The stories behind our souvenirs

I’ve never been one for buying expensive souvenirs from our travels. We travel with backpacks and I tend to be fairly ruthless when it comes to packing; lighter packs make for a more comfortable trip. My wife has no doubt lost count of the number of times I’ve asked “Do you really need to take that?” while sorting out what to pack.

I’m even worse when it comes to buying stuff while away from home. And yet the things we do bring back can sometimes take on an added significance that far outweighs the effort or expense involved in buying them.

Mongolian postcard


This postcard bought in Ulan Bator railway station cost us a dollar, yet the Trans-Siberian memories attached to it, especially of the conversation with the man who sold it to us, have kept us smiling for almost 20 years.

On a trip to a 99 yen store in Tokyo to buy a late-night chocolate fix I was inexplicably tempted to buy the sign below. The Japanese katakana characters spell out the word “Ramen” and the sign would probably be used by an outdoor vendor, who would hang it on his stall to attract customers to his large pot of steaming hot soup – it also sits very comfortably in our kitchen.

Japanese ramen sign

I’m sure everyone has at least once bought and packed a souvenir only to find when you get home that the item didn’t survive the journey in one piece. Fixing up the damage works better with some gifts than others; the cracks in this piece of ancient Nazca pottery add to its authentically fake appeal.

Peruvian pot

While the vast majority of mementos evoke happy thoughts, some will do the opposite, through no fault of their own. While a souvenir stands still in time, the world from which it has been taken moves on and in the case of these Syrian olive soaps, collapses in a tragic mess.

Syrian soaps

We bought these in the central market in Aleppo in 2009, little knowing that the market itself would be largely destroyed only a few years later. I don’t know the fate of the noria wheels of Hama or the citadel in Aleppo depicted by the soaps; I worry more for the fate of the warm, cheerful man from whom we bought them.

We try to buy something small for each of our trips, although I’m never comfortable with the thought of adding yet more clutter to our house. Sometimes, as with the gifts above, they serve far more of a role than merely adorning our walls and shelves. I must try to remember that when I’m next dragging my wife away from a foreign market stall.

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Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to “The stories behind our souvenirs”

  1. Absolutely love seeing this. After a year on the road and also carrying only backpacks, much of what we returned with were memories and pictures. But the few items we have are so special. Like the tiny ganesh bought in bali,or the spice jars bought at a road side market in Thailand or the beaded necklace that tells our guides family history that he gave us in Borneo. Thank you for sharing yours!!!!

    January 13, 2014 at 4:23 pm
  2. Spot on! While it’s nice having a memento of the places you’ve traveled to, it’s the memories that are the souvenirs; you can’t put a price on that. One thing that I do as well is to cherish the maps and little trinkets I pick up while abroad. After all, I see them as being the ultimate reminder of where you were and the things you did.

    January 22, 2014 at 6:42 pm
  3. A little keep sake here and there is a great way to remember the memories by, just like photographs.. each one will tell a story of its own

    February 12, 2014 at 11:07 am