How to buy legit vacation souvenirs

The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’
~Daniel J. Boorstin

I am recently returned from a trip to the Big Bend region of Texas. I’ve been many times, and I will hopefully go back many more. Don’t let people tell you Big Bend is boring. It’s hot and harsh and unforgiving, but it can also be an amazing and beautiful place. This trip found butterflies in abundance…big ones, small ones, yellow ones, black ones. I also learned that there are, I shit you not, beavers living in the Rio Grande. I saw one, and had their existence confirmed by a park ranger. Fucking beavers in the Rio Grande. Learn something new every day.

But Big Bend is a terrible place to shop for souvenirs. There are few towns of any size (really, the nearest HEB is in Odessa, I think) and the desolate and isolated nature of the park makes for an unusual tourist demographic. The national park stores have little to offer, and the state park’s store even less. But I had a cat-sitting friend I wanted to repay with a local gift, so here’s some advice when shopping for legit vacation souvenirs. Note that this is geared for souvenir shopping in America…my experiences souvenir shopping in Japan were completely different.

Know how to spot “name-drop” merchandise. “Name-drop” merch is generic items, usually t-shirts, magnets, stickers, mugs, etc, that has simply had the town, park, or destination’s name placed on it. If you’ve ever bought a pretty t-shirt with a horse on it that says Silverton, CO, and then later found the exact same shirt for sale with Cheyenne, WY instead, you’re a name-drop victim. Once you realize they exist, they’re easy to spot. Buying a name-drop isn’t a sin…often they’re the only things available if you’re looking for bumper stickers or mugs. But I’d prefer to stay away if possible.

How to ditch the ‘drop: Look for souvenirs that feature imagery specific to the location. A t-shirt that says “Just Hike It” and “Big Bend Ranch State Park” is probably a name-drop, but a shirt featuring Santa Elena canyon is definitely not. Look for small shops selling original designs on shirts, these will often net you a unique and far more authentic souvenir.

Find out where it’s made. I spent most of my souvenir shopping time in Big Bend examining objects for their “Made in…” stickers. Most of what I saw was made in China, Peru, Taiwan, Turkey…including the “Navajo” rugs. Sure, the Oaxacan wood carvings were damn cool, but they’re from Oaxaca, not Santa Elena, or Boquillas, or the other nearby Mexican towns. Unfortunately, local art is often far more expensive than the imported crap, so judge on an individual basis.

How to judge if something’s worth it: Again, make sure what you’re buying is indicative of the location, and not something you can pick up on Ebay. If you’re in Oaxaca, buy up those awesome carvings. If not, find something a little more locally-flavored, even if it’s not locally made.

Watch out for “label-drop” foods. Much like name-drop merch, but much harder to spot. There are companies that produce local-looking canned fruits or vegetables, jams, jellies, pickled foods, or honey that will slap a local label on the product to make it look not mass-produced.

How to tell it’s a fake? Pay attention to the wording. “Manufactured/Produced for…” or variations thereof is a good indicator that someone slapped a local label on a non-local product. “Made in…” is what you want to see.

Avoid anything Native American. Unless you’re very familiar with the traditional crafts of the local tribes, you’re better off just avoiding anything Indian. Even reservation gift shops can be a confusing morass of Made in China bullshit, Kokopelli crap, and “Navajo” rugs. Never buy a damn dreamcatcher, unless it’s handmade by someone of the Ojibwe. I saw those for sale in Big Bend, too, despite the fact that dreamcatchers are not associated with the Chisos, Apaches, or Comanches.

How to buy Indian: Do your research beforehand, and expect to shell out. The real stuff ain’t cheap, and you won’t find it in a two-bit souvenir shop.

In short, know something about where you are. You may not know that the “Made in Dripping Springs” jelly you’re buying is from the Texas Hill Country and you’re hours away in the Chihuahuan desert, but you should know better than to buy the evil eye pendants or the Buddha statues, even if you don’t know about the name-drop shirts or the fact that Kokopelli was associated with tribes far west of your location.

In the end, I found some raw honey made in Alpine, a nearby town (in West Texas terms), which was both local and reminiscent of the massive swarms of pollinators we saw on the trip. Fuck yeah honey.

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