautiful turquoise necklace and ring were staring me in the face and screaming, “Buy me! Buy me!” *I happily obliged* After conversing with her for a few minutes in Spanish, I discovered that all the exquisite pieces showcased in the store were hand-crafted by her and that 100% of the profits went directly into her pocket, making me even happier about my purchase.

A stroll down my bookshelf tells another story in itself. With a carefully curated collection of books, my bookshelf holds snippets about almost every single destination I’ve visited. But you won’t find stale guide books on those shelves, instead, you’ll find a hefty stock of cultural humor, flamenco dance, photography, art, fashion, international law, social enterprise, human rights, and travel memoir books neatly stacked. One particular book that holds a special place in my heart is the Brothers Grimm fairy tales book that I bought in Germany. It was the first book I bought during my year there, and it served as a beginning guide to the German language for me. I loved all the fairy tales long before I bought the book, but being able to read them in their original language was a completely different experience. Thrilling.

In addition to keeping with my pattern of consistency across the board, I also love looking for items that are emblematic of that destination and can generally only be bought locally. A lot of these items usually end up becoming decorative pieces around the house. One such favorite is my three wise gorillas set: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Those cuties were bought from a crafts market in Kampala, Uganda just hours before my flight. The almost extinct mountain gorillas are the face of Uganda and not having a souvenir remembering and celebrating them would have been simply blasphemous. The moment I laid eyes on the trio, I had to have them, and one look at them, I’m sure you can understand why. *SO* cute =)

Another thriving set of mementos that has emerged from my travels is my postcard collection. I love checking out sidewalk postcard kiosks and witnessing the destination through the different lenses. I always end up buying  3 or 4 prints from every place, amounting to quite a few hundred postcards in total. I value this tradition of mine even more in today’s digital age, mostly because the classic charm of paper postcards is simply becoming outdated for so many. 

Also finding their way into my suitcase are Starbucks City Collectible mugs. There aren’t many sure things in life, but one thing that I can always bank on is a Starbucks within a 5 mile radius in every city I’ve ever called home. Not sure how this tradition started, but I’ve collected a Starbucks mug from every place I’ve lived in.

Last, but not least, are my yummy culinary delights, otherwise known as my ephemeral souvenirs. Their life span is so short that it’s hard to even call them souvenirs in the traditional sense. I’m mostly referring to the endless varieties of wine, chocolate, sea salt, and other specialty foods that I inevitably pick up. All in the name of “culture,” of course. I have a special spot in my heart for my French champagne from Reims, my German Stollen cake from Berlin, my Spanish wine from Barcelona, my Belgian chocolate from Brugge, my Turkish spices from Istanbul, and my Mexican vanilla from Tijuana. Sadly, all that remains of these souvenirs are pictures.

Speaking of edible souvenirs, I’m reminded of this weird habit I used to have while traveling. For a good 2 years, no matter where I’d go (internationally), I’d always buy a Twix candy bar to test out the taste differences across countries. How and when I stopped (or even started, for that matter), I have no idea, but my waistline is surely appreciative.

As a seasoned tea drinker (can’t get enough of chamomile, white, earl grey, darjeeling, and peppermint!), destinations like India always strongly pique my interest with their heavy tea culture and prized plantations. While in New Delhi, as I was shopping around, I randomly found one of the coolest tea shops ever: Mittal’s Tea Shop. And it’s not super cool because they stock more than 50 types of teas (that helps too), but because the elderly owner is one of most darling, loquacious Anglophiles I’ve ever met. He probably taught me more about British history than I’ve ever learned in my history classes in school. He even tossed in a few jokes and tea facts for good measure. But all this charm wasn’t free. Nothing ever is. Completely enchanted by this British-loving tea guru, I ended up coming back over and over and over again. But that was hardly a problem for me; I was happy to drop lofty amounts of cash in exchange for tea and good conversation. One can never have enough of either, ya know.

Note: this post is inspired by NYT’s article on souvenirs.


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