[two pro travel journalists turn amateur bloggers]
Do you have one souvenir that you treasure most? Here, people who’ve had the opportunity to gather far more than a backpack of stuff spill the beans on their most precious, bizarre and kitsch souvenirs.
I once bought a tube of magic African air on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
At the time I didn’t realize what I’d bought. And I’m sure that the old Maasai woman who sold it to me had no idea either. The battered old gourd used to hold the traditional “yoghurt” – made from milk, blood and cattle urine – and it was washed out every day with ash from the cooking fire. The air inside is now infused with a sweet odour that has the power of spiriting me instantly back to Africa.
My 8 year-old daughter Lucia, who’s never been in a Maasai manyatta, is similarly affected. One particularly bleak morning last winter we were departing for a blustery walk to school: “Wait papa,” she said, “Let’s sniff the gourd.” She was right. The warm scent of Africa was enough to put a spring in our wintery Spanish steps.
When we first travelled around Turkey years ago, I heard a guy playing a long, thin instrument at a bus station. It had three rows of strings on its elegant neck and a body that was a beautiful, teardrop-shaped wooden bowl, made out of one piece of wood. The guy was playing it through an amplifier and it had a seductive, open-string drone. I was hooked. I asked the name of the instrument. “Saz,” he replied.
Back in Istanbul, I headed to Galip Dede Caddesi where I found a music shop where the owner was finishing a saz, and that’s where I bought my first bağlama, as it’s also called. On a recent trip to Istanbul, I returned to Galip Dede Caddesi. Sadly, the street now has more souvenir shops than music stores, however, I heard about a highly regarded bağlama player and master luthier, Dr Cengiz Sarikus.
I went to his Fatih workshop where I found the maestro and several gentlemen sitting around a table discussing designs with sketches in front of them. The maestro had a couple of bağlamas that were finished. A simple one with a lovely bowl made from a beautiful piece of old mulberry wood caught my attention. The doctor tuned it and played, singing along to his fluid movements. It was a classic folk song and soon all the other gents at the table had joined in. Best sales pitch ever. I travel with that bağlama whenever I can. Every time I pick it up it takes me back to that the doctor’s. And to Turkey.
Strong as an oak. Solid as a rock. Open yourself, and your heart, to the experience of living in the present, to find great strength. Some days you won’t see it, some days, you actually find it, on a lakeshore, in a bed of shale.
On a warm summer day, on the shores of Kootenay Lake near Murphy Creek in British Columbia, I find a rock. On a dark bed of shale, a round orange rock catches the sun, and my eye. Smooth, round, I pick it up, turn it over. On the flip side, an oak tree, roots firmly planted in my palm, leaves filling the top of the rock. I’ve since carried it to the Baja, Belize, Tikal, and back again.
Through all my travels, it sits safe in a pocket, reminding me strength is found in the most unexpected of places, and that home surrounds us, everywhere.
Now edging on 42, for the last 15 years I’ve carted a keepsake, a souvenir of my travels.
It was once kept in an envelope, one of those faux-aerogramme jobs, the ones with blue and red edging which promised speed and affairs. It slid into the valuables pouch at the top of my pack, between the passport and an overfolded STA ticket.
Then I settled, the I became we.
The item moved from my pack to a shoebox. It swapped a passport and ticket as bedding for an old girlfriend snapshot and a yellowed newspaper cutting of a crazed kid in Iraq.
It’s my hair.
Five inches, still plaited – that’s how I wore it back then. Neatly severed by my wife on the balcony of a two dollar hut on the beach of an island called Ko Pha Ngan.
I remember the day like it was yesterday.
Having lived aboard for many years and travelled extensively, I have seen many dubious souvenirs in my time. I almost see it as my mission to seek out the tackiest, most kitsch or just outright weird souvenir I can find, which I usually give to my mum. No matter how crazy they are she will always display them somewhere in her house, although not always in plain sight. My most recent addition to her collection has been a 3D fridge magnet of an armadillo from Texas – which sounds nicer than it is!
My favourite however, was a tiny ceramic clog I got from Amsterdam. Not that the clog was special in itself, but I filled it with a stock cube and wrapped it in foil before presenting it to her. Needless to say she was initially mortified but eventually saw the funny side!
Everyone has a favourite piece of clothing. An article of clothing they wear constantly, often longer than is appropriate or even decent. For me, that was a t-shirt I picked up on vacation in Northern Michigan. It was a heavy cotton, foam green T-shirt, and I wore it for years. To say I wore it out is an understatement.
I first wore it when I wanted the “formal casual” look, with jeans and a sport coat. Then it became a “nice” T-shirt to wear out with the family (you guys know what I mean, even if our wives and girlfriends don’t). Then it became suitable only for wearing to bed. Then it was relegated to a yard work T-shirt.
To friends and family, it became “that shirt.” To my wife, it was “that damn shirt.”
She finally insisted I get rid of it because it was so full of holes, I looked like I took a shotgun blast to the chest. I managed to keep it for another year by hiding it and only wearing it when she was out of town.
Every man needs to own at least one shirt they can claim as their Most Favorite Shirt Ever. I held onto mine for eight years before I lost it forever.
When I bought my babushka, she was just a doll. Something cute, bordering on kitsch, that took up as much valuable space in my day pack as three rolls of film – and so I almost left her (and the two other dolls I bought) on a train to Vladivostok, instead of taking her with me as we turned south for Ulaan Bataar.
You see, I’m not one for collecting souvenirs. Moving for the first time after a childhood spent gathering random “things” cured me of that. But the colourful wooden dolls lined up on the grey of Moscow’s Red Square, with their mini-me’s trailing neatly behind them, were hard to resist.
I didn’t buy the dolls for anyone in particular and have no idea where the others ended up; and I know I didn’t intend on keeping one for myself. And I definitely didn’t realise, as I took her as my travel companion, that a decade later, the red one would no longer be just a doll. That little babushka, with her comfortable round belly, has become a reminder of the valuable lessons I learnt on that solo trip: that I am brave. That I can always rely on myself. And that if I can cross continents on my own, tackling foreign big-city traffic in a massive 4×4 is a piece of cake.