My philosophy on souvenirs

As you may already know, I pack very minimally. I try to pack carry-on only, whether it's a weekend trip or a 21-day adventure.

Because of that, I don't have much room to pack souvenirs to bring to my family and friends. For a lot of people, that's not an option. I know my parents once bought a super-cheap piece of luggage in Italy just to fill with souvenirs to bring home. Of course, in the land of fine wines and pasta, there's a lot of delicious things you'd want to share, so I don't blame them.

But for most destinations, the types of souvenirs you find in a gift shop are junk. To me, kitschy gifts like magnets or tacky aprons or t-shirts aren't worth it. Granted, I don't know anyone who collects those things, but if I had a friend who had a penchant for collecting magnets in the shape of all of the 50 states, then yes, I'd consider getting her one.

So I don't really like buying souvenirs. I am slowly weaning towards a low- to zero-waste lifestyle, and purchasing a yak-shaped piggy bank from Tibet to be thrown away ten years from now is just not worth it to me. I am very particular about my souvenirs.

Mostly, I prefer to send postcards to friends and family. No one ever says "ugh, I hate this dumb postcard she just sent me from Irkutsk, Russia." EVERYONE loves mail, especially fun, exotic mail from a faraway land. And look at that postage stamp! Our international postage stamps in the USA are lame compared to the double stamps I used to send a Moldovan postcard over the border (a coat of arms and a pair of hands doing "decorative woodworking" as the stamp's caption read). I still have one my dad sent me from South Korea when I was a child.

And the three best things about sending postcards? They are cheap (with postage, I've never spent more than $2 USD), you don't have to carry them, and they are personal. Off they go, out of your hands. You don't need to lug anything around with you for the rest of your trip, but rest assured, your gift will arrive at its destination soon enough. Personal gifts are the best of all, and a postcard allows you to write a special memory or story specific to the recipient. My brother wouldn't care about the cute puppies I just saw wandering around the Genghis Khan statue outside of Ulaanbaatar (I saved that story for a postcard for one of my best friends), but he would care about the military history I just learned about the surrounding area. My friend and old co-worker, with her odd sense of humor, would appreciate the story of the time I spent several hours in a public park at night with a random Italian man seeking out a fussy baby statue (and the postcard depicting that statue, of course).

I send postcards to a select few friends, some of whom, in return, send me postcards on their travels. Some people I've met while traveling will send themselves a postcard, and collect them in a sort of brief day-by-day journal of their travels. I don't like too many for myself, so I make a habit to send just one on last day of a trip, summarizing my state of mind on that final day, and how I feel I've changed or grown from the travel experience.

Despite my hesitation for purchasing gifts and souvenirs, I still do purchase them. I like to be affordable and creative, which therefore prevents me from overspending or forcing myself to buy something even though I think it isn't worth my money. I have never spent the last day in a destination rushing into a souvenir shop, darting my eyes around for that one thing I NEED to get for that ONE OTHER PERSON on my list.

First, I buy things unique to the location. Duh! Isn't that what souvenirs are meant to be? Secondly, I buy things that are small and easy to transport. Some examples are:
  • Mongolian wool socks (from Mongolia. With yak hair. These are seriously the best. If you ever wanted to feel like you're walking around with a stuffed animal strapped on your foot, this is how.)
  • a deck of cards with Russian nesting dolls printed on them, for the long train ride ahead
  • a tiny necklace charm with a faberge egg and a tiny matroyshka doll 
  • a soccer jersey for the Estonian soccer team (instead of some t-shirt that just reads 'Estonia' because this will never go out of style)
  • an Uzbek bread stamp to make homemade non
  • mini liquor bottles of Vana Tallinn or a bottle of $3 Uzbek vodka (the good stuff).

Sometimes I buy things that I find hilariously weird. Of course, not wanting waste, the item also has to serve a purpose (and not be some knick-knack that sits on a shelf indefinitely). Such things are:
  • a car air freshener in the shape of a matryoshka doll
  • tiny erasers in the shape of vegetables from a Tibetan store (for my friend taking nutrition courses in grad school)
  • a bottle of Kazakhstan Cola which totally should have copyright issues because it looks identical to a Cola Cola bottle
  • a condom and AIDs pamphlet from our Tibetan hotel lobby (educational).

And for myself? Other than the self-sent postcard I send on the final day of the trip, I like to collect a sticker and a sew-on patch from each country and city that I visit. They're small and easy to pack. In each place I've lived, I also like to collect a flag (I have a Basque, a Valencian, and a Spanish flag).

To me, my writing, my photos, and my videos are also great souvenirs. And of course, at the risk of sounding cheesy, the experiences, the memories, and the friends are the best souvenirs of all.