My friends from Bhutan had exactly 36 hours in Bangkok before they had to fly back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping —buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a year’s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; it’s almost 10 pm.
We get back to my place where they’re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.
I used to buy souvenirs from places I’d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a “Yak Yak Yak” t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says “Koh Samui” in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.
I don’t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.
There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. Every morning, it was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that left froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.
When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.
Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.
Like values humans share. The photo of a Burmese friend against the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Shwe Da Gon Temple is precious to me. It speaks about scale—the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one person’s story.
From Burma I also take back contrast. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.
In Bali, I spent three days at a friend’s cousin’s wedding and learned the stories of tolerance, devotion and love.
And in Northern Vietnam, I see longing in the faces of Hmong children as they gaze longingly at balloons bright and dazzlingly Disney. Vietnam is where I learn of how in times of transformations, a place might leave some people behind.
On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds,summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.
In Bagan, Myanmar I sat with my friend Ye Myint. We’ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. At the end of that day, we fell to silence as the sky released its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.
Those intangibles are good takeaways for me. Some moments become like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.