Souvenir Savvy- Tips to Conquer Your Travel Clutter
So, 99.9% of you out there have not seen my home. It is a beautiful little abode that shows a lot of love and a lot of memories of life events and experiences. I just love remembering everything about my travels. I love bringing home things that trigger that moment back in the day when I saw that castle, rode that jet boat, ate that incredible meal, met that classic local, the list goes on. But once you are home from the Travel Abyss, you look at all the things you bought, you salvaged, you cherished in that foreign place and ask yourself what truly was worth buying, packing and bringing home to your life of familiarity? Was that souvenir spoon truly necessary? or the little trinket that will forever sit on your mantle? What truly made you buy it and could that $10 etc. have gone to a future adventure? We all do it. We all get sucked into the mindset that we must take home things everywhere we go.
Don’t get me wrong. There are so many things worthy of the voyage across the world to your little corner and then there are some that really and truly should stay put at the kiosk. Here are our tips for what to buy, what not to buy, and which mementos to keep and which ones to de-clutter.
A very smart blogger created a challenge for Lent entitled “40 Bags in 40 days” to encourage elimination of clutter, sacrificing things, and building further life clarity. It has taken off so well for her that nearly 60,000 people pool together thoughts, ideas, and calls for help on their cluttered messes and how they managed to unload the unnecessary junk. I thought to myself. Perfect. I am a sentimental beast who sucks terribly at letting go of anything that has an attached memory. I always second guess myself on if I should release the item to the garage sale/charity gods, or better still- the garbage. However, in spite of all of that, I signed up for the challenge with my sentimental conscious kicking and screaming the whole time.
On March 1st the challenge began, and today, 18 bags in, I have eliminated quite a bit of stuff that seriously I forgot I had, stuff that piled high to the ceiling, and stuff that truly past its expiry date in staying interesting. And you know what the craziest thing was? Within some of my bags- (me, the one who attaches memories to everything,) were things I had purchased on my travels through nearly 40 countries that at the time, just had to head home with me. I got sucked into the mindset of “I was incredibly blessed to be there in the first place and who knows if I will ever go back.” And so I bought everything to remember just how blessed I was… This challenge forced me to decide what to keep and what to let go.
See, the truth is, we need to make space in our home for new adventures and potential life milestones. Every surface has something from a far away destination. Yep, that elephant figurine from India sits there gathering dust, but when I look at it I’m supposed to remember how amazing that place I bought it was; the sad reality? I cannot remember exactly where I got it. So, the adorable elephant was taken away in bag #10.
As sad I was to rip the Band-aid and say goodbye to some of these things, I thought to myself- I have photographs. I have memories. I have other things to remind me of my time there. And trust me, you will feel better too and be amazed at the creative ideas, freedom, organization, and positivity that comes from the removal of things burying you to the brim.
Tip 1 – Choose 1-2 (Max!) Things to Collect
When you are abroad you are bombarded with souvenir shops on every corner. This is especially the case in developing countries that rely so heavily on the tourist’s presence. They pray they make ends meet and try desperately to sell their things to you. You are helping locals by buying their things, but you are sometimes not helping yourself by caving and getting the keepsake box you don’t really like.
So my advice is to choose 1 or 2 at most things to collect and bring home. But when you make this decision, think long and hard of what you really love that you could look at all the time and smile at your time back in that far off place. Choose something you can feasibly bring home and you have space for, and something that will not lose its shape/expire.
Pro-Lesson learned: I shopped so much in Europe, that I had to drop nearly 100 Euros in Amsterdam shipping my purchases home to keep the weight of my suitcase manageable. It helped, but my suitcase still broke in Istanbul, requiring another financial setback in the buying of new luggage…
One of my collections of choice is magnets. A fellow blogger saw a photo of just part of my collection and told me she had anxiety. I did giggle at this notion, but to me, magnets are a source of travel memories that make me happy. I gaze at the magnet I bought in NYC at the Brooklyn Bridge where my husband proposed and smile. I go giddy looking at my magnet from the Greyfriar’s Bobby in Scotland as it was my favourite thing about Edinburgh, and I look at the Great Wall of China on my fridge thinking how blessed I was to get this opportunity to see it. The magnets are a source of happiness and therefore, are a right thing for me to collect along my travels. They aren’t overly pricey, they take little room in my luggage, (thought don’t be fooled! They do weigh a lot if you buy several!) and are not taking up heaps of space in my home. Our fridge is a large collage, but they do not impede my ability to open and close it to grab the milk for my morning coffee.
Tip 2 – The Cultural Apparel Needs to stay
I have been a victim of this one. Travelling through 4 continents you go to shops where they give demonstrations on cultural clothing, textiles, footwear and more. You head to a fabric store in India and you are just blown away by the quality hand-sewn items that people spent months to make for you, the tourist to take home. Perhaps that item will help them pay for food or shelter. The guilt sinks in.
Here’s the thing. I bought a beautiful textile that I have proudly displayed on my wall and received dozens of compliments and “Oh where did you get this?” questions for me to elaborate on how incredible the shop was and the amount of people the purchase helped. I also bought duvet covers and pillow shams for family. They were a huge hit and used frequently. This is where I stopped. Being in India I adored the women wearing such gorgeous saris, how ornate the fabric is and kept thinking how much I wanted one. The willpower was fighting me. But I won the battle.
If I bought the sari, it would sit in my closet permanently unless I was invited to a wedding were saris were the preferred dress code. In reality living in Canada, as I am not of Indian descent, I would not wear this beautiful item of clothing out and about. It would not conform to the styles and society to which I live. Sari prices range and to have one custom made with your measurements taken and women sewing them for hours at a time and the investment would truly have given me buyer’s remorse. I told my guide that I would pass on on this purchase and stick to my wall piece that I love everyday I see it in my hall.
The Beautiful Scottish Kilt
Another example of cultural apparel that should stay put i’m afraid. I absolutely love Scotland. It is one of my favourite places on earth and the culture is just so inviting and different. Until I ventured to the glorious highlands I vowed I’d never eat haggis, but feelings do change when you are actually in a place and feel obliged to try new cultural traditions and foods.
While here, you listen to street performers belting out Amazing Grace on bagpipes while dawning the most beautiful kilts ever made. Shops selling clan souvenirs fill the streets and encourage you to find your family’s tartan and have a custom kilt made. Unless you are true to the Scottish culture and plan on wearing your kilt out and about not only on Robert Burn’s Day, than avoid dropping up to £800 for yours to take home. My husband has Scottish roots and truly wanted a piece of heritage to bring home until he was confronted with the hefty price tag. Plus, I said to him, when are you going to wear your kilt back home complete with knee socks, pouch, and all? Awkward Silence.
Now sadly, I fell victim to the Scottish appeal when I went to Edinburgh the first time. I bought myself a kilt and bought my husband a purple set complete with pouch and socks. He has worn it once and the rest of the time remains folded in a drawer. I am thankful that I did not pay too much, but during the 40 bags in 40 days house cleanse, it barely survived the de-clutter bug.
Other Cultural Apparel That Chances are you won’t wear back home
These items I can honestly advise to leave when looking for a souvenir to take home. I have bought some of these and sadly they remain in a drawer or have fallen victim to the de-clutter challenge. I cannot “cry” anymore about the amount of money spent on these things that simply couldn’t survive my newfound souvenir savvy.
- Muy Thai Boxer Shorts – I bought these for hubby thinking he may take up the sport…and they remain folded up in his dresser.
- Dutch Clogs from the Netherlands – I bought a pair for both myself and my husband. At 10 Euros a pair, I thought that was an amazing price. Well, it isn’t when they never get worn and gather dust on the shoe rack. My husband’s ended up in one of my 18 bags of the challenge and he never wore them once. Buy a clog keyring, planter, magnet, or none at all. But if you think you will wear them on the street in your homeland, think again.
- Vietnamese Non La Hat- I had a friend who ventured to Vietnam and I told him he should buy one of these as they are so cool! I am glad he didn’t. First of all, you would not wear it back in Canada, and secondly, I seriously don’t think it would survive the trip home in checked luggage. Do not buy one of these unless you seriously think you will wear it.
- Japanese Kimono – Unless you are going to wear a kimono at home to relax or on the street, don’t invest in one while in Japan. Perhaps buy a magnet or take a photo wearing one instead.
- Chinese Brocade Dress – So, I have one of these. They took my measurements and made me one in less than 24 hours while I was in Xi’an. It sits in my closet as I sadly was victim to the “Heathrow Injection” (more on that in my blog post here. ) I don’t have regrets with this purchase as it didn’t break the bank, but am sad I can’t fit in the dress at the moment. It technically should have been added to the 18th bag of the challenge, but I have a chosen few clothes that have been set aside in the event that I lose the Heathrow Injection….
- German Dirndl and/Leiderhosen- Oktoberfest is such fun! And of course, when in Munich downing many a stein of beer, you want to look the part don’t you? Well, so did we and guess what!? My beautifully handmade dirndl and my husband’s hat and attire (he was strong enough to leave the leiderhosen on the shelf) sit in the closet. This is even more sad as a friend suggested to keep it for a costume party (sigh. My beautiful authentic dirndl I would wear religiously in the Bavarian capital has been relegated to a possible costume option.) So therefore, unless you will wear your beautiful Oktoberfest duds in your homeland or as a (sniff) costume, don’t drop the hundreds of euros on this lovely cultural outfit as beautiful as they are.
The Amazing Oktoberfest Experience clad in Dirndl and Braids
- Turkish Hat – So, these are incredibly cheap, but will gather dust in your hatbox. I bought one for my husband thinking how cool it was and how it was from Istanbul’s bazaar. He forgot he had it and sported it inside the house only for a few hours. Don’t let the price fool you. Leave it there for those who will wear it culturally.
- Arabian Pants – Now this is on the border. I bought a pair for myself and my husband and he wear his all the time at home when he is relaxing. Mine I wear when abroad and are a go-to when I travel. If you are not going to emulate MC Hammer regularly and don’t see yourself wearing these pants outside of Thailand or the Middle East, don’t buy them!
Tip 3: Be Aware of Souvenirs Promoting Seedy Activity
I was in Thailand and naively did an elephant ride. I was brainwashed to think that the animal was treated well since this specific location was endorsed by the tour company I went with. Now if this wasn’t bad enough, the worst was to follow. At the end of the ride, the local “driver” offered me fine jewellery made with “Jumbo.” I cringed that he shaved pieces of the beautiful elephant’s tusks to make ivory jewellery for tourists. I politely declined, and instead, bought a bag of veggies to feed Jumbo some healthy food.
Not only is that cruel to the elephant, but ivory is illegal in Canada and pretty much everywhere. If you buy into this trade and bring it home, not only would it be confiscated in customs, but you would be charged for bringing illegal substances into your country. All this because a local gave the same song and dance about how the purchase of this bracelet would help him buy food. Shame on him.
Take serious care when you purchase items abroad. You just may be uninformed and bring something back that will either damage an ecosystem, encourage cruelty to animals, support underground business practices, or is forbidden in your country of origin.
Other Items to Avoid:
- Suspected Sweatshop items- Avoid anything where you suspect it was made in Sweatshops or by children.
- Absinthe – Double Check your country’s regulations. This alcoholic beverage is illegal in Canada for example.
- Coral – You can get a very hefty fine for taking coral from the Great Barrier Reef and/of other famous snorkeling spots. This even includes coral pieces washed up on the beach.
- Pieces of Artifacts- Do not pick up rocks or other pieces of debris from historical sites as souvenirs. If you are caught you can face hefty penalties, including jail. The Acropolis comes to mind in Athens. Taking a piece of this landmark is not worth the consequences you will face with the Greek Police.
- Conch Shells – Only take a conch home if you buy it in a shop. NEVER take one from the beach or the sea! These conch are still ALIVE. Leave them alone to live their marine life in peace where it belongs! Plus the police on the beaches will charge you with mischief if you don’t put the conch back in the ocean.
- Paid Photos with Marine Life living Underwater – One thing that truly upsets me are people taking marine life such as starfish out of the water to take photos and selfies. What’s worse is when locals offer this service for a fee and give you a souvenir photo on a USB to take home. You can seriously hurt the animal or even kill it for taking it out of the water for a long period of time. Just don’t. If you need a photo with a starfish, get a ceramic one and pose with that.
- Cigars from Locals – Don’t buy cigars from locals trying to make some money. You don’t know how they were made, what is inside them, and if they are legally allowed back in your country. If you really want some authentic Cuban cigars for example, buy them properly at a licensed shop and declare them so you don’t get any unnecessary hassles or red flags on your profile at customs.
- Taxidermy- One thing that really upsets me is seeing taxidermy as souvenirs. When looking in some souvenir shops in Australia, kangaroo back-scratchers are on offer. How revolting! Various shops around the world also sell animal hide as rugs, accessories, handbags. And the worst? Trophy hunter animals with salespeople selling their prized “kills” for astronomical prices. Do the research before buying anything made of animal or supporting such barbarism. Think to yourself- will you really use that handbag made of snake skin? Will you really want to scratch your back with a kangaroo claw? Would you seriously want to display that innocent animal’s head in your rec room?
- Wood Products – Many countries won’t allow products through customs made of wood. Make sure the item is approved or has an accompanied certificate. For example, if you buy a didgeridoo in Australia, they will come with certification to prove the wood was treated and ready for deportation.
- Religious Tattoos – Have extreme caution when getting inked in a foreign country for many reasons. First, ensure it is a certified parlour that takes great care with the needles and cleanliness of their establishment. The last thing you need to bring home is a disease that keeps you from reentering your own country. Secondly, take great care in choosing your tattoo to ensure you fully understand what it says if in a foreign language and you are prepared to sport that expression or verse for the rest of your life. And thirdly, do ensure you know the significance of the tattoo to which you are getting on your body. Some are tribal and symbolic of specific religious dogmas. Make sure it is not a cultural insult for you as the visitor/tourist to sport such a sacred message on your body. These are permanent for the most part and takes serious pain tolerance to have removed if necessary. If you are not ready for such a commitment, get henna instead for the time being.
- Knock-Offs – Take caution when buying any knock-offs from street vendors! Especially avoid this in Venice! You will be greeted with a 10,000 Euro fine for supporting these illegal sellers making you wish you had paid the authentic label price in the first place.
- Food Stalls At Markets – With this one, not all the stalls are bad, but do observe the cleanliness. When we were in the Istanbul markets, we wanted to get some authentic Turkish Delight sweets. Well, we were offered a free sample and when my husband learned that there may be pistachios in his sample, he wanted to throw it away due to an intolerance to these nuts. Instead, the vendor told him to put it back on the tray! He wouldn’t let us throw it away, so hubby took it along with him to toss out later. Secondly, to make samples for us, he used a pair of rusted scissors to cut a piece instead of a clean kitchen knife. Just be aware before buying street food or market produce 🙂
Tip #4 Consider Life Evolution
When buying items from countries, consider the evolution of life. What I mean by this is choose things that will last should you truly love it or you are buying for someone else. If you are buying a gift for a child for example, buy something that you can explain the significance of when they are older. Don’t buy a piece of clothing they will wear in their toddler years and have no clue of its significance. You spent all that money on the baby kimono or souvenir t-shirt that they outgrew at age 4 and now has nothing to acknowledge your gift when they are 12.
When we knew that our niece was going to be born, we didn’t buy her t-shirts or toys when we were travelling overseas. Instead, we bought her functional items that she could enjoy when she was old enough. In Venice we bought her her own murano glass writing set with her own stamp to seal envelopes should she enjoy this ancient art. If she doesn’t use it, it is a beautiful set that she can understand was handmade in the beautiful city of Venice. She wouldn’t outgrow it and the significance would remain cultural and interesting.
We buy special items that will not outlive their purpose. Yes, I do collect magnets, but other things that we tend to buy are unique things like special books from the original source (Like the Sherlock Holmes books at 220 Baker Street, or buy Peter Rabbit from Hilltop Farm- Beatrix Potter’s home) or commemorative items that will only be available for a limited time and won’t fade in interest.
Tip #5 Consider Your Health
I know this sounds weird, but it is a serious consideration when buying things abroad. I have a weakness for plush toys. The sad reality with stuffies is that they a terrible dust collectors when left on a shelf. My husband is a severe asthmatic and allergic to dust. If these stuffies get too dusty around him, he could go into an Asthmatic fit and have an attack. Is my stuffy adoration worth this? Definitely not.
Same with trinkets on the shelf. Sanity is tested when having to move every souvenir figurine off the surface to dust and clean the area. These are life annoyances that creep up when back from the travel bubble of that destination. Think to yourself as you buy that porcelain figurine, miniature Eiffel Tower, or that Stuffed St Bernard you bought from Switzerland (guilty!) on whether you will remember to dust them regularly. Chances are you would put it back faster than you would pull out the money to buy it.
Tip #6 Which Papers to Keep?
Everyone, and I mean everyone tends to keep every ticket stub and brochure of an activity with the wonderfully creative idea to scrapbook once home. How many times does this happen? Rarely unless you pay someone or you are in the business. I said this to myself and you know what? I have 2 empty scrapbooks and 3 bags of souvenir papers sitting in a corner waiting to be made. Choose which stubs you really need to keep and throw out the rest. Not only will you have trouble finding any important documents within all the receipts and tickets, but you will have piles and piles of paper you just won’t end up displaying in these lovely books. Take lots of photos and get them printed off if you really need paper mementos.
Tip #7 Avoid Peer Pressure on Tours
My husband and I travelled on an organized tour of 30+ people. On tours travellers usually bond and then have a special tour shirt or hoodie made to remember the group and the amazing time spent. These shirts designed by the tour come in a variety of styles – tank tops, shirts, long sleeve tops, hoodies and more. If you are seriously not going to wear this shirt regularly with jeans back home, don’t be peer pressured into buying one to stay on the “good side” of the group. My husband and I didn’t buy the souvenir custom-designed apparel made for our tour of Europe in 2013 and to this day have no regrets with that decision.
So there you have our tips for keeping your life clear of unnecessary items from abroad. I still have a lot more to learn about keeping my wallet out of the equation when deciding on whether to buy something from overseas, but I do believe I have come a long way. I don’t buy those souvenirs that will just look tacky in a few years anymore. I think long and hard on what I truly love and what I will enjoy looking at over the years to remind me of my time spent in a destination. Bag #19 probably will have purchases from my travels within it, but I think of it as growth from my first travel days and learning more efficient and minimalist ways of documenting my travels through mementos and “things.” Now, off to clear space in my calendar to do my scrapbooks…..
Life in Wanderlust