Looking back to when I first seriously started travelling over twenty years ago, I was an avid souvenir collector. All manner of things came back with me until my house was overflowing with what then were irresistible purchases: painted bowls, mass-produced watercolours, huge piles of tat in all shapes and sizes. Over the years I like to think I’ve become a little more discerning and certainly more considered. I don’t bring as much back, but everything has a story and triggers a memory, just as souvenirs should do.
What’s the best souvenir you’ve ever brought back from your travels?
Hedgehogs, Austrian Tyrol, 1970s to 1980s
As a child I had many happy holidays in the Austrian Tyrol and over the course of those holidays collected these little hedgehogs. There is a certain irony to my choice of winter sports themed hedgehogs when all our holidays were summer ones, I suppose. At the time, I used to play with them like dolls, but as an adult I appreciate them as a kitsch reminder of the Tyrolean culture that still draws me back to the region to this day.
Alpaca bed cover, Arequipa, Peru 2001
I bought this from a store tucked down a side street in Arequipa’s colonial centre. Six weeks after the terrible earthquake, people were trying to get back on their feet. It’s beautifully soft, made from the fur of baby alpacas. I flew back with it wrapped in plastic. It was too big to be able to be taken on board as cabin baggage, but the plane had technical problems and so, for several hours, it sat on the tarmac in a rainstorm. It took a while to properly dry out and lose that distinctive damp animal smell, but I’ve loved it ever since.
Ceramic angel, Playa del Carmen, Mexico 1998
This guardian angel was bought in the then sleepy fishing village of Playa del Carmen on my first visit to Mexico. It looks as though its had way too many tacos but I love its chubby charm. These days, the angels are painted in bright colours and have “Playa del Carmen” emblazoned across them. My Mexican angel is a reminder of how places change too.
Coca Cola can elephant, Livingstone, Zambia 2012
I’ve been a huge fan of elephants ever since I can remember. My favourite toy growing up was an elephant named Bendo, once kapok-stuffed (until it was washed and had to be refilled) and I now sponsor elephant orphans at the Sheldrick orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. I have many elephant souvenirs, but this is my favourite. This quirky creature was picked up from a market in Livingstone on the day I rode a huge bull elephant side-saddle just out of town.
Woven blanket, Chichicastenango, Guatemala 2012
I never tire of Latin America, and part of my love affair with that region has to do with the vibrant colours that characterise the region and its personality. I was in textile heaven at Chichicastenango market and could have quite happily bought the lot. I couldn’t resist the colours of this one. It now covers a bedside chair so this is the first thing I see when I wake up.
Golden retriever bag, Chicago, USA 2015
When I travel, I miss my two fluffy golden retrievers more than I used to pine for a decent cup of tea. I’m therefore a sucker for anything with a retriever theme. I’m the proud owner of a Golden-opoly game (golden retriever Monopoly) and golden retriever photo frames, and a box full of toys for them – think squeaky Empire State Building and you’ve got the idea. My latest purchase, from the Chicago branch of Macy’s, is a take on the iconic Bloomingdale’s Little Brown Bag, and in my opinion, a considerable improvement.