‘A great souvenir is a singular tangible memory keeper, an almost metaphysical object.’ – Unknown.
Although it’s not a key part of my travel experience, I do like to buy one or two (usually small) souvenirs whenever I am in a new country. Sometimes, the souvenir is as simple as a postcard. Other times, it’s an entire one-of-a-kind patchwork quilt which was hand made for me in Ghana. Most of the trinkets and paintings / pictures / photos I have scattered around my room are from other countries and when I look at them, I remember where I was and the circumstances under which they were acquired. Each souvenir has a story behind it, and with a small clutch of new items fresh back from my travels in Israel and Jordan, now seems like the perfect moment to tell the tales behind my newest batch of souvenirs.
The Pink Scarf
On the flight to Israel, I perused P’s Lonely Planet guide and read that we needed to wear headscarves and skirts if we wished to enter any of the holy sites in Jerusalem.
‘Damn!’ I exclaimed, ‘Look P! And I had my scarf and long black skirt out to bring and everything! Goes to show, packing whilst you’re tipsy is not a good idea!’
In our hotel in Jerusalem, we asked the owner, Alex, where we might be able to buy headscarves from.
‘Don’t worry,’ he replied, ‘You can borrow three scarves from my wife! It will save you money.’
We thanked him and waited whilst his wife retrieved three headscarves for us – black, blue and green. She showed us how to put them on and smiled at us whilst we did our own botched jobs. She demonstrated again on P and nodded approval. It looked good. I packed them into my bag and we thanked her profusely before heading out for the day to explore the city.
When P and E left me a day early to head back to Tel Aviv, we returned the scarves and thanked her again. I moved into my single room and settled down to spend the day relaxing – reading my book and eating chocolate before later heading out to watch the sunset over turn the east side of the city pink and orange. I had nearly finished my book – Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach – when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and Alex’s wife appeared. She was carrying a small plastic bag and she smiled the moment she saw me.
‘I have this for you,’ she said, holding out the bag, ‘A scarf.’
‘For me?!’ I exclaimed, putting down my book and taking the proffered bag and peeking inside. There was a flash of pink and I withdrew the scarf, silken, delicately embroidered with a pattern of flowers.
‘Thank you so much!’
I felt overwhelmed by her generosity. The scarf was beautiful, a different design to the one’s she had lent us a few days earlier. Impulsively I hugged her, thanking her again and again. She hugged back, smiled wider, shaking her head and waving off my thanks.
I will forever look at the scarf and remember Alex’s wife. It annoys me that I never asked her what her name was. I thanked her again before I left the next morning, and felt grateful for her gift during our time in Jordan, when E borrowed the scarf to keep the hot sun from beating down directly onto her head and to keep the sand and dust of the desert out of her hair. The scarf will come with me on future travels, and see more of the world with me. For now, it languishes in a drawer with other scarves I’ve acquired from other countries over the years, until it is needed again.
The Glass Vases
‘Two for the price of one,’ the man said, watching me closely as I picked up a small glass vase and turned it over in my hand, ‘You buy one and get another one free.’
We had already talked about where I was from, the fact that I was travelling with my sisters and he had kindly shown me where to find the bathroom. I hadn’t really intended on buying any souvenir that day, but I was drawn to these vases and their beautiful colours. He held another one up to the light to show me how it glowed.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said, setting the vase back down on the shelf, ‘Thank you for showing me.’
He nodded and stepped back. I wandered past and looked around the rest of the shop. Deep down, I already knew I’d buy one of those vases and take the man up on his offer of getting another one for free, but I wanted to have some space before I committed to my purchase. I found the pressure of him watching whilst I made a choice over which one I liked best a bit off-putting.
After a coffee and a little time to think, I returned to buy the glassware. A different man came with me to shelf this time, and watched as I deliberated over my choice. In the end, I settled on two small vases, one a beautiful green hue and the other a darker red-purple colour. Only 39 shekels for both! A bargain!
At the counter, I paid on my Monzo card and thanked the man as he wrapped the vases for me in newspaper to protect them from breaking. I left feeling pleased with my purchases and surprised at how cheap they’d been.
‘How much is 39 shekels in pounds?’ I asked E as we waited to climb aboard our bus once more.
‘About £8,’ she said, after some rapid calculations. I thought no more of it until two days later when I was lying in bed one evening and checking my Monzo app to see how much money was left on my card.
That’s strange, I thought, I’m sure I had more money left than this…
Scrolling down my list of purchases, I suddenly realised what the discrepancy was… The glass I’d bought in Jericho, which I’d thought was 39 shekels for both, had actually been USD$39 for both! I’d misread the price tag! I mentally kicked myself, but I had to smile. So much for my bargain!
The Iron Horse
My head was pounding and every step I took up the steps felt tortuous. It was warm and the air was still in the canyon, without a breath of wind to freshen it. I paused once again to catch my breath and wonder, for the thousandth time since beginning the climb, why on earth I was even doing this. My water bottle was light in my hand, my supply dwindling fast. Determined despite myself to reach the top, I plodded on and rounded the next corner to be confronted by another of the colourful stalls that had dotted my way up the steps. Most sold only trinkets – scarves, little statuettes, jewellery – but this one was different.
Directly in front of me was a cooler and in that cooler, surrounded by melted ice, were bottles of water. I dug into my pocket for a 10JD note I had stashed there and passed it to the woman running the stall, asking for one of the bigger bottles. She obliged, handed me my change and watched as I unscrewed the cap and downed about a quarter of the bottle in one go.
‘It’s so hot!’ I exclaimed, waving my hands to mime fanning on my face, and smiling at her, ‘Thank you for the water!’
She nodded and smiled back. I felt an inordinate amount of gratitude towards her for stocking bottles of water for stupid tourists like me that didn’t bring enough with them. Carrying my renewed supply, and with a bit more energy, I continued my slog up the hill and finally made it, coming face to face with The Monastry carved into the rock face and finding my sisters already there.
On our way back down, I passed the stall where I’d bought the water.
‘The thing is,’ I murmured to E, as I declined the goods being offered to me for sale once again, ‘I do actually want to buy something.’
‘Then buy something!’ E replied, ever logical.
I didn’t need telling twice! I turned and dashed back up the steps, back to the stall where I’d bought the water from. Although the woman didn’t realise it, the water I’d been able to buy there had been just what I needed to get myself all the way up to the top of the hill. If I was going to buy anything, it would be from her stall.
‘How much is this?’ I asked, holding up a small but heavy iron horse statuette in the palm of my hand.
‘It’s 5JD,’ she replied, coming over, ‘Those ones are ten.’
‘I only have 5JD,’ I said, pulling the crumpled note from my pocket, ‘I’ll take this one. Thank you!’
She had probably expected to haggle, but the price for the horse wasn’t something I wanted to quibble over. 5JD is the equivalent of about £6 and yes, perhaps I could have gotten the statuette for a cheaper price, but I felt happy to spend 5JD. I slipped it into my backpack and thanked her before heading off down the hillside once more.
The horse now sits on my window sill next to a little wooden statuette of a zebra that I’ve had since I was a child and whenever I look at it, I remember that climb and how finding that stall selling bottles of water literally felt like salvation at the time!
The Silver Bangle
Chaos ensued around me as I perched on the bench overlooking the Treasury and watched on. It was nearing sunset – the tourists were leaving for the day, wending their way slowly back through the Siq and up the hill back to Wadi Musa. I was waiting for P and E to re-join me. I watched the horses that fidgeted restlessly in their carriage harnesses, assessing their health through narrowed eyes, and observed the interactions between tourists and the local Bedouin’s, who sold trinkets and tried to encourage people to take a ride in the carriages.
A boy, perhaps no older than 10 or 11, appeared from nowhere through the crowd and, seeing the other half of the bench I sat on was empty, came and joined me. I moved my bag to make room for him and smiled in his direction.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
I told him. A short conversation followed – I asked if he went to school, if he enjoyed it and how much time he spent working in Petra. His grasp of English was excellent.
‘You have very beautiful eyes,’ he said, once the conversation ebbed, ‘It has been nice to talk to you. Here…’
He slid one of his silver bangles onto my bag.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, trying to give it back to him, ‘I have no money to pay for it! I am waiting for my sisters and they have all of our money. Here, take it back…’
‘No no!’ he waved his hand and shook his head, ‘It is a present! You keep it…’
He took it from my hand and slipped it onto my wrist. I protested some more, but he continued to insist, so in the end I gave up and instead admired the bangle that flashed silver when I turned it this way and that. He stood up.
‘It has been nice to meet you,’ he said.
I thanked him several times and waved goodbye with a smile. As I watched, he melted in among the throng of tourists coming up from the amphitheatre and disappeared.