The most memorable thing I have ever brought while abroad is a small model of the Great Pyramid complex at Giza. They are memorable to me, not by virtue of their expense or rarity, but because of the bumbling manner by which I acquired them. I had joined a loosely guided tour of The Pyramids and, fancying myself a well-travelled man of the world or awed by the majesty of a site I’d dreamed of visiting since childhood, I was on the lookout for an authentic memento of the adventure upon which I was embarking.
I came across a man spruiking trinkets from his camel (it may have been a donkey, or even a table – such is the reliability of my memory of this event) which would surely fit the bill. Full of misguided confidence and the arrogance of any number of grave-robbing Egyptian explorers, I made a play for the statues – certain that they were every bit as rare and valuable as the vendor assured me they were. After a few minutes of haggling, I had my mark down to 10 Egyptian Pounds – a bargain considering the quoted price of 80! I closed the deal and, rushing back to the bus in triumph I was met not with the adulation of my companions, but the barely concealed amusement of our guide at my purchasing acumen.
He explained through tears of laughter, that that very trinket could be found for less than two Egyptian Pounds in any souk within 100 miles of the Nile. Lost in denial, I rallied that my purchase considered the economic needs of the local merchant population and that I had calculated such philanthropic ideals into my purchase, but every market stall on my journey reminded me of my mistake. I’d been stung, and the bitterness stayed with me. To this day, those three little pyramids sit in my study among the breadcrumbs of my travel.
Collecting souvenirs is a funny thing. People (like myself) spend their lives trying not to accumulate too many possessions – to stay light and mobile, but as soon as we spend so much as a weekend away, we are overcome with the compulsion to collect a memento. For some reason we feel driven to recover some dust collecting trinket to forever sit – out of context – beside all of the other snow globes, silver spoons and novelty beer coasters hoarded from locales around the globe. Any self-respecting archaeologist (those are the ones that secretly resent being asked why they don’t have a whip and hat) will be happy to explain, in excruciating detail, how the collection of such cultural artefacts is both damaging to historic sites, and pointless once removed from its proper surroundings. Despites this, these ego-boosting trophies and conversation starters (I defy anyone to honestly claim that their souvenirs aren’t used to keep score) are dear to my heart precisely for the stories they represent (and the setting from which they were purchased, pilfered or procured). Without getting too deeply into semiotics, they are the sign that signifies a particular trip – a code that only travellers who have shared a similar adventure can truly understand. Ultimately, on my souvenir shelf are signified many of the greatest experiences of my life to date.
As I have become a more experienced (or at least older) traveller, I’ve refined the manner by which I collect my artefacts. Once I collected on a whim and came home burdened by everything from rocks to fragile glassware, whereas I now have something of a system. During each trip I aim to collect an Iconic photo (taken myself), something to adorn my walls at home, or a musical instrument native (or at least culturally indicative) to the country or region I am visiting. The plan, which formed after I secretly admitted that I had been tricked in Giza, was to carefully select something that would compliment my tastes and home life while also fulfilling my need to keep a physical record of my wanderings.
The photo plan has worked well enough (despite the extra carry-on luggage generated by an SLR camera) and I can identify at least a few images as representative of most of my journeys. The wall-hangings however, have proven to be a challenge after I made an informal count of the walls available in our house and then investigated the cost of framing (of course in the spirit of compromise, I’m considering sticking some of my favourite photos up instead). The musical instrument plans, too, have been hit and miss as some national instruments really test the excess baggage rules for most carriers. Despite issues with the storage capacity of your average A330, it was an instrument that finally helped me to make amends for my Egyptian bartering failings while in Laos last year.
We were enjoying UNESCO Heritage listed Luang Prabang after a week exploring Southern Laos and the evening markets beckoned. We saw an opportunity to pick up some of the obligatory gifts to haul home for friends and relatives (a tradition I will be sure to bemoan in a future blog). As I passed a touristy wood crafts display I saw a Ra Nat (a percussion instrument akin to an xylophone) in the window. It was over metre long and magnificent to behold. I had to ask about it, but at $2500USD, it was far beyond my budget. Undeterred by the idea that I could ill afford to purchase (much less transport) a 200KG block of wood back to Australia, my sales rep (a girl who may have almost been 14) suggest a smaller version of the instrument sitting not far away. I immediately calculated that this too was out of my price range, but she insisted that the $250US was far more reasonable. I agreed, but reasoned that it was still too much and I tried to disentangle myself from negotiations. In true salesman style, she retorted, “how much then?” I dodged, claiming I did not want to offend her or the artisan who crafted the instrument. Again, she insisted. Finally I set my price at what I thought was a ridiculous $40 USD expecting to be denied and allowed to continue our stroll. Instead my adversary paused and excusing herself, departed into the neighbouring shop, I assumed to negotiate a counter offer. After a moment she returned, and to my astonishment, I had become the owner of a prize that might return the honour lost in Giza. I had secured a bargain (although I am confident that nobody lost out on the deal). Ultimately Australian Customs made the biggest profit on the whole affair when they charged a further $100 to spray a bit of Mortein over my prize before they’d let me sit it on my shelf, but I was still pleased with myself.
I managed to secure a great little instrument, a ripping yarn to counter my Egyptian folly (albeit mostly thanks to the sales acumen of a young girl rather than any skill on my part), and my much needed dust-collecting trinket (although I promise to use it if I ever get around to publishing an albumhttp://www.reverbnation.com/einsteinsbarber).
Collecting souvenirs is not original, or even practical, but I still find myself pulling them off the shelf every now and then to remind myself why I keep going to work, so as long as I want to keep travelling, they serve their purpose.