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 about the money I had spent on some ‘authentic’ North American native art, but more than that, I felt cheated of an experience, of a genuine story. This episode taught me a few hard lessons about shopping when travelling. (1) Never trust your tour guide blindly. (2) Always look for that minuscule but pervasive ‘Made in China’ sticker before you put down your money on something you think is ‘native’.
Shopping is one of travel’s elemental joys. Travellers of yore 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 interesting tales and made new friends. (Some of these travellers even married their new friends.) Trade routes were established. Continents were connected. The world opened up. And all this happened simply because a 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 you usually wouldn’t find in guidebooks. These are places that only locals know. In my experience, you are more likely to find interesting people peddlling fascinating wares and stories in the lanes and by-lanes that are far from the main squares. Little joy can be found in chain stores, shiny malls and arcades as big as football fields.
If you want to appreciate and perceive a place, its people and their ways, try shopping there. The experience can be delectable. Before you embark on a journey, get some native insight about where you can shop and what you can shop for. Social media helps. Lifestyle bloggers know how to ferret information. I usually try and meet them over coffee a day or two after I land. More often than not, they are more than willing to take me to places known only to locals. The hotel concierge can also be a reliable source. I even talk to waiters, bellboys, the doorman and housekeeping staff. They know their shops. To interact directly with artisans, I have found, visiting the weekly farmer’s market helps. Buying art or products directly from artisans not just proves cheaper, but it also ensures that makers get their rightful share of the profits. Besides, you hear stories you’d otherwise never have been able to relish.
It was thanks to a tip from a friend of a friend—a self-confessed shopaholic—that I discovered a restored 20,000-square-foot haveli in Udaipur. Filled to the brim with beautiful heritage handmade textiles, paintings and wooden crafts, the 17th-century building was my candy shop.
Hidden in a narrow lane, I found Ganesh Emporium. Run by its third generation owner, Vipul Shah, Ganesh Emporium sells bohemian bags that have, at different times, been sported by the likes of Beyoncé, Julia Roberts and the Kardarshian sisters. The textile and designs are local, but you see why Hollywood buys into their charm.
When you set out to discover a place on foot, shopping becomes an adventure. I usually set aside a day for my walkabouts. On Prince Edward Island, a stroll helped me find handcrafted soap that had been cut with guitar strings.
Two doors away, I found Overman Jewellery and Art. It was owned by a man who looked like a champion heavyweight boxer but he made extraordinarily delicate jewellery –tiny bulb pendants filled with antique watch parts. There was one walk, though, that soon became a memorable and unexpected shopping expedition. Walking in a forgotten lane near Bangalore’s Ulsoor Lake, I found Baby. The 84-year-old man had for five decades been selling homemade curry powders in a shop that had no name. We spoke about life, love and food for an hour, and I returned with 100 grams of his special sambhar powder. He threw in a recipe too. Shopping off the beaten path, you see, has a distinct advantage. You are sure to get a memory, even if not a discount.