Skip The Souvenir Shop: How To Give Better Travel Gifts
Souvenirs- those small trinkets that show someone how much you missed them while you were away- always strike me as such a romantic expectation. Even the name, closely related to the French word for memories, evokes a wistful feeling in my heart.
But, in reality, I’ve found they rarely leave me so wide-eyed.
I’ve stood, prickled with anxiety, in shops from Quebec City to Beijing stressing about them. I’ve blown my budget on stuff that, absent of the glow of an exotic location, looked like the generic hunk of plastic it really was.
And it sucks. It really, really does.
So, for a time, I swore souvenirs off all together.
[Above: Ecuadorian Clay bowl, Cuban coffee. Top image: Cuban rum, Belizean artwork]
But then, last summer, something changed. I was doing volunteer work in Belize. While there, I had met a local artist who captured the coastal imagery of his small village perfectly. Standing in his studio, I wanted to share his work with my family back home. I wanted to give them a taste of where I’d been and show how I wished I could share the salt-white beach with them.
The next thing I knew, I was picking out pieces. I may have been back on souvenirs, but I firmly decided I was going to do them my own way.
Inspired by the Belizean paintings (and an uncle who’s souvenirs have become precious objects to me), I've since put together some new ground rules on buying better vacation gifts.
The way to the heart is through the stomach
Many regions are known for a particular food, so why not use that as a starting point on your gift-giving quest? I’ve surprised friends with authentic Chinese green tea, Ecuadorian chocolate and Cuban coffee to great success. These small somethings are the perfect, not-too-much gift idea.
I’ve found the best way to do this is going to a grocery store or drug store. Not only does shopping where the locals do guarantee your gift will be authentic, but it also allows a better price point and more selection. Search for the item with the prettiest packaging and buy a few to give to friends and family. This method is especially suited for those who like to one-stop-shop.
[Above: Cuban coffee and pottery]
An artful expression
So, maybe the people in your life aren’t as food-centric as my friends and I are. I’m totally not giving you side-eye over this (Ok, I am. #notsorry.)
In any case, great non-food gifts can be found at farmer’s markets or artisan workshops. While it may take a bit more digging to find these places, the unique and handmade wares you’ll find there are more than worth the effort. Plus, a lot of times they can be a fun place to explore in their own right.
Try researching the best local markets before your trip and jot down their addresses. Alternately, ask someone who works at your hostel or hotel for some recommendations.
And, while it’ll usually cost more than food, it’s not always as pricey as you might think. Depending on local custom, you may be able to haggle a more affordable rate (in some places haggling is actually expected!).
Worth a thousand words
For the person who has everything, try giving an especially artful photo of your destination. Popped into a simple, inexpensive frame, this gift expresses a desire to share a particular view in a very literal way.
If your photo skills aren’t as up-to-scratch as you wish, a kitschy postcard can achieve the same effect.
On my way home from my most recent trip, chocolate, coffee and handmade weavings were spilling out of my suitcase next to my travel-sized shampoo. The gifts were every bit the success I knew they would be, and the contents of my luggage left me with no emotional baggage.
Sure, my clothes smelled a little coca-y, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.