Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Travel = Buying Stuff?

We were determined not to buy stuff as we travelled.  We didn’t entirely succeed, but we did fairly well.  We both felt strongly about spending money on experiences instead of things, and we were quite motivated to keep the weight of our bags to a minimum, every time we lifted them.  The one souvenir we planned to take home from each country was the lightest and (nearly) cheapest thing we could get: the smallest denomination of local paper money.  The dollar bill is from Ecuador, where the US dollar is their official currency.  The single Euro note is a stand in for several countries (Montenegro, Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands).  Many of the bills are not paper—plastic notes were very common.  Many also used different sizes for different denominations, making them easy to distinguish by feel.  All of that said, we did end up acquiring a few things along the way.
Here, spread out, is everything we bought on the trip—aside from replacements for failed gear and clothing.  Some are practical items, some are gifts or consumables, and a few are simply mementos.
By weight and volume, we probably bought more tea than anything else.  Tea was definitely our Achilles heel for buying things.  The only saving grace was that we spent a lot of time in places where there is no tea (some had hot drinks mistakenly called tea, but they were no threat to our luggage or wallet).  The foil wrapped bags are all from Lock Cha in Hong Kong.  The clear bag is a mix of local herbs (chiefly sage and cardamom) that the Bedouins in Jordan’s Wadi Rum add to their tea.  The bag with the ringtail lemur is from Madagascar’s only tea plantation, Sidexam.  And the green bag is Fortnum and Mason’s Queen Anne blend, which we stocked up on the last time we were in London, too.
Fabric was a close second to tea.  We found some great batiks in Bali, all of which are gifts for the people we love who love fabric.  The scarves on the right could have been lumped in with the practical purchases, as could two of the non-batiks, which were purchased in Madagascar to act as sleep sheets in Egypt.  And the doilies were given to us, rather than purchased.
This is the group of practical purchases.  The two hats were purchased for extremes in temperature, and Lana was very, very glad for each.  The bags held small items, and made for a much more organized way to keep pills and miscellany easily accessible in Lana’s purse.  We picked up a pair of umbrellas in Asia, where it was far too muggy and warm to wear a raincoat.  They were also useful in Europe.  I forgot one practical purchase:
We bought a small steel for knives, in Australia.  It’s only 3” long, and quite light, so it packed nicely.  It will also continue to be useful after travel.  In addition to the sharpener, we bought the cheapest paring/utility knife we could find.  The steel kept that knife in reasonable shape, and helped out with the incredibly dull knives we’d find in kitchens where we stayed.  Also un-pictured is a butter knife we bought in Argentina, for making peanut butter sandwiches.  It accompanied us through nearly 30 countries before overzealous cleaning staff threw it out in our London hotel room on the last day of our trip.  At least once, airport security pulled it out and eyed it before reluctantly agreeing it wasn’t dangerous (which is precisely why we bought a blunt, rounded tip butter knife in the first place—the offset did end up being pretty convenient, as a perk).
Finally, the actual souvenirs.  All small and light—mostly paper goods.  Two USB drives with pictures from a snorkel trip (the clown fish) and the glow worm cave.  A speaker for our music players that we talked about in a previous post (probably belongs in the practical grouping, above). Two decks of cards, two lemur identification guides, a bunch of prints/large postcards, paper ornaments, and the one map we bought on the entire trip (story later).  The dice and spoon were carved from horn, and were a concession purchase from one of the ‘show and sell’ tours we were unable to avoid, in Madagascar.  The chopsticks were included with our cooking class in Vietnam, so technically part of a purchased experience.  And a pair of inexpensive resin earrings and a set of plumeria hair clips for Lana.

Generally these purchases were really inexpensive (nothing was over $5), and it could all fit in one pocket of one of our bags, although in practice we shipped nearly all of it back at various times, along with the backup drives we were going to be shipping home every three months, anyway.  There are some clothing items, like the clothes Lana had made in Vietnam, which could fall into the category, but as they were functional things that were used during the trip, and not something just purchased to remind us of our travels, we don’t consider them true souvenirs.  We’ve never been big on buying lots of stuff in our travels, but the limited amount of baggage (and budget) made that an imperative this year. Because of this, we were very conscious about how much of tourism is about buying things.  There was a consistent refrain about contributing to the local economy, but we didn’t feel it was right to buy something just to ditch it at our hotel room or throw it away.  And while things might have been inexpensive, it didn’t make sense to us to buy something simply because it was cheap.  Instead, we sought out local guides, which was both an investment in the community, and a really great interaction with someone who could give us a much better understanding of the life and customs in the area.  We found excellent guides, and all of them were willing to talk candidly about non-touristy things like regional politics, religious conflicts, what a daily meal was, gun control regulations, etc.  These were just as fascinating to us as the sites we'd hired the guides for.  All of that said, we certainly couldn't turn off our consumer impulses like a light switch, and there were plenty of things we would have loved to buy, which were way out of our price range and impossible to carry forward with us (some tea pots in Hong Kong, beautiful tin lanterns in Cairo, bottles of wine in the Wachau Valley outside of Vienna, to name a few). But it was enough of a gift to be able to take the trip, and experience so many different adventures and cultures.  Our memories and our photos are souvenirs enough for a lifetime.