We all buy souvenirs, a little something that somehow will make us remember that special place we visited and hopefully will take us back there in our minds. Some people like to buy magnets, mugs, snow balls, keychains… Everything you can imagine!
I also like to take a piece of every place I visit and I usually buy magnets to add to my collection. The reason behind it is because it is small, easy to find in any souvenir shop, cheap and I can simply display it on my fridge. But it wasn’t always like that! There has been times when I completely lost my mind and bought souvenirs that didn’t make any sense and are now laying around my house serving no purpose at all.
1. Backgammon (Athens, 2010)
I lived and studied in Athens for one semester in 2010 as part of the Erasmus exchange program. Among the chaos of a huge capital city during one of the biggest economical crises Greece has ever seen, I managed to enjoy living there for a couple of months and I save a lot of good memories from my time there.
I remember going to the park near my apartment and seeing old men playing backgammon, or tavli as they call it there. I didn’t know the game or how to play but I suddenly had an interest in learning something that was part of the greek culture. Luckily, I became friends with two Turkish girls that happened to know how to play it – tavla, as they call it in Turkey, is also part of their culture.
After they taught my friend Rita and I how to play backgammon, we became so addicted to it that we would play it in every coffee shop we could find. I remember going to the little island of Hydra for a day and ending up in a coffee shop playing backgammon while sipping in our frappés, of course.
So I thought that before leaving Greece it would be essential to buy a backgammon board for myself as a souvenir. But did I buy a cute little one? Absolutely not! I had to buy the biggest one in the shop – not sure if it was in fact the biggest one but it’s pretty big. So right now I have it on a shelf full of dust and I don’t even know how to play anymore.
2. Shisha miniature (Istanbul, 2010)
During my time in Greece, I got the chance to visit Istanbul. That was the very first time I was actually visiting a country outside of Europe, well, at least, part of it. So I was very excited to discover a place so different from everything I have ever seen, which at that age – I was 20 years old – honestly wasn’t much.
Looking back at it right now on top of my thirties and with much more traveling experience I can truly say that I knew nothing back then and I didn’t even bother to search about the country I was visiting beforehand. Anyway, I loved Istanbul and I keep so many memories from there: the smells, the colours, the noises, the cute cats all over the city acting like they own the place.
But I also learned that I should not wear a blouse with cleavage to visit a mosque and that the shop sellers at Grand Bazaar get upset if you bargain for something but then decide not to buy it. Useful lessons for my next trips. What I also didn’t know back in 2010 was that buying a miniature shisha would be completely useless.
3. Traditional Hungarian blouse (Budapest, 2014)
I was truly excited about visiting Budapest in the Summer of 2014. The first time I was there I was still in high school and I got the chance to be in an exchange student program and stay with a host family. I remember that in 2006 I actually got to experience the Hungarian traditions from the dance to the food, music, language.
So when I went back there in 2014 I could not hold myself and I bought a traditional Hungarian blouse that rests quietly on the bottom of my drawer.
4. Good Morning Vietnam top (Ho Chi Minh, 2014)
One of my favourite countries in the world is definitely Vietnam. I can go there a thousand times and still be amazed by their culture, history, food, beautiful landscape. So every time I go to Vietnam I get a little too excited with the souvenirs and I literally want to buy everything. Some things are nicer than others and definitely this “Good Morning Vietnam” cliche top that doesn’t even fit me properly wasn’t a good idea. Oh, the drama of buying clothes in Asia! A size XXL in Asia would be equivalent of an XXS in Europe.
5. Traditional Vietnamese hat (Ho Chi Minh, 2014)
This one I must say that I don’t regret buying at all. It was worth it for the pictures. But it’s not an easy souvenir to carry in a suitcase and for that reason it’s not in the best condition nowadays. Anyway, for one day in 2014 I got to mingle pretty well in the streets of Saigon and I almost felt like a local.
6. Luwak coffee (Ho Chi Minh, 2014)
Another best seller from Southeast Asia is the luwak coffee also know as the most expensive, rare and tastiest coffee in the world. I had no idea about this eccentric coffee until I visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014. Basically, this coffee is made of partially digested coffee beans, which were eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet, which is called luwak in Indonesia . The coffee beans are fermented as they pass through a civet’s intestines, and after being defecated with other fecal matter, they are collected.
I like coffee but I wouldn’t define myself as an expert. When I first heard about this coffee I got intrigued and as a curious person I wanted to try. So in one of my strolls at Ben Thanh Market – one of my favourite places in the city – I saw a stall that had luwak coffee and I bought a small bag and a little accessory to make the coffee. I don’t remember how much it was but I guess it was extremely expensive otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it.
I tried the luwak coffee and it was good. The smell is really strong but it tastes great. About a year later I got to visit a farm in Bali where they actually produce this type of coffee. It was heartbreaking to see the poor luwaks living in cages and being forced to eat coffee beans to produce more coffee. After that experience I searched more about these practices online and I regretted having bought that small bag of luwak coffee in 2014 and visiting the farm in 2015 in Bali.
7. Pink wig (Shanghai, 2015)
This is not a typical souvenir because you can buy a wig anywhere in the world but I had so much fun buying it in an underground market and wearing it in Shanghai that I will always associate my pink wig with that city. If you want to buy anything that is fake, China is the place to go. I’m not a big fan of buying fake branded stuff just for the sake of showing off. If I can’t afford a Chanel bag I would rather not having it. But there had been times that I got carried away by the perfectionism of their fake stuff that almost look like original.
I remember that the lady who sold me the wig didn’t know much english but she was nice and funny. In my poor attempt to bargain the price I told her I could be her wig model for one hour in order to attract more clients and she would sell me the wig for a lower price. She didn’t like that idea and I couldn’t leave without the wig so I had to pay the $20 anyway.
8. El mate (Buenos Aires, 2015)
You can call it mate, maté, chimarrão, cimarrón… Whatever you want to call it. I call it mate because I got to try it for the first time in Argentina but it is a traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink. It is made by soaking dried leaves of the yerba mate plant in hot water and is served with a metal straw in a container typically made from calabash gourd.
It is the national beverage of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay and is also consumed in the some parts of Bolivia, Southern Chile, Southern Brazil, Syria and Lebanon, where it was brought from Argentina by immigrants. If you see someone drinking mate, there are very high chances that this person is from South America.
When I visited Buenos Aires in 2015, thanks to my friend Sofia, I got the chance to stay with an Argentinian family, which I think it’s a great opportunity to really get into the culture and see how people live. As tourists, we usually don’t get to really experience the place and we normally have a curated experience specially tailored for tourists. So this time was different and I got a real taste of the Argentinian way of living. That includes Sunday’s asado – Give me that chimichurri, babe! -, tons of dulce de leche for breakfast, unforgettable chocotortas, milanesas in every corner and, of course, mate!
Obviously I couldn’t leave Argentina without buying my own mate and a little bag of yerba mate which I already threw away because it was expired. The problem is that I can’t seem to have the skills to prepare it so my dream of being a cool mate drinker has died.
9. Peruvian starter kit (Cuzco, 2015)
Peru definitely takes the prize of the place I went crazier about souvenirs. I literally wanted to buy the whole country and put it inside my suitcase. I totally lost my mind in Cuzco and wanted to become a Peruvian from head to toe. So I got a poncho made from alpaca wool, a beanie, a wallet, a bag and an hair scrunchy. All with alpacas all over it and with traditional Peruvian patterns. I was so determined to look like a Peruvian that I was wearing the poncho and the beanie under the sun and the heat of Spring.
But the worst part was actually having to pack all of my souvenirs in a suitcase that was suppose to be for a 15 days trip – I visited Argentina, Peru and Brazil in the same trip – and was already pretty full. Believe me, the poncho weights like 3kg! Anyway, it all made it back home just to be laying around inside my closet. It’s just not the same to wear the poncho outside of Peru.
10. Bunny ears (Tokyo, 2016)
Ever since I heard about maid cafés I wanted to visit one. Something I didn’t fully understand – like the Japanese culture in general – but I wanted to experience that. In 2016, I got the chance to be in Tokyo and I was in Akihabara neighbourhood, a place famous for video games, anime, manga, electronics and computer-related goods.
There are also a lot maid cafés in the area so I just randomly picked one and entered. I think that my experience in a maid café deserves a whole post about it so I will just say that I paid $30 for a drink/dessert, a picture with the waitresses, these bunny ears and to feel like humankind is weird and scary. To be continued…