One of the great things about travel is that you never know who you will meet along the way. Every trip I’ve taken has been punctuated by connecting with wonderful people who have gone out of their way to show me their home and share their culture with me in some way. Whether it is my hosts at a small b&b or on a home stay, a local guide who goes above and beyond to ensure I have a great experience, or just a chance meeting with a local who offers me a unique glimpse into their life, I always like to be prepared and have a few small gifts on-hand.
Here are some tips for picking gifts that are easy to pack, thoughtful to give, and won’t clutter the landscape with a trail of useless junk!
HANDCRAFTED ITEMS ROCK!
If you are a crafty person and like to knit or make jewelry or draw, these kinds of things would be on the top of my list. Anything that you have made by hand will carry a very special meaning when gifted to a new friend overseas, and will be a great way for them to remember you. If you’re not crafty, maybe it’s time to pick a new project! Learn how to make something like candles or soap – they can double as great holiday presents at home.
GIVE FROM THE HEART VIA THE STOMACH
I love to bring specialty foods from my region; being from Seattle, I always have some nice smoked salmon and Market Spice tea from Pike Place. Think about the foods that your city, state or region is known for. Does your area have a special BBQ sauce or shortbread cookie? Even better, do you make your own sundried tomatoes or strawberry jam from your garden? These kinds of items are fun to share because they tell a bit about you, and if it is something your host has never tasted before, you get to bring them on a small culinary adventure!
REPRESENT YOUR HOME
Try to choose something that is representative of the place you come from. Postcards and picture books from your area will help you portray the topography, culture and special highlights of your home are to your hosts. If your city is known for it’s vibrant music scene, consider burning a few mixed CDs of local artists to give away. Cookbooks featuring local cuisine and collections of stories by local authors are also great ideas if your hosts are English-speaking.
IN DEVELOPING AREAS, USEFUL TRUMPS BEAUTIFUL
THINK CREATIVE FOR KIDS
When picking out gifts for the kids you will encounter on your trip, it’s tempting to become the “Backpacked Santa”! Be careful if you select toys – you don’t want to inadvertently cause jealousy and fighting among the children, and toys made of plastic are not the sort of lasting legacy you may want to leave. Likewise, avoid giving out tons of candy to kids; a few sweets are okay, but consider the parents who have to endure the sugar highs (and dental repercussions!). Instead, gifts that encourage creativity and active play are best. Colored pencils and paper or coloring books, soccer balls, jump-ropes, chalk, games (that are easy to learn) and finger paints are all winners with kids worldwide. If you want to donate supplies to the local school, be sure to connect directly with a teacher or facilitator there to find out exactly what they need, rather than just taking a guess.
CONSIDER WAITING TO BUY LOCAL
Sometimes it is far cheaper and easier to buy gifts locally while you travel. This will allow you to customize the gift according to the region and the recipient. For example, my friends in a small Laos village all loved to play badminton. After several weeks of attending neighborhood matches with my host family, I knew they’d love to have their own set to play at home. It was a fun adventure to set off into town to buy one, and with my host family’s young daughter acting as my translator/negotiator, I know I got a great deal! Local handicrafts, like hand-stitched runners or homemade quilts, also would be special gifts for locals that you wouldn’t otherwise want to haul around in your luggage.
A PICTURE IS WORTH 1,000 (UNTRANSLATABLE) WORDS
This one is hard to remember and get around to, but so important in my opinion! We all end up with great images of ourselves with our new friends after our travels. Be sure to get people’s email/mailing addresses and follow-up when you get home – send those photos! [adsenseyu2] Nothing helps keep the memory of a great connection alive like a simple photograph, and it’s one of the best thank you’s you can send. Another alternative I’ve seen some travelers do is to carry a Polaroid camera and hand out photos as you go.
THE GIFT IS THE GESTURE
Finally, remember that the whole point of a gift for a great host, guide or acquaintance is to show your heartfelt appreciation. Don’t get wrapped up in how simple it is or how little it may cost, and definitely do not give gifts out of a sense of obligation. You’ll rarely be able to know enough personal info about the receiver ahead of time to pick “the perfect gift” for them, so feel satisfied in the communication of feeling that your small gift represents.
More ideas? Please share them in the comments!