Souvenirs evoke fine vacation memories
My body is home these days, but my mind is roaming the globe. I’m stalking endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, interacting with animals and people in the Amazon, and clinging to a tiny saddle on a camel strolling through the Sahara Desert.
These are among countless memories that remain alive in souvenirs brought back from the more than 70 countries, including ours, that I have visited. This is a good time to relive travel experiences through mementos you’ve purchased.
As intriguing to me as the jungles and wildlife of the Amazon region are the people who live in tiny villages strung out along the mighty river. Most consist of a few to several dozen to several dozen houses made of crudely cut wood planks covered by a metal roof. Small gardens provide vegetables, and the surrounding forest provides fruits, nuts and medicinal plants.
Most houses rest on rickety stilts that keep them high enough to avoid being inundated during the rainy season, when the rivers can rise 40 feet or more. A few are floating houses that rise and fall with the water.
As the small motorboat in which I rode pulled up to each village, a few people, mostly children, came to the river’s edge to greet us. They were followed by women who shyly offered to sell seed and shell necklaces, woven items and other handicrafts. Among my purchases was a woven decorative plate, simple in design but exquisite in workmanship.
It’s challenging to choose from among the many items I have brought back from “the Middle Kingdom,” as that country was known historically, but one stands out. While following the ancient Silk Road years ago, I spotted a man in the distance on horseback. He brandished an interesting, hand-made whip with which he occasionally tapped the animal if it slowed its pace.
That scene — a horseman riding bareback along the fabled route using what elsewhere would be manufactured — spoke to me of much that makes China such a fascinating place. I asked my guide to call the rider over and ask if he would sell the whip. He agreed, and after discussing the price, which was so low that offered I bit more, the worn but treasured object now rests on a shelf in my home.
Going into (what then was) the Soviet Union on a bus tour from Finland, Russian guards found a small decorative knife I had purchased in Helsinki and said I couldn’t bring it into their country. I guess they thought I might use it to overthrow the government.
They told me to leave it at the customs hut on the Finnish side of the border. To do so, I had to walk back through a high, barbed-wire-topped double fence and gates, past snarling guard dogs, and under the watchful eyes of Soviet guards who kept their rifles trained on me as I made the round trip.
When my tour group returned through the same checkpoint days later, I was able to retrieve the memento from the Finnish sentries. As they handed it over, one explained, with a twinkle in his eyes, “The Soviets always do things like that just to hassle Americans.”
During my visit to Tunisia, I was able to experience its surprising variety of landscapes. The north is characterized by mountains that give way to its dry central plain, then to a semi-arid region.
Much of the extreme south is blanketed by the dry sands of the Sahara Desert — the largest stretch of sand in the world, covering one-quarter of Africa.
This enthralling setting is characterized by small settlements clustered round oases and people astride camels that provide a sense of times past.
My memorable camel ride began with a brief lesson that included details about how to maintain my mount as the dromedary went through its ungainly exercise of standing, and advice about how to overcome any efforts it might make to head off in a direction other than where I, and my fellow riders, wished to go.
A fairly realistic carved wooden camel, wearing the traditional saddle and exhibiting the usual rather haughty expression, serves as a reminder of that experience.
One of my most challenging travel experiences was following the footsteps of endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda. Those majestic beasts live in the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
My group was accompanied by guides who had scoped out the location of our prey early that morning. However, after traipsing and climbing for hours through the thick forest, we discovered the uncooperative creatures had moved.
We eventually found them and settled down to watch the youngsters swinging from limbs and wrestling on the ground under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
Suddenly the mammoth silverback who ruled the band began advancing menacingly toward us. One guide waved the AK-47 assault rifle that he carried specifically for that purpose, the alpha male gorilla retreated — and we hiked back to our tent camp with great memories and photos.
For more than 2,000 years, the Pueblo people, who live in what is now the Southwest United States, have prayed to spirits to bring them good weather, abundant game and a bountiful harvest. They have believed that beings known as Kachinas act as messengers between humans and the spirit world.
The Hopi people were first to create Kachina dolls, as a way to teach their children about them. Later, other tribes began making their own Kachina dolls to sell, adding beads, turquoise and other decorations.
The Kachina that I bought at an Indian market in Arizona reminds me of the rich and complex role of Native Americans in our country’s history and culture.
What memories do your souvenirs bring back?