Souvenir Shopping: It’s all about asking the right questions.

I love to shop on vacation. Every place has a niche market and just being there makes me want it. Sadly, even items which wouldn’t catch my eye at home seem like a good idea when I’ve had to get my passport stamped to get there. 20130726-184133.jpgRugs in Turkey? We’ve hauled one home. A dozen sheepskins in New Zealand? Packed and transported. A Portuguese watering can…red Moroccan ballet flats… white Cuban table linens…hand blown Egyptian glasses and matching pitcher? All selected, bargained, paid, packed, hauled….and now sitting in my house. The problem is that when I get home, those red shoes hurt my feet, the sheepskins feel like a PETA faux pas and the white table linens are just plain impractical. My travel shopping sprees clearly don’t translate well to my real life.

The sobering reality of this phenomenon is that it doesn’t take a passport stamp to trigger it. This past summer in Florida, I was brainwashed by pink. Sad for me because by the end of the trip, there was actually a flock of pink yard flamingos in my trunk, most likely breaking an interstate commerce law as I was driving across state lines with the intent and purpose of displaying tacky lawn decor in others’ yards.

Talking this over with a friend, I’ve realized that this shopping alter ego, what I’ve called the Flamingo Effect (after my misfortunes in Florida), goes well beyond style and souvenirs. My friend whose passport stamps rival Hillary Clinton has noticed that this effect colors her view of men, too. She admits that men who would not turn her head at home look more attractive abroad, when she’s immersed in their country. Home court advantage? Maybe. A slight Japanese man gives off a sexy vibe. She finds herself wondering about the angular German man across the cafe. And I confess a strange allure to the sultry Turkish man that offers me tea and croons that my eyes are like the sea. Thankfully neither of us has managed to bring home any of this type of souvenir.

After years of over-shopping, I have realized the sad truth about souvenirs: Just like the handsome men, not every thing that catches my eye really should be brought home. But when I’m shopping somewhere away from home, I’m convinced that this is THE item that, once I return, will transform my mundane life into a little vacation every time I see it. And that’s probably the core of the issue–I want to bring that vacation feeling home.

This summer is a little different though. We’re not taking rolling suitcases that we can overpack. Instead, we’re hauling backpacks on the chicken buses in Central America. Every ounce is carefully considered. I can’t let myself fall prey to the Flamingo Effect.

So what do I bring home as a souvenir? Writing this, I remembered back to high school French. The root of the word ‘souvenir’ is simply ‘to come to mind again.’ There’s nothing in the definition about needlessly spending money on trinkets.

And truth be told, I know it’s not the stuff I cram in my bag that puts me on the road more than 3 months each year. Instead, it’s the personal connections that feed my wanderlust. It’s walking down a street at night and glimpsing a family moment through a partly open door. It’s learning where someone’s life has taken them and then letting the story resonate with me for years as I wonder how it ended.

It’s these moments that are the best souvenirs.

And so that’s what I’ll take with me from this summer. And that’s how I’ll reminisce when I want to recapture a bit of our trip…

….I’ll return a stack of barely read library books for my kids and remember volunteers inviting us to help them deliver books to rural schools in Ahuacapan…I’ll see a young hispanic bus boy at the pizza place in Arlington and think of a chicken bus entrepreneur who saved money working 16 hour days in a pizza joint in Jersey, returning to La Perla to buy two successful chicken buses.20130726-183500.jpgAnd I’ll get an email and two phone calls from my mother in a period of three hours and remember the clean-cut bright young man in Suchitoto who could have been my son in ten years, but who’s unnamed crime while working in Jamaica keeps him on road and scared to return to the US. He admitted he has no one at home to help him sort it out, much less someone who looses sleep at night or sends emails during the day, wondering where he is.

But I think it goes deeper than just remembering stories from the road. Instead, it’s living with a traveler’s inquiry to feed my wandering spirit, even when I’m home. It’s adopting an awareness that I don’t have to cross an international border to connect, but sometimes just walk across the street and ask the traveler’s perennial question, “Where are you going? Where have you been?” Everyone has an answer worth hearing and worth remembering.

So today in Nicaragua and two months from now in Arlington, I’ll live with the consciousness that everyone is a fellow adventurer in this journey we call life. If I do choose to take a minute or an hour, or a lifetime to get to know that traveler, my own life will be richer for having taken the time to ask. And instead of the hassle of hauling home clutter, my souvenirs will be the stories I’ll collect and the memories I’ll carry.

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7 responses to “Souvenir Shopping: It’s all about asking the right questions.

  1. Pudentiana

    And the memories in your treasure trove to share is pretty wonderful. Thanks

  2. Lori Glenn

    Beautifully stated, Susannah.

  3. Very nice — but in addition to helping you to ask questions, traveling teaches you to listen very carefully to the answers — you convey that sense so well in the story of how Abagail and Dylan looked for a room on Lake Atitlan a couple of entries ago . . .

  4. Reverend Stephan Papa

    The most interesting and inspiring people we met in Suchitoto were you and your family because of who you are, what you do, how you do it, and what you see and learn in the process! You will remain a pleasant and inspirational souvenir of our trip to El Salvador.

    • Stephen–thank you for such kind words but you’re much too elevating of our feeble attempts! We were inspired by you, you’re adventurous spirit, and undeterred historical social awareness. We have been encouraged to dig deeper ever since.

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