My best advice on collecting souvenirs from your trips abroad (or elsewhere in the country): Don’t.
Seriously—memorabilia is not the same as memories. You won’t forget the stingray that bit you even if you don’t have a candid shot printed on your T-shirt. (It is a cracking good yarn at the cocktail party, though.)
Recently, I cleaned out three housefuls of stuff, hoarded by more than three generations of souvenir-shoppers. Things I let go included: a clay pipe my father bought my grandfather from Scotland (neither smoked a pipe; my grandfather never used tobacco); 40 thimble-sized Chinese teacups; 14 sets of ‘cute’ Burmese wooden dolls representing ethno-cultural minorities of Myanmar; three sets of decorative combs too fragile for actually running through my (quite sparse) hair — a raja-rani pair from Bijnore, a pearwood dragon comb missing its wedded pair (the phoenix) from Singapore, and the thread-decorated bamboo from Bastar; a myriad sindoor pots gifted to my mother (now widowed and not ‘allowed’ vermillion) by ‘well-travelled’ relations — lacquered wood, carved sandalwood, seashells, silver, ivory, horn, brass, bamboo, mirrorwork, beadwork, marble, sandstone, soapstone … sundry bits of opal and jade and aquamarine too precious to ‘set’; 20 albums of postage stamps and currency; lengths of ‘ethnic’ fabrics unused in 40 years or more; more souvenir mugs per person than days in a week. Why didn’t we save that money for more trips? And what’s the point of a keepsake that crumbles as it stands or, worse, lies forgotten?
Don’t get me wrong. These aren’t worthless objects. To the right collector, they are invaluable, especially the old coins from the USSR and the Olympics stamps. But I have given up souvenir stalking myself—I can no longer face the clutter. When I come home, I want to come home to a restful space. If I wanted to bring the world to live with me, why travel? I could order off Novica or Ten Thousand Villages, easier and possibly cheaper. Besides, there is no way I can truly recreate the Turkish coffee ritual of Istanbul in Gautam Buddh Nagar. Plus, the world’s gotten smaller and most of us travel more than previous generations; yet that world still is too big to fit my living room, making this a Sisyphean endeavour. Conversely, if I save a souvenir, I hope it can disappear back into the earth when I am done globetrotting.
Also read: The thing with feathers
The corollary to more of us travelling — and souvenir shopping or stealing (side-eye at your seashell and shark-tooth collection) — is there isn’t earth enough to survive our appetite. Those bottles of coloured sand from every seaside look innocent — but imagine that beach if, every day, a hundred tourists scooped a handful out.
There’s also the matter of cultural appropriation. The alpaca throw makes sense if I buy from the weaver; but the T-shirt with sequinned ‘Aztec’ motifs enriches an (unrelated) manufacturer, not the people whose cultural capital it is. When it comes to the clothing or accessories of people still discriminated against for their race, religion, culture or other identity markers, me wearing them is cultural appropriation, too. This is why I treasure but do not actually wear the Toda and Naga shawls I have been gifted: not my legacy to reinterpret.
There are exceptions I make. I am not averse to photographs; but I object to the often-appropriative, self-centring selfies (the Leaning Tower is iconic enough without my unoriginal visual gag) and snapshots attempting ‘local character’ portraiture without permission (hint: if your hashtag uses ‘tribal’ or ‘local’ as noun, hit ‘delete’). I hold on to incidentals sometimes — tickets, maps, menus; but increasingly, I digitize them. I collect recipes and buy local eatables, because memories have strong ties to smell and taste, which caters to my interest in gourmandise too (this much self-centring I allow). These consumables honour their place of origin while taking up no permanent room, making no long-term demands on my time. So, I do have Turkish coffee (plus cups and pots).
Last but not least, I let the souvenir find me. It’s not a treasure hunt, but a moving moment that stays with me.
(Manidipa Mandal is a freelance writer and editor, who loves to eat, drink, travel, read-and criticise. So Manidipa decided to make a career (or three) of them)