It’s really starting to feel like Spring in the New England these days, and with the changing weather comes an innate urge to take part in the annual ritual of Spring Cleaning. As I opened a number of long-forgotten drawers, I realized that I owned a lot (like, a lot) of souvenirs. While some ignited fond memories, many tchotchkes and novelty shirts just had me shaking my head at the purchasing decisions my past self made. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with goofy souvenirs if they make you happy, but in the grand scheme of things there are certainly some better options if you care to bring home thoughtful and ethical souvenirs.
These are what I consider to be the worst offenders in terms of thoughtfulness. Common examples include generic keychains, drinkware, and lightweight clothes (often found in airport gift shops and corner stores). Often times these are significantly overpriced and purchased as an afterthought, naturally settling in the bottom of drawers in due time.
Why are these specifically in the “Bad” category? They are often manufactured in countries where labor is criminally underpaid and imported simply to give tourists an opportunity to purchase a shallow and fleeting sense of cultural appreciation.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Bad” souvenirs would certainly include destructive harvesting of natural resources to take home as novelties or locally crafted items that perpetuate horrific acts (eg. modern ivory). Additionally, it goes without saying but the destruction of any natural or man-made objects for the sole purpose of collecting is a thoughtless, disrespectful, and often illegal behavior. So don’t do it!
Souvenirs I consider a step up from the above category include the aforementioned tchotchkes, but those highlighting and supporting local culture. For instance, purchasing a t-shirt supporting Haleakalā National Park does far more to support Maui than a generic “Maui” t-shirt from a mall kiosk.
Additionally, a better approach towards natural objects would be taking back an appropriate (ie. renewable and not culturally protected) souvenir. Personally, a small pebble or seashell is an aesthetically pleasing and free souvenir to keep on my desk or give as a gift. It is important, however, to understand the cultural views towards doing something like this! In Hawaii, they warn tourists that taking lava from the islands is bad luck, and shouldn’t be done. If you decide to go down the path of “well it’s not illegal”, please be confident that you will still treat the item with respect in the distant future. I will admit, I am guilty of taking a few small pieces of Hawaiian lava when I was younger, but now I’m trying to get them in the hands of thoughtful travelers who will appreciate the unique and authentic souvenirs!
To be fair, I would also include small pieces of man-made structures that have already fallen off. I know that this could be considered controversial to some, but as long as no laws are being broken in the actual collection, I think a pinhead-sized piece of the Great Wall of China (as an example, I don’t actually have a piece of the Great Wall) would be better spent appreciated on display than walked on and forgotten.
I would consider these souvenirs to be locally handcrafted items, objects directly tied to charitable organizations that benefit the area, and very small quantities of renewable and unprotected natural objects. I think that while it’s walking a fine line, keeping a small piece of the world to be personally revered ultimately results in a net gain of positivity, cultural appreciation, and thoughtfulness.
This category is also where I would start to include local art and antiquities, purchased by authorized and reputable sellers. One of my favorite souvenirs is from Puerto Rico: I purchased a small silkscreen print by local artist that came with a short artist bio and history of silkscreen art in San Juan. The image depicts one of my favorite streets from the visit, so while it supported local artists, it also elicits a vibrant memory from the visit.
This category varies greatly by location, so please do region-specific research beforehand! I apologize on ending this with a bit of a cliffhanger, but given the above categories, here’s a pretty short-and-sweet breakdown:
Locally-produced goods where you know what your money is supporting. Art and craft goods are particularly strong choices as they embody microcosms of local culture.
Appropriate samples of natural features that you associate with particularly strong memories. A pinch of sand from the first time you saw the ocean or a pebble from your first trip to the Grand Canyon will take you back to those fond memories time and time again.
Photos! The most obvious and “safe” souvenir to take back is simply a snapshot. Don’t just take photos for social media, though. There are a lot of fun Polaroid-style cameras that can print some great pictures right there in the moment! Whenever I travel, I like to take pictures of everything but safe the truly breathtaking moments for my Instax camera. Even though I share so much on my Instagram, you haven’t seen the best shots (yet)!
I hope these suggestions help you think more critically about what you take home from vacation. Having pieces of the world around me is a great way to get into a creative, inspired, and grounded headspace when facing a challenging or stressful day. When all is said and done, however, you don’t need to take anything home with you! Sometimes all you need is to wander and ponder.