Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints

In my earlier post, I explained how to pack all of your trip essentials into a carry-on. This approach also leaves little room to bring anything back from your trip, which can sometimes be a blessing. Over the years, I have learned to curb my shopping by being choosy about what I bring back. Here are my suggestions on what to bring back, aside from photographs:

1. Music

I have to credit my older brother for starting me along this trend. I still remember the Moroccan mixtapes he bought in Tangier, filled with songs we have never, ever, been able to find elsewhere. From Yiddish folk tunes to Lanna music from Chiang Mai, I have a collection of CDs from abroad that are very dear to me. If you hear something you like, Shazam the tune or ask someone about it, because you may never have the opportunity to do so again. Sometimes, I even bring back a musical instrument, though I admit I have yet to master the didgeridoo.


2. Jewelry

I often buy earrings from abroad, not just for myself, but also as a gift. They’re tiny, useful (so long as your ears are pierced), and can become a great conversation piece. Just be sure to confirm what material they are made of to avoid any allergy issues.

3. Artwork

I try to pick small artwork pieces, canvases that can be rolled, or fabric work, so that they are easy to pack. One of my favourite pieces is the knotted carpet I brought back from Seljuk, Turkey, which I rolled and carried with me on the plane. When that doesn’t work, remember that shipping can also be an option (as I had to do with my didgeridoo). Artwork is a great way to weave stories from your travels into your home decor.

Painting of Angkor Wat

Painting of Angkor Wat

4. A signature item

Looking for a small souvenir on a family cruise at the age of 12, I settled upon a shot glass, whose purpose I didn’t quite understand at the time. I thought it was cute, and so began a habit of purchasing a shot glass from every country I visited. I still don’t use them for their intended purpose, but the collection grew into a reason to keep collecting, and it limited me to just one piece of kitsch per trip. A few years ago, I finally figured out how I would create something meaningful out them. Pour some wax and a wick into a shot glass, and you have a votive candle. Someday, when I have the space for it, I plan to convert all 60 or so shot glasses of mine into a floor chandelier. Al and I have also started to collect a particular type of decor item that we hope to someday incorporate into a future home, but that is a story that is still early in its making.

5. Knowledge 

One of my favourite takeaways from my trip to Thailand in 2011 was the knack for making a delicious Som Tam (green papaya salad). If you like the cuisine of the region you are visiting – take a cooking class! I especially suggest taking one that is geared towards everyday food, because it’s a great way to spice up your weekday dinner repertoire. Knowledge is the best thing you can bring back, because it can never be taken away from you.

Ingredients for Tom Yum Soup

Ingredients for Tom Yum Soup

Setting the mood for travel

When it comes to preparing for travel, we often think of all the usual suspects that make up trip planning: flight bookings, hotel reservations, visa arrangements, medical necessities, and some degree of research on your destination. My fiancé, who has a knack for all of the above, often says that his favourite part of a trip is the planning, because it builds anticipation. Looking forward to a vacation is a big part of the joy of travel, whether it entails finding the perfect flight permutation, or immersing yourself in cultural experiences that have a relationship to your destination.

In advance of our upcoming trip that includes some time seeing Sakura in Japan, we have been gearing our Sunday movie nights towards films that are set there, watching The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. While we can’t expect Hollywood productions to substitute for a cultural lesson, tailoring our regular entertainment choices has given us glimpses of beautiful landscapes that we might try to capture on our itinerary.

Browsing at your local airport bookstore before taking off? Choosing your vacation reading list is another way to further immerse yourself in your travel experience. I chose to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez on my way to Medellin, last year, and there are many renowned authors to choose from for this trip, perhaps some more Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, or even classics like the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Ideally, I aim for something that was either created by a native of the land, or something that is set in the land – it doesn’t have to be both. So if your tastes are more to James Clavell’s Shogun or the latest paperback thriller, read on!

Like for any other activity, music is often a great way to set the mood, but I have always found that this one works in reverse – hearing a song that I used to hear on a trip often transports me back to that time and place. So make it a point to add to your media library as you travel.

In the digital era, cultural immersion and trip planning can converge by tuning your social media channels to local bloggers and social media feeds. It’s an instant, visual way to see what’s happening or about to happen in your destination.

Enjoy the build-up to your trip, because travel is always better with a little bit of foreplay.

The Bucket List: Make the Bucket Big Enough

In my earlier post, I talked about one of the experiences on my bucket list. While I do have a vision board that illustrates some of my life goals, I have never made an official bucket list. Instead, I have a fluid, ever-evolving ‘secret menu’ of moments I hope to experience. If I look back at my life, especially my twenties, I feel lucky to have fulfilled many of these desires…like this one:


Skydiving near Cairns, Australia

…or this one:

Top of Grizzly Peak, Alberta

Top of Grizzly Peak, Alberta

Part of what made these bucket list items achievable was that I made them flexible enough for me to seize. While New Zealand is often considered the extreme sports capital of the world, I took the opportunity to skydive while I was in Australia. This is one case where I needed to commit myself to work up the courage, but I tried to keep my options flexible. Even though I was originally planning to do the jump in Brisbane, the to-do list item simply read: skydive somewhere abroad. I ended up having the opportunity to jump in Cairns, again having to shift my plans around because of the weather. Had I been too specific about jumping in Brisbane, I may not have had a chance to jump at all on that trip.

In the summer of 2007, I became frustrated with the fact that I had hiked extensively in the Rockies, but had never peaked any mountains, despite growing up in Calgary. Returning home from my penultimate semester at uni, I requested we change our plans for a family hike into one that would have us peak a mountain, any mountain. Taking advantage of Grizzly Peak’s proximity to home, our family outing turned into a family scramble (my dad and brother used to be avid scramblers). While my mom didn’t quite make it to the peak, she made it much further along than I would expect of any of her peers, and I got to enjoy the company of my whole family on this special trip. Had I been pickier about the mountain, it may have proved too difficult for my parents at that time in their life.

Some experiences are meant to be specific: like seeing the Grand Canyon – there is only one! Other times, a little bit of flexibility can help make something achievable. The same advice applies to travel – put yourself where you need to be, but don’t pigeon-hole yourself so much that you lose a chance to do something special. So, I now turn the question to you: what’s on your bucket list?

The Bucket List: Fleeting Beauty

I have always had a bucket list – it’s just not written anywhere. I like to think of it as an ever-evolving secret menu that a handful of people know about. Sometimes, even I don’t realize that I have ‘always wanted to do that’ until I have already done it. Other times, there is a clear vignette that I am chasing, which becomes a driver for making my travels happen a certain way. Our decision to divert to Japan for our upcoming trip is one such example. In 2005, I spent a co-op term in Vancouver, working in an office building which had many beautiful cherry trees in its garden. As March turned to April, I saw them in bloom for the first time, and it was a profound visual experience, especially when the breeze would blow. It was there that I learned of the importance of Sakura (cherry blossom) in Japanese culture, and it was there that I formed a desire to visit Japan to partake in Hanami (the act of appreciating the transient beauty of flowers).

Sakura in Heian Shrine

Sakura in Heian Shrine, by Oyvind Solstad (Used under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

I carried this desire in my heart, unspoken, until a couple of months ago when Al and I were deciding how we would fly back from Bangkok, the destination we had booked a year ago because of an exceptionally cheap flight deal. Flying back on points via Tokyo proved to be the most efficient way, and we planned a stopover in Japan, leaving Thailand (a country we had each already visited, separately) as our primary destination. Realizing that this would put us in Japan during prime Sakura season, I told Al about how it was on my bucket list, and we adjusted our plans to spend some more time in Japan, allowing us to travel to the northern parts where the trees would be in full bloom at our arrival. This is how we ended up with such a whirlwind world tour. While some of my earlier posts explored meaningful travel at a slower pace, seeking a natural/cultural experience is another way to make travel meaningful. In this case, I feel the pace is fitting. Life is guaranteed to be transient, like the Sakura. If we’re lucky, it can also be just as beautiful.