Finding the Perfect Souvenir

By  Helen Dimaras March 23, 2011

When I travel, I'm always in search of something special to take back with me and remind me of my adventures abroad.

This has led me to some great finds (miniature Indian silk paintings from a local art school fair), and others, not so much (plastic coin bank in the shape of a London phone booth, anyone?). Here are some qualities that I've found make for the best souvenirs.

It invokes vivid memories: The word 'souvenir' is derived from the French word for memory. From the photo taken as you climbed Sydney's Harbour Bridge, to the ticket that granted you entry to view the Great Pyramids of Giza - it's the memories that make something a special keepsake. A hand-crafted sign from Nairobi proclaiming 'Karibu' ('Welcome' in Swahili) sits in my entryway and serves as a daily reminder of the warmth and hospitality I experienced in Kenya.

It adds to a unique collection: Whether it be a new stamp inked onto the growing collection in your passport, €1 coins from every EU nation, or a Venetian carnival mask that hangs next to a wooden warrior mask from the Maasai Mara, a collection of souvenirs is like a badge of honour, proof of your travel savvy, and a great conversation starter to get you rehashing your latest adventures to your friends.

It is part of the local culture: Shop where the locals shop. You'll avoid overpriced goods targeted to tourists, and end up with something unique and useful. I always head to a local market to pick up things like candied kumquats in Corfu, macadamia nuts in Guatemala, limoncello in Sorrento and coffee in Kenya. In India, nothing beats shopping for colorful textiles and bartering for sparkly bangles at outdoor markets. 

It's your own one-of-a-kind creation: A beautiful photo you snapped as the sun set over the Mediterranean. An entry from your travel journal that describes the thrill of hiking the Inca Trail. A drawing of a cobblestoned piazza, sketched while you sipped on your morning cappuccino in Florence. A personal memento like this can't be bought in a store, and makes it all the more valuable.

It's a gift: One of my most treasured souvenirs was a gift from a 10-year-old girl living at a Guatemalan orphanage. It was a simple note and paragraph, lovingly put together from the few possessions she had. Gifts from the people you meet while abroad are the best reminders about what travelling is all about – creating a global camaraderie that connects us to the people around us.

Dr. Helen Dimaras is a Canadian researcher studying the genetic eye cancer retinoblastoma. Her passport boasts stamps from Greece, Guatemala, Italy, France, England, Kenya, Egypt, Australia, Spain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, India, USA and the Netherlands. She teaches Global Health Research and Genetics at the University of Toronto, and collaborates with researchers in Kenya, India and Egypt to study the global implications of retinoblastoma.

This article is the winning submission for The Verge Storyboard for the week of March 21, 2011. Click here to check it out and submit your own story!

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