Show me a traveler and I will show you a person who secretly loves their souvenirs. Weather travel is long-term or short-term, don’t we cherish getting in that curiosity shop and looking around wonder-eyed? Yes, we do get pictures, more than ever, and upload them everywhere possible. Travels are remembered through pictures. But we buy souvenirs when we crave for more than a 2 dimensional memory. Bringing back a piece of the place in the form of something tangible. Souvenirs are tiny little pieces of geography, history and sometimes vanity, strewn around in the house, transporting us instantly to the place that was and the memories that were. Get a glimpse of some of the most unique, intricate and awesome souvenirs from around the world. Read why they were bought and what made them special. Plus a few quick tips and insights on the destinations.
In the comments section, let me know what is a famous, souvenir-worthy thing from your place and I shall make a quick note of it.
Archipelago of San Blas
While standing at the tip of the Indian Peninsula, a conch shell, just like this one, washed up to my feet. It was huge, heavy and felt like it had thousands of years of stories written in water all over. I lugged it around with me for a few weeks. It was a travel shoot and I wanted to travel light. The conch shell smelled really awful. It was almost like a dead-fish market inside it. My clothes started stinking, and I felt like I never showered (which was only true sometimes). I left it in one of the hotel rooms. I regret it now. Especially, the lines of the crew member standing next to me still haunts me, he had said, “The ocean has given this to you, keep it”.
Years later, while waiting for a jetty to visit one of the 400ish islands at the archipelago of San Blas, in Panama, I spotted a vendor who was selling giant conch shells for a $1 each. This one looked like the one I had abandoned back in India. I bought it and have it with me since. If you press your ears to it, you can hear the ocean’s waves.
Traditional Dutch Wooden shoes or Clogs (Klompen) from Amsterdam
Clogs are as ubiquitous in Amsterdam as is cheese. But unlike cheese, these shoes are available in ceramic, wood, wearable soft slippers and fabric; in every possible color you can imagine, and size ranging between a third of your pinky finger to the size of a sofa. Amsterdam is close to my heart, for it was my first country that I visited outside of my native country.
This happened by a super stroke of luck. After sitting in the flight for 3 hours and the aircraft not moving forward an inch, we were told that the flight would depart tomorrow evening. We were handed an overnight kit, overnight accommodation, eat-and-drink-all-you-can-coupon and one day visa – the most precious ! I and the love of my life ran wild in the windy, cold, happening Amsterdam Centraal. For me, it is and forever will be, a night & a city to remember. These three pairs of cutesies will ensure that I keep the wonderful memories of Amsterdam in my heart.
An umbrella from Burma
I and Sandar know each other for over seven years now. Acquainting ourselves in El Salvador, saying farewells; then our paths crossing again in Costa Rica, but saying good bye again; lastly serendipitously meeting again in Panama. Each time she has given me something to remember her buy.
A Burmese by birth, she also gave me straw chappals (footwear), which I loved so much that I murdered them by over-wearing. She gave this souvenir umbrella to me when she came back to Panama after a long stay in Burma. This umbrella is well made with a metal ring to hold the paper and wood shavings when the umbrella is closed. The hand painting is essentially Burmese. The colors have stayed unfazed. I hope, so remains my acquaintance with Sandar. Burma is more than paddy fields and elephants. Indulge in some indigenous cuisine and hire a bicycle to checkout the divine landscape up, close and personal.
Bottles and Tequila shot glasses from Antigua
Guatemala is a contemporary paradise. There is plenty if you wish to take something back home. From handwoven fabric to Jade, coffee, hats and what not. But doesn’t the eye look for something catchy that is found just ‘here’ and no where else, something that will (hopefully) outlive us, be there for us at least in our forever?
That is when a dozen glasses and a bottle was bought. Only two glasses remain now. The rest have broken somewhere while all the packing and unpacking was being done, or slipped from the hand and crashed on the floor. Guatemala deserves at least a month to be explored. If you have more time to spare, I would recommend it as the best place to learn Spanish and embrace mother nature. Lakes, volcanoes, some of which are active still; hikes, coffee plantations, delicious food that will make you put on some serious weight, and the weather divine!
You would not want to leave Guatemala ever. You have been warned.
Coco Bolo Toucan from Panama
Gap year or looking for a place to go have fun with friends, Panama will win your heart. With the two coasts accesible in a matter of 2 hours (in a car, driving within speed limit), tens of National Parks with well-maintained trails for hike, colorful birds and exotic animals, plenty of diving spots, supermarkets that can sell everything you would possible need, mangroves, yachts.
Panama has a rich offering for hand crafted souvenirs made out of a special red wood called Coco Bolo. Toucan, the bird with a giant beak, is endemic to this region. This very costly souvenir has no joints and has been crafted from a single piece of wood. Every time I look at it, if feels like the Toucan will fly away now.
Murano glass from Italy
Dazzling to say the least, what all can be made out of glass. Long stems of flowers in glass. Hmmn. Not a very well thought souvenir, though. It has now broken into multiple pieces. The instant fix glue doesn’t work on this sort of glass. But the three stems are together still. It is a day-long tour at the island that is away from the main island of Venice, where you can buy all the glass you want and take a tour of the glass factory as well. This was a purchase, haggling for which almost made us miss our train. The colors are still as bright and sparkling as they were when bought. It glows magic when sunlight touches it, almost as if blooming and coming to life. Venice is an experience, not a destination. Looking back, I would have been just fine not having any souvenir from there. It is good to have these spectacular flowers though. It does help in transporting faster to the magic of waves, water, bridges, gondolas, Venetian cafes, serenading music and masterpiece Venetian windows.
Shells from Monterrico
Not all souvenirs are bought. Some are handpicked, literally.
As I walked on the volcanic ash of the beach in Monterrico, Guatemala, I realised that the love of my life was not next to me. I turned around to see him. He is busy picking up these shells from the dark grey-black volcanic sand. We were drunk on happiness and beer, feeling the sand beneath our toes and watching massive cargo ships pass at a distance in the Pacific Ocean. We had an old edition of a travel guide that did not mention a newly constructed bridge to reach this place. We actually went through a more adventurous way of reaching Monterrico – on a jetty !
Guatemala is called the city of eternal spring. There are no ceiling fans or air conditioners in most of the houses. When it would come to say goodbye, you will leave a piece of your heart behind in to this place.
Or the Matryoksha dolls are a series of dolls that are detachable in the middle. One doll is placed inside the other in the order of decrease in size. This souvenir was given to me when I was dating, and he went to Russia. They are also called Babushka dolls. The designs can be as elaborate or as simple. The price of these dolls is directly proportional to the decoration on the dolls. They usually follow a theme, but not necessarily. The first doll was made just a 150 years ago and now it is almost synonymous to Russia. Think Russia, think lots of snow, lots of coffee and Vodka.
Pickup truck from Colombia
This is as real, colorful, cute and intricate as a souvenir can get. The honest details with which the truck has been made, purely out of baked mud, is sheer craftsmanship. Form bananas, to chicken, suitcases, boxes and cartons, all tied together to latch on the top of a car or truck is a scene that is a norm. Lets call them Juancito and Juanita, sitting on top of the truck. They are coming back from the main city in Colombia, heading back to the faraway village they live in. They are hitchhiking with Antonio and Maria, who happily are giving them a ride as they are going the same way. You can’t help but smile when you turn this piece of Colombia in your hand and appreciate the reality it depicts.
Simply adorable !
Colombia is loaded with beautiful vistas, virgin forest and beaches that are manicured Eden. Learn Spanish and pack your bags to spend your gap year here. Go diving, fishing, snorkelling, whale watching, turtle hatching and loading up on ceviches.
Silver mug from Thailand
Tranquil river, awesome food, and pretty crazy traffic. The numerous temples will keep you busy most of the day. Dress conservative at the religious places or be ready to get in long queues to loan a warp-around for men or women to cover legs and bare arms. This mug goes in the collection of coffee mugs that I am totally into. This is not my routinely used item at all. Heavy, made of metal, it has beautiful scenery of jungles of Thailand, elephants and temples engraved on it. Notice the intricate handle that is actually an elephant’s trunk and long flapping ears.
Smooching piggys from El Salvador
Just to get the record straight, no, El Salvador is not famous for wooden piggys who smooch. Neither the pigs of El Salvador are so much into public display of affection. This is one of the tackiest souvenirs that I have and I am proud of it. These two Oh! so much in love piggys, are connected with an elastic. If you pull the two apart, they jiggle close, back in the embrace again. This was an impulse street purchase while dining out at a restaurant one evening. Clearly etched is the memory of me doubling up with laughter looking at the trembling, shaking piggys coming closer and being in an embrace forever, making the knock-knock noise on the table with the wood they are made of ! It must have been the wine. Or the cute piggys, I can’t tell now.
Stone miniatures from Rome
These palm sized replicas of Saint Peters Church in Vatican and Colosseum in Rome are heavy as a rock would be. They are made of stone. They have chipped and damaged over the years, and a lot of instant glue keeps it all together. This was not one of the wisest souvenirs as it increased the weight of the rucksack by a kilo ! But all worth it now as they rest in the souvenir shelf in all the Roman glory. Italy deserves at least two weeks because of the sheer diversity of regions that can be visited, explored and walked around. Not to mention, some of the most delicious food you will have in your life time.
Elephant miniatures from Sri Lanka
Elephants, The Buddha, greenery, spices, waterfall, coconuts and coasts – Sri Lanka is tourists playground all packed in a tiny island. This was a lover’s gift, a souvenir during courtship. I has admired the hand painted wooden elephants. Something was odd. Only to discover years later that the ivory tusks of the pachyderm were meticulously stuck behind the wooden trunk. Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka. There is in fact an elephant orphanage in Kandy.
Radha and Krishna from India
The most beautiful mythological love story in India. Krishna can charm any one he sets his eyes on, but he is charmed by the one and only, Radha. This idol used to have a fiber casing around it, which of course broke. The peacock feather that Krishna sports on his head is also disheveled now. The golden glow that was found in jewelry is gradually fading away. This was given to me by Ambuj, a colleague in Mumbai office as a farewell gift just before I was heading out for Ecuador. While giving this to me, he had said, ‘May you find love and may it stay forever with you.’ It is the beauty of the idols or the memories attached, that is when I had fallen in love and have kept this with me since.
Venetian Mask from Venice
What else? So cliché! How typical ! I know.
Aren’t they the most fabulous? Peeking from shops, mounted on walls, around plazas, on the bridges that connect the tiny fragmented city floating on water, you will encounter a Venetian mask sooner than you think. Well, the Venetian windows are popular too, but I can’t get a window as a souvenir, right? Or the hot shirtless Italian men lifting sacks of flour from gondolas. Well…well, let us not get ahead of ourselves.
If Italy is love, Venice is a poem! It transforms into a completely different creature at night, serenading its admirers with water lapping its curbs, wine and smell of intoxicating Italian pizzas and pastas. The mask has a history that dates back a thousand years. There was also a period when the masks were banned under the Austrian rule in Venice. The carnival that happens annually around Easter also turns into a competition of the most beautiful mask. I wanted something non-elaborate, minimalist yet beautiful. I want to break into a song every time my eyes fall on this one.
Chunga Palm bowl from Panama
Panama is many worlds bound together. With a huge indigenous population, there are many artisans who are sponsored by the government to make intricate indigenous products. These artifacts are then bought to the city to be displayed at souvenir shops, airports, and other tourist destinations. These baskets sometimes take months, even years to complete.
The patterns signify seasons, with subtle cultural references, like region and craftsmen’s tribe. The finesse with which this bowl was made is what took my breath away. This specific piece is artfully crafted by women of the Embera and Wounaan tribes of Panama’s Darien jungle. These famous pots, baskets and medallions are made using fibers of the Chunga palm. They have been split, bleached in the sun, and dyed by hand with natural plant extracts. The designs are geometric, called ‘cultura’, and are influenced by the rainforest’s diverse flora and fauna.
Brass and copper face mask from Puri, Orissa in India
This is where I had found wanderlust. It was in full force during a travel shoot that took me around India for three whole months. This in a way changed the course of my life and gave me courage to jump off one boat and be mid air for a while before I landed on another. There is always one more destination, one more circuit, one more skill, one more adventure that awaits.
This mask made of brass and copper captivated me with the expressions. This is not something that pertains to this region, but still I picked it up as a souvenir. Puri is also known for its handlooms, which I had bought in plenty to give them away. The best thing that you can pick up here is a Sari, a traditional Indian wear.
Journal from Varadero, Cuba
Most likely you will go to Varadero after you are done with Havana. The typical beach town is a late riser and early to bed kind of place. Of course some quaint places stay open till 11 pm, but they are very few. With a slight Atlantic chill on the beach, there is not much to do here except lounge whenever there is a sneak peek of sun. However, the luxury hotels that are there in plenty are hardcore party places. There is music, drinking and lots of staying up late till the wee hours in the morning. The charm of Varadero lies outside, the quaintness and expanse. Just a few hours’ drive from Havana, hire a Chevy from the 50s that matches what you are wearing that day and arrive in Varadero with a swag.
After much scrutiny, this journal was bought on a roadside cart with handmade jewelry, wood artifacts, handwoven fabric, cards and other generic touristy souvenir stuff that you can find mostly everywhere. The ink is fading, I can see ‘Varadero’ that was written on it, almost gone. The cover is soft wood, probably coconut shell. The handmade paper inside is still fresh and unused. I have scribbled nothing in it so far and I don’t intend to either. The half-of-a-palm sized journal will get scribbled on probably to take notes, when I visit Cuba again, someday!
Coin Purse from El Salvador
The hand painted tiny coin purse is the cutest thing that would come with personalized message scribbled on it. El Salvador sits on a chain of volcanoes. Its lush green forests and craters make for a refreshing affair.
The roads in El Salvador are extraordinarily well maintained. However, stay with in the speed limit if you choose to drive as speed limits are strictly kept under control with heavy fines on rules’ violation. This was gifted by a family who also personalized the gift with my name on the back. Who wants to complain of the misspelt surname when the purse is so super cute. It comes with two compartments (smiley face) !
Enquire about homestays near the crater of volcanoes. After a hike on the weekend you can choose to stay over, barbecue and hear the deafening chirps and croaks.
Macaw from Honduras
This colorful Macaw (Scarlet Guara) is almost about to break into a word, something that it repeats too often. Made well three sides, this riot of colors, is the National Bird of Honduras is ubiquitous wherever souvenirs can be bought. From key chains to refrigerator magnets, this is what you will end up picking up most likely. The vast expanse of Honduras turns magnificent during rains, with clouds dimming everything in sight. Stunning you from nowhere, you would see the Macaw in the deep forests, while hiking.
Honduras is a massive country landscape wise. It is interesting to explore the country if you rent a car. There is a massive coastline with beautiful beaches and unexplored coves. It is also a very popular diving spot.
Mitad del Mundo Liquor from Ecuador
This is a liquor bottle, is a not-to-scale replica of the monument that is in Ecuador. The Middle of the Earth monument, called Mitad Del Mundo is built on the Equator in a small town a few hours away from Quito. On top of the trapezoidal monument sits a globe. This is a miniature size bottle, however much larger bottles were available. Mitad del Mundo, in Quito is a popular destination for a photo op with one leg on the northern hemisphere and one on the southern hemisphere. There is a planetarium that projects the stars as you can see from that exact location. There is a replica of the village that would have been hundreds of years ago. There are Llamas of you like to get a picture clicked with it.
Enter any shop and ask to get your passport stamped in the middle for your visit to the center of the Earth. It is free !
Curiosity boxes from Havana, Cuba and everywhere else
I was hoping to be able visit Cuba as if my life depended on it. Cuba is surreal with its colours. The shades of blue of the Caribbean coast add to the charm many fold. This wooden-box was bought from Havana with the purpose of ‘let us buy a souvenir from Cuba’, beside the Cuban cigars of course. It is super sturdy and well crafted. I do not keep anything inside it as yet. It goes with my tiny collection of ‘boxes that are so small and pretty, nothing fits inside it’.
There is much that can be done in Havana. Go on a beverage trail in the land of Mojitos, walk around the coast and hire a tricycle to be shown around. Of course, nothing beats a Chevy from the 50’s. As Cuba is opening more and more to tourism, it is only to be seen in sometime if the old-world charm stays or there would be a drastic change in the fabric of the country. So, the time to visit is NOW ! Oh, by the way, the curiosity vendor engraves anything you would like him to, on this box, right in front of you. Get engraved you name, or the name of the person you are gifting it to, the date, or a quote, or just Cuba Libre. If you shell out some money, he can sketch Che on the box for you !
This little box has been handcrafted in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Wood on the interior and intricate designs of gods, demons, birds and other culturally prominent Mayan figures grace the exterior. The market is busy and the main church is worth a visit. Bargain enough if you are not a local and you are bound to get some great things for throwaway prices.
Panahachel is far from the madding crowd of Guatemala City. In a matter of two kilometers, the edge of the cliff descends into a beach, which is actually a lake. There are wooden extensions that take you over the lake for few meters, coffee shops and restaurants, home stays and fresh bananas. There are tiny corner shops that have handmade Guatemalan artifacts for sale. Negotiate well and buy some trinkets from here. The drive takes around three hours one-way from the city, so stay here for the weekend, you would not regret it. The descending clouds will drift your worries away. Panahachel tends to get cold, so do carry woolens when you come here. This tiny box, with a gem over it, used to be brighter when I bought it. This is not rust, but it has gone black around the wires. The antique look that this super tiny box is acquiring has a lovely charm to it.
Cocoa (chocolate) pod from Ecuador
This souvenir made the most sense. The single origin dark chocolate is to die for. Most of the leading chocolate manufacturers around the world procure their cacao from Ecuador. To see a cacao plantation, and to follow a roster’s trail is art in itself. This is a cacao pod. In it lay the chocolate seeds that are extracted through a finely crafted process. This is how exactly a pod looks on the trees. the only difference is that it is a little varnished, hence that extra shine.
Moon God from Dominican Republic
This was a gift by a colleague who travelled to Dominican Republic. Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans from Latin America have had highly evolved literature and societies thousands of years ago. Their faith was also into numerous gods, beliefs, seasons and natural powers like the rain, sun, trees etc. This is the idol of Moon God Luna.
Elephant from El Salvador
I know that sounds like an unlikely combination. But this was a gift form Joaquin, and his wife Anita as a farewell present while leaving El Salvador. They said they knew that Elephants are worshipped in India. I smiled, not getting into the details. This is an exquisite gift to say the least. The embellishments and the royal golden brown tinge gives this gift a very precious feel. The trunk and the tusks are broken. That is a hazard if you keep moving. Damage to all that is fragile. Can you spot the cracks?
Ganesh from New Delhi
Kathak is a classical dance in India. When I was leaving for Africa, my dance teacher handed this over to me. I want to keep it with me forever. Ganesh is the god of beginnings according to Hindu mythology. This tiny souvenir reminds me of the new skill that I learnt and how she bent an moulded and athlete into a dancer. New Delhi is maddening, with traffic, chaos, conglomerates, sprawling malls, honking cars and under construction bridges. In this chaos unleashed, this act of teaching a new think to my body gave me symmetry, grace, peace and the much needed rhythm in life.
Hand thrown coffee mug from Egg Harbor Cafe
This is such a laid back town that I fall in love even more, after returning from the other Geneva. An hour long train ride away from Chicago, Geneva is a small community of elderly. I got in one of the most awesome breakfast and dinner places here. Delicious huge servings with some of the best coffee, this place had me singing and dancing. The mugs were temptingly available in every single quirky shade. Geneva has a quite day to offer with a few spas and restaurants that mostly shut by 3 pm. It is essentially community with bakeries, gift shops that date back many decades. This cafe was a serendipitous find while walking the streets of Geneva and greeting the passersby.
Copper and brass lota (tumbler) from Bukhara
My birthday celebration won me this copper and brass mix small tumbler. Bukhara is a nationwide famous restaurant located in New Delhi. They do not take reservations on the phone and attend first-come first-serve basis. Hence, it is almost always waiting for a while. But the lentil soup prepared overnight is worth the wait. This little souvenir will also be a reminder of their generosity considering it was my birthday. They put an extra table for two for a lovely, memorable dinner. This birthday was also a milestone for me, so all the more precious.
Coffee Mug from Colombia
Colombian coffee is the best in the world. I repeat. Colombian coffee is the best in the world. I have had coffee from all over Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. The aroma of most of the Colombian coffee, is intoxicating to say the least. Weather it is a small coffee grower or big Pan-American brand, the first sip of the beverage is the most refreshing thing you will have today. Most of the Latin American countries produce their own coffee and are very proud of it. The right altitude and weather are as critical to the aroma and flavour as is the roast. Like some believe, coffee roasting is an art in itself. This ceramic mug with a leather holder was an airport purchase. I have savoured every drop of the magic potion I have had from Colombia. I also think there should be coffee flavoured room fresheners, perfumes, besides the soaps, cakes and chocolates.
I don’t even smoke. I just got carried away with the whole imagery of hand-rolled, authentic Cuban cigar. Well, to confess, it is romantic to see those year’s old buildings where leaves are brought and sorted. The tobacco in cardboard boxes, the huge gathering of men and women in a room, heads down, rolling one cigar after another. Same image in every room of this dilapidated building. There are many brands of which the most popular ones are Romeo & Juliet, Partagas and Cubanita. Do remember to take a cigar cutter to cut the cigars after you have smoked some and want to keep the rest for later.
Not many of these will stay forever. They will break, fade and deteriorate, like pictures used to once upon a time. Incidents get muddled up and dates get all confusing. ‘Was the christmas of 2008 in here or somewhere else…’, one would wonder.
However, what we always remember is how the place made us feel and what it evoked from us as an individual.
Happy Travels !