From life’s journeys, small souvenirs shine
Just five months after we met, I asked my boyfriend (now husband) to go to Maui, Hawaii, with me, figuring it would be a good way to really get to know him. Upping the ante, I had arranged for us to camp overnight at Mount Haleakala, the island’s volcano. It was beyond magical: We were awestruck by the inky night sky, aglitter with stars. Heading back, we drove through Makawao, a funky town filled with galleries. In a shop window, I spotted three large, colorful, leaded-glass stars. Stars! How could I resist - even if it cost a small fortune to ship them home? Now those stars hang over the bay window in our kitchen, catching the light. They remind me of that trip, the guy who thinks that camping on a volcano is a swell idea, and that it’s OK to splurge on something you love.
DIANE BAIR Touring Morocco, my wife and I were steely in our resolve. Spend on spices, leave the inedible stuff alone. Then, in Rabat, we succumbed to bowls, a lantern, even a mirror that was sure to crack. Somehow, though, these newly-purchased crafts failed to capture what I loved about Morocco: its chipped-at-the-edge “un-newness.’’ On our final day, I spotted an alley shop displaying junk from torn-down buildings. My finger landed on a salvaged terra cotta tile with an “M’’ inscribed in Islamic green. Was it an “M’’ for Morocco? For Mandel? I didn’t care. I wanted it. “You need also other letters!’’ urged the owner, envisioning an A-to-Z transaction. (I wouldn’t bite.) When I got my “M’’ home, it landed smack on top of files littering my desk, a paperweight that pins down everything I write, including the final draft of this piece.
A couple of years ago, I took the train to New York. (I have always been charmed by the nostalgia of railroads, thinking about the days when people dressed up to travel, when women wore gloves and men wore hats and when suitcases were carried by their handles rather than dragged on wheels.) At a thrift store on the Upper East Side, there it was: a vintage leather suitcase with a story to tell. One of the brass locks stuck a bit and the lining smelled like mothballs. Inside, tucked into the pocket, were remnants from its previous owner: a rubber swim cap marked “ocean pool’’ and a receipt for a woman named Josephine, who had stayed at the Westchester Marriott in 1984 - the year I was born. What other trips must this carry-all have taken? What other sights must Josephine have seen? I collect suitcases now, and keep them stacked in my dining room, not just because I like the way they look, but also because I like thinking about who might have carried them.
I started climbing mountains before I had children. Although a song says “Nothing I see can be taken from me,’’ my children may never stand atop such giants as Bolivia’s 21,122-foot Illimani or high on the shoulder of Mount McKinley. So years ago, I started bringing home stones from the summits, or highest reached point, on my climbing expeditions, to keep for my future family. These stones are tiny specks of huge massifs and towering peaks from the tip of Mount Baker to the rim of Mont Blanc in the Alps. One was once the tip of the Matterhorn. Another, the apex of the giant Bugaboo Spire in British Columbia. My sons now huddle around and listen to stories of thin air, while they finger granite pebbles that once touched the sky.
My niece and her husband gave me a handmade olive oil urn for being the photographer at their wedding in the ancient Italian city of Tarquinia. We stayed at a 17th-century villa in an olive grove. Retiring to my room on the night I arrived, I looked out over moon-dappled olive trees and cried like a child. Emotions washed over me, owing perhaps to exhaustion and too much Chianti, but mostly, being three-quarters Italian, to a powerful swell of pride in my ancestry. Now, when I’m cooking and pick up that urn, I recall that time, that feeling. Always.
PAUL E. KANDARIAN
“The northern lights are out, eh?’’ said my host, Bev, in a strong Canadian accent. It was a Saturday night and about zero degrees. We were in her cabin along the Slave River to get away from the “city lights’’ in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, population 2,400. I dashed outside to view the spectacle. Overhead, it was as if white and green spotlights and floodlights were competing for attention as they arced, twisted, and shimmered. Back inside, Bev’s friends put on a craft show - displaying moccasins, dresses, coats, furs, jewelry. They proudly demonstrated the aboriginal art of tufting, where caribou or moose hair is dyed and sculpted with scissors. They gave me this tufted flower, which reminds me of their warmth on that frigid night.
Sure, it was one of those impulsive buys, one that a young man working as a waiter and his soon-to-be-betrothed, a gallery assistant, didn’t have the funds to back up. But heck, it was Christmas week in Santa Fe and we were drunk in love and immediately smitten with the painting. The naive work spoke to the naivete in our life, one not yet burdened with the responsibility of child rearing or paying a mortgage. “Do you have a layaway plan?’’ I asked. Twenty Christmases later, when I see that couple puckering up and that smidgen of a Santa Fe pueblo church in the corner, I can’t help but feel a little lighter remembering the carefree days of a simpler time.
I was strolling through the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, a crowded movable feast of everything from antiques to fake Rolex watches, when I saw her. Maybe I noticed her patchwork colored face and dark brown eyes because I was missing my puppy, as I often do when I’m on the road. Or maybe because the idea of a Westie pop portrait was so incongruous. Do they even have Westies in Thailand? Sweet brown mongrels are more the norm. I made a beeline to the artist’s booth, and while Ton didn’t speak English, he smiled when I showed him a picture of Ruby on my phone, and sold me his painting for $7 in Thai baht. He even signed it for me. I wondered where he had found his inspiration; I knew where I found mine.
The soaring kicks and frenetically crashing bodies of Australian Rules Football, a regular staple of the early days of ESPN, were mesmerizing to a budding sports fan at the dawn of cable television. ESPN quickly forgot about Aussie Rules, but I never did. Decades later, on my first trip to Australia, I feasted on as many games as I could and found the sport even more addictive in person. The football I brought home - featuring the colors of my newly adopted team, the Sydney Swans - is not merely a repository for dusty Down Under memories, however. Every few weeks it comes off the shelf for a backyard kick with my son and to do something ESPN no longer can: Turn another young American boy into a lifelong footy fan.
Cusco, Peru, is known for its hand-woven textiles. We had shopped the stalls surrounding the Plaza de Armas, but it was on a jaunt to Sacsayhuaman (a mid-15th-century ruin about a 30-minute walk from the city’s center) that we bought our favorite souvenir. In the fields beyond the ruins, families gathered, children played soccer, and local women set up tables of crafts for sale. An elderly woman, dressed in a traditional, bright-colored Peruvian poncho, called us over to look at her things. She playfully shooed giggling children away, and smiled broadly at us. We bought one of her handmade alpaca blankets. On chilly nights, I wrap up in it and remember the sun shining on the fields, the laughter of children, the smile of a wise woman, and I’m warmed inside and out.
Seto Nation is an ethnic minority in southeastern Estonia known for its elaborate folk costumes and unique form of singing called leelo. I spent an afternoon with a leelo choir, a group of women in their late 70s and early 80s. A component of the traditional folk costume for the Setois is a braided belt. When a woman marries she is expected to give one to all members of her new extended family. At the community swing, two women climbed up on a giant platform and set it rocking; the others began to clap and dance. Soon the duo on the swing was practically parallel with the ground, the clapping quickened, cheeks flushed and laughter bubbled. When she said goodbye, Anna, 84, took off her belt and handed it to me. It is a cherished gift from the generous women who shared their songs and the powerful lesson of remaining young at heart.
There it hung among hundreds of others - a gold and puce ribbon and crystal-beaded tassel - sparkling and swaying in a Moroccan stall, which in turn, sat tucked among dozens of other tassel stalls in Marrakech’s main souk. It’s the typical traveler’s dilemma. You become overwhelmed seeing so many versions of the same thing: leather jackets in Italy, pottery in Portugal, chopsticks in Japan. Yet, I knew once we had this keepsake hanging solo in a different environment, it would pop. And, it does. Looped over the door handle leading into our living room, the tassel blends in with the decor, yet stands out as a fond reminder of all we experienced in that exotic North African kingdom.
VICTORIA ABBOTT RICCARDI
From the steamy Misiones jungle to the icy wastes of Patagonia, fluttering red flags throughout Argentina mark roadside shrines to folk hero Antonio “Gauchito’’ Gil, revered by some as a saint, by others as a South American Robin Hood. An 1840s-born cowboy and outlaw, Gil was executed in 1878 after fleeing conscription, performing what many say was a miracle with his final breath. Today, the desolate place where he died draws thousands of pilgrims each year. “El Gauchito was a rebel,’’ a penitent told me at Gil’s jerry-built tomb. “He stood up against authority and took the side of the poor and humble.’’ A statue of Gil now sits in my home - sure-fire protection, I am told, against infirmity, catastrophe, and loss.
My favorite travel souvenir is my most recent purchase: a small pale green porcelain teapot that I bought in Foshan, a large industrial city in China known for its ceramics. On a hot afternoon in October, I journeyed there with my niece and her family. With three children on kick scooters and one in a baby jogger, we spent the afternoon exploring Shi Wan, a walking district of local artisans. Wandering through a labyrinth of alleys, I spotted this teapot and purchased it for 80 yuan, or $12.50. It holds six ounces of water, and is perfect for “a spot of tea.’’ Somehow, my tea drinking now feels ceremonial, even when I am just sitting at the computer.