After checking out the pyramids and Egyptology museum of Cairo, I walked through the amazing markets. I remember the colorful, conical piles of spices, the pita breads piled high on carts, the silks and tapestries in classic arabic prints and colors. I remember the smoke from cigarettes and mopeds.
Buddha from Thailand,
scarf from Cambodia
and a little Indian basmati rice.
I remember merchants trying to sell me rugs and clothes and sunglasses and post cards. Merely making the slightest eye contact was enough to be trapped into a haggle for the price of a teapot or finger chimes, whether I’d expressed any real interest or not. Eventually I decided (read: I was worn down) I ought to bring something back for family and friends. Nearly every souvenir stall had decorative camels in sizes from three inches to three feet tall. The ridiculous looking camels seemed to have rigor mortis; their legs stuck out, rod straight, from the body. Their faces were penned on with various expressions made by the hasty hand of a souvenir maker and they had little felt saddles with sparkles glued on them and tassels hanging from thin ribbon around their muzzles. They looked all the more silly lined up in rows from tiny to tall at nearly every stand. Rows of them were pushed out nearly to the aisles so that tourists would almost trip over the little ones which, in turn, launched merchants after them calling “you want camel? Large or small? I have larger here! Maybe a pillow? You want pillow?”
After a long haggle of my own, I concluded that the even the not-so-tiny ones would be nice enough (alright, cheap enough) to give to friends back home. Not so small that they would think they weren’t valued friends, but not so large that they’d have to display them in a prominent place and have other people wonder when they travelled to Cairo and why they didn’t get a nice gift too. I bought a dozen of them.
I distributed them to my appreciative friends, although, I didn’t bother to keep one for myself. After all, I’d just seen about 10,000 of them. Honestly, I thought they we’re kinda cheesy, but everyone said that they were very cute so I figured I’d done a nice job!
Indeed, most of my friends displayed them on shelves in their homes with other knick-knacks and I would see them from time to time for years. That’s when it dawned on me. Why didn’t I have one of these damn camels? They’re cool. Years after I had been to Cairo and I’d never seen any of these except the ones I bought for my friends. But did I have one of my own to remind me of my trip? Did I have much of anything from that journey?
I went to Cairo and I didn’t even get myself this dumb t-shirt.
It’s easy to see the cheap junk offered during travels as just, well, junk. What do I need another shot glass for? Since then, I’ve learned my lesson. It turns out that when you bring home that crummy camel, or little metal model of the Eiffel Tower, it actually ends up looking pretty cool on your shelf next to the same scale model of Prambanan temple in Indonesia. At home, where they don’t have silver letter openers from Malta in every gift store, your cheap souvenir takes on a more treasured quality.
Once more, if you can collect enough kitschy souvenirs it actually starts to look pretty interesting, like you’ve been to a lot of exciting places…or at least that’s what I keep telling people when they see how my house is “decorated.” That’s not kitsch, I tell them, that’s a treasure from a foreign land.