Do you buy too much junk in third world countries?

One of the biggest problems that I have when I’m traveling overseas is “strong dollar syndrome.” With a rough approximation of the exchange rate in my head and the smell of foreign commerce, everything looks cheap and I buy trinkets and souvenirs with reckless abandon.

This has happened all over the place, from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul to the artisan market in Ubud, Indonesia to the Old City in Shanghai, China. That amazing tea set — the one with the intricate detailing, matching coasters and sterling spoons is only 20 Turkish Lira? Oh, the hand carved chess board with tiny stone robot pawns is a mere 100,000 Rupiahs? Heck yeah I’ll shell out for that!

All too often I’ve over committed to a cheap, cultural travel trinket, tossed it into my bag and carried it across an entire continent — just to bring it home and set it lovingly under my living room coffee table. As I sit typing this from my dining room in Chicago, I look left at a twice-opened chess set from Turkey and the rarely used cracked-glass ice cream dish from Vietnam. Did I really need to bring those back with me?

In part, yes. The memories that come back from my travels run strong every time I see an artifact that I’ve collected from the road. And whether or not I put things I’ve collect to regular use, it’s still nice having a reminder of the good times.

But in today’s globalized economy where it’s almost cheaper to have bulk items sold shipped and resold across an entire ocean it’s easy to see how the line between cultural and kitsch can blur.

Here’s an example: one game I now like to play in foreign markets is “Could I find this at the dollar store at home?” Completely out of context, without the smells, tastes and experiences of the road, might this item be in a heap of discounted refuse at the local supermarket? In the case of the teacup that I bought in Shanghai three years ago, most definitely.

As a result, I now keep my overseas purchases confined to a tightly defined window. Yes, I still want the experience of buying a unique, cultural object from an exotic destination, and I definitely want these memories tied to the object. But unless it has significant cultural or functional value or can be purchased in no other place in the planet, I’ll check the local Target. The rest of my souvenirs I’ll bring back in my camera.

[Photo : Flickr | *Zoha.n]