Mindful Marketplaces

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of the winter. As soon as February hits, I’m just about ready to travel to somewhere warm. Is anyone else in that same boat? Well, the timing is perfect because I’ll be taking a pretty intense international business trip later this month. I’m really excited to share more details with you soon as the trip comes together. I’m particularly thrilled because I may be heading to a country that’s been on my bucket list for a while! I am already making a mental list of things I want to do and see (and buy) while I’m there.

Conflicting philosophies?

This brings me to a topic that I’ve thought a lot about over the years – shopping while traveling. Anytime I travel (particularly to somewhere new), I love bringing back presents for friends/family. I also scout out items for myself/my household to remind me of the trip. As you might have guessed, I love having a global flair to my home and wardrobe. Keeping an eye out for unique products when I’m traveling is the perfect way to do that. That said, my personal philosophy is “fewer, but better.” I want to make sure that whatever I keep in my home is something that I truly value. Things that I find valuable are items that bring back great memories and have meaning not only to me, but also to the people who make them.

Local markets can be exciting, but also overwhelming.

How do you reconcile the philosophy of “fewer, but better” with the desire to purchase even more than usual when you go abroad? Especially if you’re going to a place where the cost of living is lower than your home country, you can likely get an even bigger bang for your buck. This might encourage you to shop even more than usual! With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips that have helped me over the years. The next time you’re on a trip, these tips might help you be a conscious consumer, too.

A guide to conscious consumption while traveling

  1. Research, research, research – This might take the fun out of shopping, but it can’t hurt to do a bit of research before hitting the local markets. You’ll likely learn valuable tips from travelers who have come before you. For example, from a 10-minute Google search, I learned a quick trick for telling real pearls from fake ones when I was in Bangladesh (hint: ask the vendor to put the pearl over an open¬† flame – if the pearl is unaffected, then it’s real!). I’ve also learned other useful tips, such as the best times to visit certain markets (some vendors give their biggest discounts in the evening), or that some items are prohibited for travels (did you know that you’re not permitted to take images of Buddha outside of Thailand without an export license?). Most vendors won’t tell you this information because they want the sale.
  2. Bargain, within limits – I love a good bargain. While I don’t love haggling, I will make an effort to get merchants down to the a price point that I feel comfortable with. I know they inflate their prices for tourists, so I want to make sure I don’t get cheated. That said, remember that many merchants will rely on the income they get from their sale to purchase their daily meal. In cases where the merchants are artisans themselves, they’ve likely spent a great deal of time making that carved wooden jewelry box that you’re eyeing. They are taking time away from their craft to spend at the local market to sell you their products. That’s time away from practicing their craft and producing even more beautiful items. With that in mind, be considerate when haggling and pay the price you think is fair to support the artisan. My friend Tatiana, for example, regularly travels to certain countries. She’s formed relationships with local artists whose art she admires. Because of that, they’ll save special pieces for her and she gets to purchase items that are even more valuable to her in the long run. I’m not saying that you should get cheated or view your purchase as charity – but do remember that a difference of a few cents to you might mean a proper meal to the person you’re buying a product from.

    The weavers of the ADMAPA Cooperative from Santa Catarina. Photo by Smita Jacob.
  3. Paper or plastic? Most of the places I visit tend to have cash-based economies. That means that, even though some retailers accept credit cards, most people use cash. I often carry USD will me and convert the money locally when possible. Otherwise, if ATMs are safe to use, I’ll withdraw cash in local currency from an ATM. Wherever you visit, it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand in case of emergencies.
  4. Reusable bags, always – I usually take reusable bags with me whenever I go shopping – including on my travels. It’s usually better than having a ton of small bags to carry. It’s also a better use of resources given that, in many countries, recycling programs are almost nonexistent and you don’t want vendor shelling out more plastic bags.

    These multipurpose bags from Mekong Quilts are perfect for a shopping trip overseas. Photo by Mekong Quilts.
  5. Gifting an experience – When getting gifts for others, I try to find items that won’t just sit on someone’s shelf. Oftentimes, I try to figure out what foods or consumable goods a place is known for (for example, Cambodia is known for Kampot pepper, a kind of black peppercorn that only grows in one region of the country) and find those types of items to bring back for friends and family. That way, they can experience a place through my travels and they can use up a product without having it create clutter in their homes.
  6. Love at first sight? I don’t know about you, but my tastes sometimes change when I travel. For example, if a certain style of trousers are all the rage in one place, I find myself suddenly drawn to them because they look so unique. However, really consider if you’ll actually use an item when you bring it back home. Challenge yourself to think of how you’ll use it – i.e. think of three ways you can style those trousers with items that are already in your closet. Does that blanket fill a need in your home, or is your closet already overflowing with blankets? That hat might look great with your swimsuit, but if you only go to the beach once a year, is it worth it? The last thing you want is to come home and realize you regret buying the items you did. After all, it’s practically impossible to return most items after you’ve brought them home.
  7. Let your tastebuds be your guide – Instead of going shopping for souvenirs, it’s sometimes equally as rewarding shopping for local produce. For example, I’ve discovered all kinds of bananas in Malawi that we never get in the US due to import restrictions. Stop by your local produce market and look for any interesting foods you might not have encountered before. Chances are, anytime you encounter that particular food, you’ll think back on your experience.

    Walking “off the beaten path” in India, I found this little unmarked shack, which is where I had the best noodle soup I tasted during my trip.
  8. Off the beaten path – Many large cities will have a designated shopping district. Most tourists will go there and may often find the same kinds of souvenirs at every shop. If it’s safe to do so, consider taking walks in areas less frequented by tourists. Chances are, you’ll find unique items at better prices.

    Local guides are the best, such as this lovely woman who guided me through a local market in Timor Leste.
  9. Ask questions – Throughout most of my travels, the hotel concierge or other locals are more than happy to share information about where to go for the best shopping. They’ll might even offer to take you to their favorite places, which has happened to me on multiple occasions. It’s almost like getting a personal tour guide for shopping. They’ll tell you where to look to find the best products and how to tell imitations from genuine items.

    Don’t forget to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience!
  10. Memories, not objects¬†– As much fun as it might be to score that perfect gift or find something truly unique, don’t let shopping eat up all of your time while traveling. After all, you don’t want most of your memories to be of the inside of a shop. The more you get out and make memories, the more those souvenirs will mean to you.

If you have any trips coming up soon, I hope this quick guide is helpful. Remember that you can apply the principles of conscious consumption anywhere you go. What are some of the countries on your bucket list? I may have visited there already and might have a few tips I can share with you. I’d love to hear from you!

***Credits for the beautiful featured image above belong to my friend, Lindsey Anna.

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