I travel to experience new cultures, to meet new people and to see exciting things, but more importantly, I travel to push myself outside my comfort zone. In the last three years, I’ve been to Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, and Nepal (and yes, I am one lucky ducky). In each of these places, I’ve experienced a variety of “culture shock,” but I’ve also experienced a sense of wonder beyond anything I feel staying close to home. I’ve learned more about myself in strange, unique places away from home than I have in the familiar corners of my every day life, and for that reason, I cherish anything that can bring me back to those amazing experiences.
It’s always been a goal of mine to bring a piece of a place home with me after an amazing trip, and while I’m no professional photographer (and I definitely don’t pretend to be any sort of savvy with a camera), pictures (and I mean thousands and thousands of pictures) are really the best way I know how. During my recent move however, I realized that pictures weren’t the only things I was dragging from place to place to commemorate my worldly explorations; my boxes were also filled with souvenirs I had bargained, purchased or dug up (rocks guys… I am a geologist) in cool, unique places abroad. Most of my souvenirs were acquired despite huge language barriers, currency exchange mental math problems and face-offs with more experienced bargainers. Together, travel pictures and souvenirs (and yes, rocks) fill my home with amazing, unforgettable stories. Here are a few of my favorite things:
In March 2012, I traveled to Peru with my sister, Lindsey, where we explored Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley and hiked the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu.
One of my first bargaining experiences ever occurred during my trip through the Sacred Valley in Peru. Lindsey and I found a merchant selling beautiful painted bowls of all different sizes, but my five years of high school French did not prepare me well for this moment. Between Lindsey’s knowledge of Spanish numbers and my super helpful ability to put up the correct number of fingers, we somehow managed to get the merchant down to a number we were willing to pay. And when I say we, I mean Lindsey. And thanks to Lindsey, my beautiful Peru bowls now hold beautiful things (like jewelry… and rocks).
If my hike on the Inka Trail taught me anything, it was that the Inka were amazing stone masters. Machu Picchu is the pinnacle of the impressive Inka building style, and after a very tiring three days on the trail, I went a little camera crazy on the incredible architecture at the finish line (Machu Picchu). Oddly enough, my favorite photo from my entire day at Machu Picchu is a simple picture of a surviving wall and window looking up toward the bright blue, white puffy cloud sky. Something about the photo brings me right back to the day and reminds me just how exhausted I was staring up at the amazing ruins.
During the fall of 2012, I studied abroad in East Africa through The School for Field Studies
(SFS); the first month and a half was spent in Tanzania and the second month and a half was spent in Kenya. Upon the completion of my semester, I traveled back to Tanzania to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro with some crazy, amazing women.
One of my favorite things that I brought home from my time in East Africa, is my Maasai blanket. Not only do I think that I picked the absolute best color, but also it’s one of the items I had to work extremely hard to get. Even when shopping in the local markets, us American students were almost always given the mzungu price (i.e. the white person/tourist price). This price was way higher than any of us wanted to pay, especially because we wanted to bring home Maasai blankets for everyone, and was way above what our local center staff told us we should pay. And let’s not forget the extra fun of bargaining in Swahili, which often quickly spiraled into a complicated dance of Swahili, English and hand gestures. However, after lots of failed attempts (flashback to Keela having to jump up and steal our money back from a merchant who tried to trick is into paying more for less), we managed to uncover the secret to getting away from the mzungu price: SO MUCH BUNDLING.
On one of our free days in Tanzania, our group had the chance to visit a local woodworking shop where members of a tribe from Mozambique were creating and selling incredible art. I knew it was going to be an expensive day, but the artists and workers were willing to bargain with us (and I’m sure still laughed all the way to the bank). I left that day with some new jewelry and two beautiful masks, a giraffe (my favorite safari animal) and a traditional wood mask, which have hung on my walls in a glorious wall collage ever since.
On another one of our free days in Tanzania, some of us opted to travel to a local artist’s home to learn all about batiks (a “painting” on a cotton cloth created through the use of wax and different paint color layers). For the first hour or so, we were able to create our own batik; mine turned out so horrid it’s still hiding in a box somewhere. However, after our mini arts and crafts session, it was shopping time. Bargaining wasn’t part of the game here as the artist had very reasonably priced his items (items of similar quality sold for almost twice as much at the tourist markets), but it certainly was a crazy race to get your hands on the batik(s) you wanted before someone else in the group did. I found two pieces, and like my masks, they have been hanging on my walls ever since. And while my “batiking” abilities were nowhere near the skill of the master artist, every time I look at the batiks on my wall I can’t help but smile and remember the day I dyed my fingers attempting to learn a new art.
Many of our classes at SFS were held outdoors in national parks, conservation areas or local communities (i.e. in the “field”). This kind of learning requires a very different type of textbook, and so we were required to bring three field identification/reference books with us to East Africa: “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania” by Zimmerman, Turner and Pearson, “The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals” by Jonathon Kingdon, and “The Behavior Guide to African Mammals” by Richard Despard Estes. I accidentally ordered two sets of the books (damn you Amazon), and so took one set with me to East Africa where I used it on a daily basis (and then donated it at the end of my stay) and kept the other, very clean and presentable set for a cool reminder of my semester abroad (and for a fashionable plant display).
In April 2015, I traveled to Nepal with my mom, Lindsey and Mike, where we explored Kathmandu, Pokhara and hiked to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalaya Mountains.
During our visit to Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) in Kathmandu, our guide took us to a local artisan school where local artists are trained the art of thangkas (Buddhist painting on cotton or silk). We had seen these paintings all over Nepal, but here we had the opportunity to purchase authentic thangkas directly from the artists. Depending on the skill level (novice to master), one painting can take between a few weeks to a few months, and the more skill and time put into a thangka, the higher the price. MIke and I walked out with two novice thangka mandalas (courtesy of my pocket book) and one intermediate level thangka mandala (courtesy of Mike’s pocket book), and now they hang beautifully in our dining area above our thrifted dining set.
While we were in Pokhara, we stumbled upon one of the most amazing shops I have ever been too: the Women’s Skills Development Organization. Everything sold in the store is made by local women, and the profits are used to invest back into the women who create the beautiful products and to help empower women around Nepal. Items for sale included bags, purses, hats, coasters and bedding (between the four of us, we bought at least two of all these things… no really, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest). My favorite purchase from this store was a beautiful hand-painted, hand-sewed quilt, which now sits in my guest bedroom. It’s a beautiful, unique piece that even Anthropologie would drool over (and probably charge an arm and a leg for), and I can’t ever see myself letting this wonderful piece go.
During our stay in Nepal, I don’t think a day went by without seeing the bright and colorful prayer flags. We saw them all over Kathmandu and Pokhara, and even saw them all over the Annapurna Base Camp trek. The two most impressive displays of the prayer flags were at (1) Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) in Kathmandu and (2) Annapurna Base Camp. We of course could not leave Nepal without purchasing our own (miniature) prayer flags, and now photos of the real flags at both aforementioned places are displayed front and center in the glorious (yes, I’m still going with glorious) wall collage.
The last souvenir I wanted to write about for this post is an oddball: Mike’s furry, stuffed I ❤ Yeti animal. Okay, so technically Yeti wasn’t won at any bargaining table nor was he any sort of hand made magnificence. He was purchased in a Yeti Airlines shop in the Kathmandu airport while we were waiting for our plane to Pokhara. However, Yeti came with us on our trek through the Himalayan mountains (he even made an appearance at Annapurna Basecamp) and Mike’s half-kidding-half-serious obsession with finding bigfoot (which goes by the name of Yeti in Nepal), makes this silly stuffed toy one very special souvenir.
While some people may look around my home and see clutter, I see fun conversation pieces. Everything mounted on my wall has a story. Items on my shelves have meaning. Even things sitting on my couches and chairs have a history that no blanket from HomeGoods or Target could ever top. The things above (and many others) are what makes me feel most at home, and I can’t wait to add to the collection (Patagonia 2016 anyone?).
[and when I say my home in this post, I should obviously be including Mike… because I’m pretty sure he lives here too]