Years ago, I had brought home a souvenir from my trip to North America, only to discover that it was Made in China. My heart broke. It was not about the money, Or wait, who am I kidding, it was also about the money spent on some so-called ‘authentic’ North American native art, but more than that, I felt cheated of an experience, of a genuine story. This episode taught me few lessons about shopping while travelling: 1. Never trust your tour guide blindly. 2. Always look for that minuscule but pervasive ‘Made in China’ stickers before you put down your money on something you think is ‘native’.
Shopping is one of travel’s elemental joys. Travellers of yore, who sailed the high seas in search of new worlds, yes, but they did so to primarily shop – to buy silk and spices which they could sell back home for double the price. Through this very act of shopping, they experienced new cultures, saw fascinating places, heard exciting tales and made new friends (some even married the new friends). Trade routes were established. Continents were connected. The world opened up. And all this happened merely because few men had the urge to go shopping in a faraway land.
For me, shopping when on the road is less about designer labels (unless they are those of local designers) and more about experiencing the culture of a place. I veer toward shops that you usually wouldn’t find in the guidebooks. These are places only locals know. You are more likely to find interesting people peddling fascinating wares along with enchanting stories in the lanes and by-lanes that are far from the main squares. But not in chain stores, shiny malls and shopping arcades as big as football fields.
Shopping is the most delectable way to appreciate and perceive a place, its people, and their ways. Before you embark on a journey, get some native insight about where you can shop and what you can shop for. Lifestyle bloggers are exceptional in ferreting out information. I usually try and meet them over coffee a day or two after I land and more often than not they are more than willing to take me to places known only to the locals. The hotel concierge can also be a reliable source. I even talk to waiters, bell boys, doorman and housekeeping staff – they know their shops.
To interact directly with artisans, I have found, visiting weekly farmer’s market helps. Wherever possible, I buy artworks directly from the artisans, since it is not only cheaper but it also ensures that the makers get their rightful share of the profits. The time you spend with them listening to their engaging stories makes your shopping expedition all the richer. And it also usually leads to other enthralling finds.
Friends of friends who are shopaholics and who are residents/knowledgeable of the area make for compelling guides. That’s how I discovered a 22,000 sq feet 17th century restored Haveli in Udaipur filled to the brim with beautiful heritage handmade textiles, paintings, and wooden crafts. Hidden behind a narrow one-bicycle lane, Ganesh Emporium is where you will find Vipul Shah’s (third generation owner) bohemian bags made out of local textiles and sported by the likes of Beyonce, Julia Roberts, the Kardashians and a host of other Hollywood biggies.
When you set out to discover a place by foot, shopping becomes an adventure. I usually set aside a day for my walkabouts. During one such stroll in Prince Edward Island is how I discovered Moonsails Soapworks which sold 16 kinds of handcrafted soaps that were cut with specially designed guitar-string cutters. I left with a fragrant red clay bar, made out of the red sand that PEI is famous for. Two doors away was The Overman Jewellery and Art, owned by a man who looked like a champion heavyweight boxer, but who made extraordinarily delicate jewellery— tiny bulbs, the size of two fingernails, filled with antique watch parts.
But my favourite walkabout shopping spree had to be the one where I met an 84-year-old man called “Baby” in a forgotten lane near Ulsoor Lake in Bangalore. He sold homemade curry powders from a tiny shop with no name. And he had been doing it for more than five decades. After more than an hour of conversation about life, love and food, I returned with 100 gms of Baby Iyer’s special sambhar powder along with instructions on how to make delicious sambhar. Now, this is something you won’t get in chain stores and shiny malls. This way, you are sure to get a memory even if not a discount.
Read about Baby Iyer here
A slightly shorter version of this was published in National Geographic Traveller India, October 2017 issue under the column titled Wayfaring