Did a trip even happen if you come back with no souvenirs?

I haven’t posted in three weeks, so you might be wondering if I gave up already. Don’t worry, I didn’t. I spent the holidays in Mexico and decided to take a proper break, including from blogging. However, while on vacation, I did NOT take a break from my year of nothing. In fact, avoiding buying anything in Mexico presented my first real challenge. I had to go nearly three weeks in Mexico without buying a single souvenir!

Everywhere I went on my trip, handmade crafts and small artworks beckoned to me. In San Miguel de Allende, there were painted sacred heart ornaments that just NEEDED to be on my Christmas tree. In Mexico City, it was the artisan homewares and Frida Kahlo-style earrings at the Saturday bazaar in San Angel that had my heart aflutter. In the Yucatan, Mayan-style wood carvings and clay wares called to me – sometimes literally since hawkers followed us around everywhere with these super-annoying-but-sort-of-grow-on-you-over-time(?) Jaguar whistles. (You can see/hear a silly video of someone with a Jaguar whistle here.)

Resisting my urge for at least some small handcrafted trinket or artisan nicknack was difficult because I am a true souvenir person. I love having some small thing from everywhere I travel: an elephant tea set from Thailand, nesting dolls from Russia, painted mirrors from Peru, a figurine hórreo-style granary from Galicia in Spain, a miniature house ornament from Colombia, an incense burner from Oman, a wooden giraffe from Tanzania, painted plates from Jerusalem and Morocco (not to mention the full set of dishes I managed to bring back from Morocco in my backpack) and bud vases from China – to name just a few, and I really mean just a few because I would be embarrassed to catalogue the full set of souvenir nicknacks in my home. I have something (really multiple things) from everywhere I have been.

So not buying anything in Mexico was a big deal. It was such a big deal that I thought about relaxing my no-new-nothing rule to allow myself, say, one souvenir per trip. It felt like I needed at least that one souvenir, like if I didn’t get some token from my trip I might somehow not continue being me.

As I considered implementing a new one-souvenir-per-trip exception to my no-new-nothing rule, I thought about how I would explain the exception on the blog and asked myself why it was that I felt I ‘needed’ a souvenir from my travels. My first answer was that I liked being surrounded by mementos that reminded me of my experiences in the places from which the souvenirs came. That seemed a true but only partial answer. Photos equally could memorialize my trip, without costing money or luggage space. Perhaps it is partly that I scatter the trinkets around my house and then, happening upon them as I go about my days, happy memories are brought to mind unexpectedly. But, again, while true, that seemed only part of the answer because it did not explain this sense I had that, without souvenirs, I would not be me.

I think that, if I am honest with myself, I like having a home full of souvenirs because I feel that they somehow signal to everyone that I am an interesting person. I imagine (or at least my secret inner self likes to imagine) it is one of the first things people notice about me when they walk into my home: oh, look at all these souvenirs from far-flung places, somebody here must be well-traveled, how fascinating of her.

It reminds me of an indie film from 2009. Does anyone else remember that scene in “500 Days of Summer” when Tom goes to Summer’s apartment for the first time and sees all these quirky little nicknacks that signal to us how quirky and well-traveled and interesting Summer is? Except that her apartment and its nicknacks mostly annoyed me because, I thought, they screamed “look at me! I am trying oh so very hard to be interesting! Can you tell that I am interesting?! You must see how I am interesting! Look at all these little things that make me so complicated and quirky and interesting! If I weren’t so interesting, I wouldn’t have all these origami birds now would I??!!” I wonder if that is how all my travel nicknacks actually speak to people who visit my apartment ….

Many of us (myself included) use travel photos in the same way as I use souvenirs. Travel photos started out as a memento to help us remember, relive and share our experiences. While we do still use them for that, their other purpose nowadays is to signal via Facebook and Instagram posts that we are well-traveled and interesting. But while photos do that job only as long as they continue to appear on our friends’ feeds, my souvenirs keep on working every time anyone comes to my home. They serve as a more permanent Instagram feed advertising my well-traveled interesting-ness.

Just like my Instagram photos, my house full of nicknacks probably does not make me a more interesting person. I suppose they accurately signal that I am well-traveled, but being well-traveled does not necessarily make me interesting. Really, traveling should not be about making myself interesting; it should not be about affecting the way other people perceive me at all. It should just be an experience that I have for myself, at the time, with the other people who are there. I can remember the things that I saw, learned and experienced and share them with other people after the fact. The things I saw, learned or experienced may or may not have made me a better or more interesting person, but I do not need to prove that to anyone else through photos, nicknacks or otherwise.

I have been making a conscious effort to take less photos on vacations for the past few years in order to force myself to make photos secondary to my experiences and not the other way around. Although souvenirs do not have the same power as photos to take over our experiences, I now see that a bit of souvenir-free travel might be good for me as well. And that’s why, at the airport waiting for our flight home, when my husband handed me 500 pesos that he had left in his wallet and asked if I wanted spend it on something to get rid of it, I took it straight to the currency exchange to be turned into GBP before any last-minute temptation set in.

To indulge myself, I did think about what, if I allowed myself one single souvenir, it would be. Undoubtedly, it would have been an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe that called to me as I waited by a shop where my friend was buying rosary beads at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a fervently venerated symbol of Mexico and her basilica is the most visited Catholic holy site in the world (the latter, according to Wikipedia). I am not Catholic and do not pray to the Virgin, but I love the thought that people looking for a force to help them with the real things of their daily life turn to a woman and a mother. I liked the idea of having in my home an icon of a face to which so many people look and rely every day. This particular icon of the Virgin appealed to me because of something about the scalloped edge. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Virgin won’t be around my house anytime soon to tell you how interesting I am.

The Virgin of Guadalupe

If you would like to read about my full trip to Mexico, posts will soon be up here on my travel blog, Vertigo Travels.

Please follow and like us: