I’m reminded of the words of a philosophical character on a slightly above average sitcom that ended some time ago:
There once was a little boy in Africa who wanted to give his teacher a gift, but he had no money. So he walked two days to the ocean and he picked up a handful of sand and walked two days back, and he gave it to her. She was greatly moved by the gift. But she said, ‘it’s so far for you to walk.’ And he said, ‘teacher, the journey was part of the gift.’ – Wilson Wilson, Home Improvement
As travelers, we don’t often have the luxury of making trips for the express purpose of picking up some goods or services; although I might be tempted to fly into Kyushu for a hot springs’ bath and some quality sweet potatoes, it’s just not practical.
Although we do buy plenty of local trinkets for ourselves at times, we’re more often than not thinking of friends and family back home, seeking gifts that embody the spirit of these strange lands in which we find ourselves wandering.
A Picture AND A Thousand Words
Living in Japan tended to drain my funds from time to time, and before Christmas a few years ago, I found myself with $50 for gifts for my family of nine.
Whenever I had discovered any sight or experience that caused me to think of one person in particular, I would always take notes in my Moleskin journal and snap a quality picture.
When it came time to present the gift to my family member, I would print out the photo on glossy paper and weave them a tale of how much I missed them and thought of them as I was in that place at that moment.
Or, if you like, you could just Photoshop them in: “Look! You were there, too!”
Straight From The Earth
Just like the boy with a handful of sand, you too can choose gifts that don’t come from a store or street vendor.
A seashell tells the story of your snorkeling adventures in Thailand. A piece of the Berlin Wall is testament to your being part of history.
I’m not advocating you go take pieces of ash and stone from dilapidated Pompeii, but if nature can replenish it (sand, rocks, palm fronds, leaves, etc.), or if no one really minds you helping yourself to the landscape (ruins of cites, pieces of structures), then these reminders of places traveled also have stories to tell.
Be careful with this idea so as to not adversely affect the environment.
Find A Theme
Choose something you may not necessarily find too easily in certain countries, something that’s going to take you across the globe in a series of wacky adventures and negotiation antics: Buddha statues, native artwork featuring cats, Kit-Kat bars, certain sex toys, even the receipts from McDonald’s in seven different languages might be right for a given person.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
Consider the recipients and what you’d think they’d appreciate the most or if they would just burst out laughing at the sight of some souvenirs.
With this idea, you not only have a unique gift, but a unique story to tell (“It wasn’t easy tracking down a stuffed Pikachu in the middle of the Burmese jungle, I tell you…”).
Find That Face
This is more of a one-in-a-million shot, but when the opportunity comes along, take it.
We come across so many different faces in airports, cities, even distant villages that statistically, there would have to be some resemblance to a friend, family member, or coworker.
“Have you seen the Japanese/Australian/Norwegian/etc. version of you?”
If you do happen to spot a lookalike in a sea of pedestrians, ask if you could trouble them for a few moments of travel talk and a picture.
Soon enough, your friends will find they know some of the “best looking” people across the world.
A Trail To Follow
What better way to give a gift than to encourage those left behind to follow in your footsteps?
Split a coin into two (if you have access to coin-splitting tools); toss one half in the Trevi Fountain and give the other to your friend.
He or she will have no choice but to hop the next plane to Italy.
Compose a prayer for the Western Wall. Put one half in for yourself, and give the rest to someone back home.
This can be as creative as you like, from “I’ve opened a Swiss account in your name with a $50,000 balance; the account number is the same as the number of sheep on this farm in New Zealand on a Tuesday” to creating a kind of international scavenger hunt with your expat friends: “See this Couchsurfer in Thailand and he will give you the next gift.”