It was a hot, sunny afternoon in Puebla. We’d somehow lost the rest of the group after the morning trip to Cholula and were wondering the pretty streets around the town centre on our own. We were on the lookout for ceramic bowls so we stepped into a ceramic shop to see whether they had anything. Their bowls were disappointing but they did have some interesting tiles with skull designs.
“But what will we do with them?” the husband asked.
“That’s not the question,” I replied. “If you like them, let’s get them, and we’ll find a purpose for them afterwards.”
In hindsight it was probably not too clever buying something heavy and relatively fragile like tiles on our first stop, but we were adhering to the first rule of souvenir shopping*.
The smiling Mayan girl waved some bookmarks at me while I was having lunch. She was so beautiful I wanted to buy all the things she had, just to make her smile. But what would I do with 100 bookmarks and 50 wooden combs? I shook my head and she walked away but came back again before I’d finished eating. She gestured again at the things she had for sale. I shook my head again, and hopefully conveyed how conflicted I was. She smiled and disappeared.
The market in Oaxaca filled two buildings. Spices and mescal rubbed shoulders alongside meat and vegetables. Shopping bags with pictures of Frida Kahlo were for sale next to fresh flowers. Down one particularly smoky aisle, you could but fresh meat, and take it to the grill people to have it cooked for you.
Everything colourful, bright. I wanted to buy everything, to capture a piece of this life, this colour, this feeling, and take it home with me and hold it in my hands when I wanted to remember it.
We found a jaguar head noisemaker. You blow into it and it makes a noise like a jaguar. Or, in the wrong hands, it makes a sound like someone who has bad wind. But it has some holes in it so we can turn it into a Christmas tree ornament and never have to try and make a jaguar sound.
We visited a cooperative store selling local handicrafts. Prices here were higher than elsewhere, but so was the quality. Brightly coloured wooden animals decorated the shelves – I want a jaguar, a grasshopper, a dragon, a donkey. I want it all, but I can’t decide, so I get nothing.
San Cristobal de las Casas
I must have a colourful Mexican top with embroidery. Will it make me look fat or frumpy? Does it matter if it does? It makes me feel happy. All the stallholder women are wearing them and they are many different shapes from me. It’s how you wear it, not what you wear. This shirt is bright and joyful. This shirt will make me happy when I think about being in SanCris.
And shopping bags – I have to have one. But which one? The storeholder tolerates me looking through her whole stock on display before choosing the mustard coloured one. I can’t say why it appealed, but it’s mine now, and I can use it to carry my purchases back to the hotel.
It seems wrong to allow vendors to set up shop inside ancient sites, but for tourists, it’s very convenient. You can sightsee and get your souvenir shopping done all at once.
Quetzal, quetzal, quetzal! I have had a thing for quetzals since reading about them in my Childcraft Annual “Animals in Danger”. The local vendors have hand-beaded quetzal ornaments for sale. I need a quetzal for my Christmas tree. I owe it to my five year old self.
Last ancient site of the trip and these are tat sellers all over the place, amongst the ruins. Some of their stuff is cool, but we want to see the site, so don’t stop. Well…we don’t stop often.
We didn’t buy a brightly coloured wooden skeleton, but I have a picture, and that is almost as good. I don’t have to dust a picture or figure out where to put it.
Playa del Carmen
Here at last are the bowls that we have been looking for. Colourful and painted with bright designs of birds, fruit or chillies. We unpack every bowl in the shop to appraise its qualities. Do we like the colour? How is the quality of the paint job? It is appealing? Do they have glitter in them? After half an hour we have our selection. The shop assistant wraps our purchases thoroughly, in several layers of brown paper, and secures them with bright red tape. I can’t wait until I get home and can unwrap them and use them in my kitchen.
* The first rule of souvenir shopping: always buy the first one you see because you won’t see it again anywhere else. The second rule of souvenir shopping: never buy the first one you see because you will see it somewhere else and cheaper. If you follow these two simple rules you’ll be fine.