Aruba Key Chain Souvenir
Photo taken by Katherine Gomez Ramirez.

We all go on trips and end up seeing a trinket that would suit a friend, and another that your mother would love. However, most often you end up grabbing some cliché souvenir, such as a key chain of New York City, a T-shirt from Bridgetown, or an ashtray from Zurich. After doing some research for this post, it seems that most travelers prefer to buy one of these safe, “standard” souvenirs. Sure, the items may be useful; that key chain Lady Liberty holds your keys well, even if the torch pokes you in the side as you walk. But are these knickknacks really the best and most representative gift we can find for those people back home?

A souvenir is designed to serve as a reminder. After all, the word, in French, means “to remember”. A souvenir in itself is marketed solely on the premise that the manufactured, physical object will somehow adhere to a personal sentiment that is felt around the time of purchase. But, if you’re gonna purchase something, maybe you could look at paying a Ticuna tribesman for a genuine mask, maybe even one worn in a previous ceremony. When buying gifts which are native to the region you are visiting, you support the real people of that particular country, while getting something that you will really remember. A good way to package the mask to a friend could possibly be to videotape the Brazilian-Amazonian Ticuna members doing their dance with the mask on one of the tribesmen. Sure, this seems like a hell of a lot more hassle than just getting that ashtray at the airport while waiting to board for home, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Whenever you travel, you are most likely experiencing a culture that is different than your own. Maybe its a difference that is quite apparent, like if you hail from San Francisco and are visiting Islamabad. Or, it could be a slight difference, like just driving down the coast to Modesto. The fact is, there are variations culturally, whether minuscule or significant. These differences are part of the reason you want to venture to that other destination in the first place. When coming home, pick something culturally significant.

Another way to get a gift for someone back home, without resorting to the kitschy norms, is to get a memento. A memento, by some definitions, varies from a souvenir usually because it is an object, taken possibly spontaneously, and probably for free, that have a personal meaning. Mementos can be the subway map which the New York City MTA hands distributes free of charge, or it can be something as simple as a carabiner used when climbing the Matterhorn. Isn’t this better than a t-shirt with a graphic of the Matterhorn on it?

So, the next time you’re in the Big Apple, don’t pick up that key chain. Instead, why not pick up a necklace made from a discontinued subway token from the NY Transit Museum? Or you could bring back a pack of smoked Nova salmon from Zabar’s. Or, you could even go through Chinatown and get a knockoff Louis Vuitton purse; even this is more representative of New York City than the boring key chain souvenir.

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