Published on November 22nd, 20166
Mementos from the Balkans
As most of you know by now, I’m a minimalist by choice. Wasn’t always. Used to have a 3 bedroom, 2 bath cathedral-ceilinged home (just for *me*) set on 2.5 acres on an island off the coast of Seattle. And believe me, that sucker was BRIMMING with all manner of “stuff”. Especially so as I collected some pretty spectacular things in my travels (think: wool rugs from Morocco, embossed blocks of tea from China, carved ostrich eggs from South Africa, luscious batiks from Swaziland, not to mention an exotic hat collection from all over the globe).
Ah but all that went bye-bye when I decided to jump the U.S. of A. ship in favor of living permanently abroad (prophetic I know, given the recent political developments in my native land). Ah but I sold most every bit of it I did, and have been (blissfully!) living in furnished abodes (first in Vietnam, then Thailand, now Ecuador) with only what will fit into a single rollie and a backpack – for 5 sweet years now.
Sooooo FREEING! I L.O.V.E. it!
|Seriously, I know you’re all thinking “no way Jose! No way could I ever do that!” But honestly – don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. I’ve never regretted it for a moment. Indeed, nowadays I get an *anxiety attack* whenever I think of buying anything bigger than a throw pillow!|
But of course, living a life of such scant possessions poses a bit of a problem when it comes to collecting souvenirs of my ongoing travels. Plus there’s also the confines of my abridged baggage to consider. Clearly hefting but a carry-on size rollie for 40-odd days on end isn’t conducive to tossing in one of those lusciously delicate mosaic glass lamps that are ubiquitous in the Balkans.
And those gorgeous Turkish rugs? Alas, I could only drool.
Nonetheless, I’ve learned that it’s just a matter of scaling down my drools. I’ve now become an expert at scouting out the tiny and the lightweight in my quest for souvenirs in my travels. And given my diminutive, fully furnished rented apartment back in Ecuador, I’m especially keen on mementos that are actually *useful* – items that I’ll use every day and/or I can eat or wear (rather than those that merely collect dust on a shelf).
A tall order when one skips through 8 different countries in one go (each with their uniquely tempting crafts). And believe me, even limiting myself to the tiny and the light – it got tougher and tougher to close the zipper on my rollie as I passed into my 6th, 7tth and 8th country.
Nonetheless, I did manage to drag home quite a few small trinkets to remember each of the lands I passed through, plus a couple of (daringly) larger items that I was determined to bring back to Ecuador.
First up, my PRIZE – a drop-dead gorgeous antique silk ikat coat from Turkey. Yes, admittedly a bit larger than my usual “scarf/earrings” souvenir norm, but hey – I can WEAR it! Plus – there’s a special story about why I kind of HAD to have it.
You see, I once owned a most precious hand-made coat that I got on my first trip to Thailand in… 1989? It was exquisitely hand embroidered by a Hmong hill tribe lass in northern Thailand. I had that honey for years and wore it often. But one day – sadly, it was stolen at an affair I attended in Seattle. Needless to say I was heartbroken, and ever since… Suffice I was determined to find something equally precious in Turkey.
And I did. The coat that “spoke to me”. It was waaay overpriced of course, but after two days of negotiations (and an OCEAN of Turkish tea!), I bargained it down to less than half at 365 Turkish lira (about $110). I love the colors, and especially the bright red cotton lining. It’s a very simple cut, and just the right length for casual wear, as well as (on the rare occasions) when I dress up for symphony concerts, etc. here in Cuenca.
And my next “big” memento (also from Turkey – dunno how I managed to tuck all this into my rollie): two thick pillow covers made from woven camel bags. I mean, even a die-hard minimalist with a fully furnished apartment needs at least a few decorative “pretties” to make the place look like “mine”, no? I actually have 3 likewise luscious Thai pillow covers (embroidered in the same Hmong patterrns as my long-lost hill tribe coat mentioned above) on throw pillows here in my Cuenca apartment, so why not a few more? Pillow covers are smallish, light and (most importantly) lay flat in my rollie – and the bulky pillows to fill them can easily be bought back in Ecuador, yes? Yes. Indeed, I think hereafter I’ll include pillow covers along with “scarves and earrings” on my short-list of “allowable” souvenirs of my travels.
Speaking of scarves and earrings (ever my mainstay for light mementos), I of course had to come home with at least a few. As I love plaids, when I found the pale blue/purple plaid scarf in Zadar (left pic below), I couldn’t resist stuffing it into my backpack (actually I wore it pretty much constantly the remainder of the trip!) Furthermore, as Zadar turned out to be a (somewhat surprising) favorite, I also bought a pair of earrings there to remember my visit. And the blue/black scarf on the right? It too has a most memorable story. I bought it in Ljubljana, Slovenia – at a 2nd hand store (for $2.50!) Yes ladies and gentlemen – apparently the TravelnLass can sniff out a Goodwill-esque thrift shop, even in the Balkans!
I admit it – I’m also a sucker for purses. Hey, again – something I can actually *use*. I have several from Laos – roomy old patchwork sling bags with lots of hill tribe embroidery. So on my final day in Cappadocia, Turkey, I couldn’t help but buy this small woven camel bag purse – from the Turkish grandmother that lived across from my hotel (13 TL, about $4).
Ahem. Breaking my own rules about “easy to stuff into a backpack” – what can I say? Given the delightful ritual of sharing a cup of hot, uber-sweet tea at every turn in Turkey, I clearly couldn’t survive back in Ecuador without my own delicate tea glass to sip from. It actually didn’t take much room – when stuffed with/wrapped in one of my wool socks. And I must say – I’ve used it most every day now since I’ve been home in Cuenca.
|By now you must be wondering – good lord! How did she squeeze all these mementos into her rollie? By packing l.i.g.h.t. to begin with, folks. By always leaving some extra space in your luggage when you leave from home.|
Ah but we ARE pushing the limits of my rollie now, so let’s move on to the small remaining souvenir trinkets…
Smashed penny from Munich, Germany. While I would have much rather carried home a year’s supply of those amazing Bavarian soft pretzels (especially divine slathered in herbal butter), I settled instead for the tiniest of mementos (I’ll probably fashion it into a fridge magnet so I can see it every day in my kitchen). There were a bazillion beer steins and cuckoo clock souvenirs to choose from of course, but they all struck me as a bit hackneyed, and would seem a foolish choice for this minimalist backpacker.
Hallstatt, Austria – the name Hallstatt literally means “salt town”, and the early European Celts have indeed been mining it there since 1,000 B.C.! So… a tiny shaker of natural salt seemed the perfect treasure to remember that breathtakingly beautiful corner of the globe.
A tiny key. The key to my “love lock”. Yes, love lock bridges seem to be popping up everywhere these days (heck, we even have a few locked onto a bridge across the Rio Tomebamba here in Cuenca). But I must say – the Makartsteg bridge across the Salzach river in Salzburg (yup, Austria gets a lot of mileage out of the word “salz” i.e. salt) clearly has taken the “love locks” thing over the top. There must have been a thousand or more locks fastened there, and as I was so enchanted by the array (not just of “love”, but all sorts of positive messages) that it wasn’t long til I was searching for a shop to buy a lock of my own to add to the mix. The entire story (including what message I wrote on my lock plus lots of pics of course) in a future post on my short visit to Salzburg, Austria.
And finally – a pic of my nascent “fridge magnet” collection here in Cuenca. I’ve never been keen on such for souvenirs (condescendingly thinking “Ugh – so touristy!”) whenever I passed them by in my earlier travels. But I’ve changed my tune these days (primarily since I found my beloved “Obama with Cuban cigar” magnet at the Havana airport last year). No surprise fridge magnets are so popular in many tourist spots – after all, they’re cheap, they’re small, they’re light – they match my minimalist backpacker requirements to a T. Indeed, a simple answer for displaying a few mementos of my travels in my tiny kitchen here in Cuenca. Pictured here (surrounding Obama): L: a tiny decorated gingerbread heart ornament from Ljubljana, Slovenia; above: a hand-painted wooden slat depicting a Slovenian folkloric scene (from Lake Bled); R: a porous tile painted with a Turkish mosaic design from Istanbul.
Though not a permanent souvenir that I’ll keep for too very long – nonetheless, becoming the caretaker of this (rather large!) stuffed “hitchhiker” Otto the frog – who “wants to travel the world.” was a splash of serendipity as I neared the end of my travels through Turkey. I honestly don’t know how I managed to fit him into my rucksack after nearly 40 days of travel (and collecting all the above mementos). But I could hardly refuse when the Turkish lasses at the entry booth for the ruins at Ephesus thrust him upon me – asking me to carry him home with me to Ecuador (and eventually pass him off to another traveler to visit more new lands on this wondrous globe.)
Th-that’s about it for physical souvenirs from 44 days on the trail. But of course the REAL mementos aren’t tangible and take up no room whatsoever in my rollie: the many sights, the people I met, the priceless experiences everywhere I went. My memories of skipping through 8 different countries – these I will replay in my head forever.
P.S. There’s actually two more bitty mementos that I carefully carried home (one from the fairytale village of Motovun in Istria, Croatia, the other from the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro). But the stories behind them are so unique, I want to save them for a separate post of their own.
What about you – what are your favorite souvenirs (and how do you squeeze them in to your baggage)?
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