Souvenir Hunter

 

Few people can resist returning from a big round the world trip without at least one extra bag full of souvenirs and memorabilia that seemed absolutely irresistible. It’s hard to return from the Amazon without a mummified piranha or to pass through Bangkok without buying one of those little croaking carved frogs. From Vietnamese spoon to Moroccan belly-dancing knickers here are a few of my most unlikely souvenirs.

 

MOST UNAPPRECIATED:

I bought a pair of secondhand bellydancing knickers from an electronics stall in Fez medina. They were actually part of the meager window-dressing and it was several visits, three glasses of mint tea and much haggling before I could convince the stall owner to part with his knickers. They had the name ‘Rosé’ scribbled in biro in the back and judging by their proportions Rosé, whoever she was, was a fairly monumental belly-dancer. I bought them as a present for my wife but, as far as I know, she’s never worn them.

 

MOST MYSTERIOUS:

A nomad in North Africa gave me a shiny stone that he said had the property of curing insect bites. It remained in my first aid kit through several trips without ever seeing action. Then, in a remote village in Central Borneo, I showed it to a Dayak hunter: “Aha! I’ve seen those before,” he said, “the Chinese traders say they come from Africa.” Similarly, I bought a little hunk of wood from a market-trader in Jakarta, who claimed that was protection from scorpion bites and demonstrated the fact by marching around with a handful of scorpions (see pic). Much later, in Costa Rica, someone identified it for me as Tea Tree.

 

MOST WIDELY TRAVELLED:

Apart from the battered old metal waterbottle that has been with me for almost 20 years my most widely travelled souvenir is a US Army spoon that saw service through the Vietnam War. There are more USMC metal spoons (and many, many more ‘Zippo’ lighers) in Vietnam than there were ever grunts but this spoon was given to me by a Vietnamese woman I trust implicitly and who’d had it herself ever since the war ended. (I have another spoon that was made from melted down bombs in Laos and one that was carved for me by Spain’s last nomadic shepherd).

 

MOST INVENTIVE:

Sitting around the campfire in a remote camp in Borneo I was watching a young guide whittling a bamboo sapling and fiddling with a piece of rubber. The bamboo was exactly the right diameter so that four AA batteries could be slotted inside. Simply by trapping two wires against the end of the series of batteries and holding the other ends against the contacts on his cellphone battery he constructed an emergency charger for his phone. “You just have to have the right type of phone,” he said. I was so impressed that I commissioned one on the spot. Only after I’d paid for it did I realize I had the wrong type of phone.

 

MOST ‘PERSONAL’:

I once spent a night in an Akha hilltribe village in Thailand’s Golden Triangle region. At that time it was said that we were the first outsiders ever to sleep in the village and we were welcomed with open-arms…plus opium pipes and roasted armadillo. These delightful people never asked anything from us and we paid for our stay with the food we were carrying and by buying some of the few locally-made craft items in the village. The Akha women traditionally wear short navy-blue skirts but it seems that underwear had not yet made it into this area. The answer to the obvious problem was a strange sporran-like item. Weighted down with conch shells, beads and old Chinese coins, it would hang between a woman’s thighs when she squatted by the fire. One of these ‘Akha sporrans’ now adorns the wall by my bed.

 

MOST UNSUCCESSFUL:

In Algeria I bought a waterskin made from an entire goat. A new one would have cost about $20 in the market but I wanted a battered one and paid the same rate for one from a Tuareg nomad who had used it for several years on camel treks around the Sahara. I was very proud of my purchase but the moment it hit the (relative) humidity of my home in Spain it just turned into a grungy, smelly ‘roadkill.’

 

MOST CUMBERSOME:

My three year old daughter had recently been surfing for the first time and her dream was to have ‘a pink surfboard with a bunny-rabbit on it.’ Under-sized boards are almost non-existent so imagine my surprise when I was casually browsing through a surf-shop in Bali and found a perfect 3’, triple-fin pink board with a rabbit painted on it. The Kuta-Cowboy manning the stall clearly noted the excitement in my eyes and I did an uncharacteristically terrible job of haggling for the board. Also I had to bear the embarrassment of carrying it around several Indonesian islands during the next month. It was worth it though.

 

MOST UNFORGETTABLE:

There’s one souvenir I never leave home without. I wear it even in the shower and sleep at night with my cheek resting against it. An Iban headman in Sarawak who went by the unlikely name of Judi gave me my tattoo in honour of an expedition we’d just completed up the river that was traditionally the spiritworld of the Iban headhunters. The tattoo was done by hand – using three sewing needles in a sliver of bamboo – and the ink was made with soot, sugar-cane juice and water. Artistically it is one of the worst tattoos ever but as a souvenir of an unforgettable trip it fulfills its purpose admirably.

 

Seven professional travellers rave about their favourite souvenirs here