These are uncertain times. Frustrating too. When Netflix and workout sessions come to naught, it’s my travel stash that calms me down. The Manchester United jersey from Old Trafford, or those coasters from a pub in Copenhagen. My favourite is the tattoo I got in Bogota.
There’s something about this Colombian city. Loud and fun, it brims with an attitude that is unmistakably South American, and yet it’s reminiscent of the lively chaos back in India. Drawn to it a second time in two years, in 2017 I was determined to forge a lasting memory in one of its fantastically cheap tattoo parlours. And what better way to remember the place than getting inked in a pattern depicting the six cities I love and enjoy? There, in its Zona T neighbourhood, I sat patiently as a skillful local artist conjured on my skin silhouettes of New York, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Paris, and—Bogota.
A short stroll in Tiraspol, the capital city of Moldova’s separatist region Transnistria, convinces me that I am in Soviet Disneyland. It feels like a door has flung open, guiding me where Lenin’s stone statue has a SuperMan-like cloak, flags come with a hammer and sickle, and road names resemble chapters from a Communist history book: Karl Marx Street, 25th October Street, Lenin Street.
Just off 25th October Street, in a souvenir shop brimming with Soviet memorabilia, something catches my eye. It’s a raggedy cat with big blue eyes, wispy lashes, a large pink nose, and a small, red tongue. It even has an odd fluorescent ribbon on its tail. It’s so ugly, it’s adorable! What seals the deal is the text across its curved cloth- body. Roughly translated as ‘Gotta live in bliss’, the cat’s message is catnip to the soul.
Strolling through Montmartre in Paris doesn’t just feel you’ve stepped inside a painting—it feels like you ate it. On every bend of this butte (high hill) are art shops and galleries, thrown over the cobbled streets like confetti. Look right: the windmill Moulin de la Galette that Renior famously painted. Turn left: Café des Deux Moulins, where Amélie stirred magic with her whimsical ways. Somewhere nearby: The Dali Museum, and Vincent van Gogh’s home with the blue door.
I picked up this locket at one of the gallery shops, marking the event of seeing my first van Gogh painting the day before. I’d waited a decade for that day. This locket would be my timeless amber for his self portrait.
Later than night, I looked up the artwork online—it was a painting he made of his brother, Theo! How disheartened I was; Theo was dear to Vincent, but he wasn’t the one I loved. A few days later, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I read the exquisite letters the brothers wrote to each other. Theo was the only consistent source of support Vincent ever had, tiding him through financial and emotional waves through his short life. We have Vincent’s art because of Theo. And knowing that transformed how I felt about Theo in my locket, Vincent’s own talisman.
In Japan during a two-week trip in 2016, I was amazed at how each meal was made up of different elements. There was rice and fish, pickled vegetables and seaweed, all as tasty as beautiful. Driven by the hope to replicate a meal where the sum of its parts was bigger than the whole, I brought back a set of six beautiful black mini-bowls with upturned edges. Not big enough to hold more than four pieces of chopped vegetables or a quarter of bombil, they reminded me of the coastal city of Toba, over two hours from Osaka, and my culinary sojourn across its izakaya restaurants. I was convinved I’d find a use for them. Last year, I accepted defeat and gifted them, packed and unused, to a dear friend, who has been using them to serve her cakes and breads. Now and then I get nostalgic, and tell myself I’ll go back to Japan and buy another set, even if they just languish as a memory of a trip.
I was walking down a cobbled street in Mexico City’s historic El Centro district when a shop window caught my eye. Vintage typewriters, a kaleidoscope of maroon to sea green, sat behind the dusty window pane: all Vintage Olivettis, Italian designed and later made in Brazil.
My desire to purchase one may have extended from the dirty hipster inside me, but to me they weren’t just pretty relics from the past. These were the machines that my idols Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson once clacked away on. They were tools. And they were affordable.
But I left without buying one and spent the day exploring more than the art nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes. I ducked in and out of old government buildings dripping in monumental murals painted by Diego Rivera, and later found myself in an exhibit featuring a selection of Frida Kahlo’s gorgeous Mexican dresses. The city clung on to its artistic past with an unapologetic and passionate panache, and I loved it for that. On my last day, I raced back to the store and purchased a cerulean Olivetti 31, a machine that has travelled with me from Mexico to the US, onto Kenya, and finally to a desk in India.
Deep in the emerald pine forests of Lapland, reindeer abound. Come winter, the landscape turns sparkling white with snow. But the reindeer don’t mind, they’re after all, Santa’s helpers. In Finland, you can go for a reindeer-sled ride, where the handsome animals can switch from a plod to a run in the blink of an eye; or say hello to wee calves, with knobs for horns. So naturally, when it came to picking souvenirs, I wanted to find something that was representative of the impish animals. I found majestic-looking models for my mum, and even chanced upon a pair of fornicating reindeer magnets with matching sly grins. I bagged six, for all my colleagues.
I wonder why no one looks impressed when I tell them I brought back from Peru a most fetching…gourd.
I was walking along the lanes of Cuzco, past San Pedro market, where sweet bread came in the shape of infants and food stalls cooked cow hoof scramble. Quechua women with long twin plaits and riotous skirts roamed with their pet llamas. And outside Cuzco’s most prominent landmark, Qoricancha, a 15th-century temple ruin, sat a man hunched over a gourd in his lap, scratching and peeling stories onto the dried vegetable.
The carved gourds of Peru, or mates burilados, go back at least 4,000 years. Amorous folktales, llamas, Machu Picchu’s houses, guinea pigs, even tragic events—motifs that tell stories communal or personal—are carefully hewn on the gourd, and coloured with glowing embers of eucalyptus wood. I picked this one up, and it is now a reminder of things I saw in Peru, but also those I hope to return for someday—a roly-poly alpaca, the Andes, a couple playing music, two tribal women shimmying with joyous feet, and an Andean condor, Earth’s largest flying bird. I can hear seeds rattling inside when I shake it, and to me it’s the call of Cuzco.
Nørrebro is style central, the cooler patch on Copenhagen’s giant jacket of cool. Think indie boutiques packed with one-of-a-kind merch, microbreweries, porridge bars and cafés selling nitrogen ice cream. If you walk enough you might come across ateliers with vintage bike models at their window panes. Nothing here is mass-produced, and everything seems to tell a story. It started out as an innocent stroll down the neighbourhood on my first trip to Denmark five years ago, but I was damned before I started.
What did me in was Inge Vincents’ all-white ceramic studio, where the local artisan sells unusual homeware in shades of eggshell and pearl, old-lace and ivory. In keeping with the chromatic poise, her cups, mugs, bowls and vases were designed to reflect the characteristic Scandinavian minimalism. The vase I picked up was textured to resemble crushed paper, the tactile act of rumpling mimicked expertly on an alien surface. On a whim, I paid 7,000 bucks in Indian currency for the very-arty, very-Copenhagen piece. My husband was horrified. To its credit, the out-of-character indulgence aged as well as, if not better, than the bottles of foreign liquor I usually bring back.
From the moment I set foot in Australia’s Northern Territory, the far-end town of Darwin, to be exact, life was all about ‘freshies’ (freshwater crocodiles) and ‘salties’ (saltwater crocodiles). Once my guide mentioned that he moonlights as a handler, I knew I had to follow him around—to avoid becoming croc snack, and to find the best place where I could sample, well, a croc snack.
In the days to come, gnarly, yellow-toothed sightings across the town’s peripheral wilderness filled me with awe and respect for the beast. But I also learnt to appreciate the deliciousness of jerkies, barbeques and cold croc-cocktails on my plate. One way or the other, you would think I’d have had enough of the bugger. Yet there I was, on my last day in the outback, scouting croc shops for croc bottle openers, which I then packed beside a more-grunge-than-rock Hard Croc Café t-shirt in my bulging suitcase. “Up north, we eat crocs plenty, but we also honour it in the wild, eh?” my guide had said. The jumble of odd, green memorabilia reminds me of this truth of coexistence.
-Sohini Das Gupta
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” muttered the tourist next to me, as I contemplated the tiny instrument on my palm.
75-year-old Hussain Siddique, the ‘copper bell man’, of Hodka village in Kutch, smiled at my confusion. The morsing is a horse-shoe-shaped percussion instrument, to be placed between one’s lips and tapped on from the cheek, he explained. The sound thus produced was of splendid melancholia, to me reminiscent of an ektara.
But Siddique, famed for making copper bells without welding, asked me to think of it “more like a Jew’s harp”. While this particular specimen and many others are made by him in the bone-dry belly of Kutch, the morsing is said to be indigenous to Rajasthan and Karnataka. Mine for just Rs 250, it has since travelled from Gujarat to Mumbai to Kolkata. In spontaneous jam sessions, it now elicits in friends the same wonder I had felt in a faraway village of Gujarat.
I will always remember Barcelona as a brilliant apparition of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical buildings—in his home, Casa Batlló, balconies look like a skeleton of a freakish sea creature and the roof like a dragon’s back. Only in Barcelona does it make sense to skip lunch to join the queue at the Sagrada Familia basilica, almost 100 years in the making, following Gaudí’s detailed blueprints.
On my last evening, I popped by a streetside ceramic market near Plaça de Catalunya, and saw this salamander studded with colourful tiles. It reminded me of another place, another salamander. Earlier that morning, I had stood under the gingerbread-like houses in Park Güell, where a giant mosaic version of the amphibian guarded the stairway. Every inch of the space, like almost all of Gaudi’s other buildings, was covered in trencadís, the architect’s hallmark mosaic of lustrous tile shards. This souvenir now hangs on my bedroom wall, reminding me of a world where buildings look like ocean monsters and churches touch the sky.
Our days in Tbilisi were very simple. Walk around in narrow, colourful alleys, past houses with trellises and empty balconies, in the search of a new place to eat. My husband and I always found something different: a tiny restaurant which sold only khinkali (Georgian dumplings), local wine and chacha (Georgian brandy); another with cats manning its entrances; a blink-and-miss one in an abandoned space that has been around since before WWII. Everywhere we went, we ordered the khinkali. See, the beauty of the fat parcels of meat is that you first take a tiny bite and at once slurp on the broth, before eating the rest of the dumpling. Cheese, chicken, beef, aubergine—we tried all fillings on repeat. A takeaway to India would have been ideal, but we settled for a salt and pepper shaker shaped like the dumpling. It reminds me of all those meals, and the warm Georgian hospitality.