Some years ago, while on assignment for National Geographic, I spent time with an expense account log that made me smile. Among the costs to be noted was Gifts to Natives.
I envisioned other writers bartering with Masai chiefs or Eskimo families. I wondered how many photos had been shot in exchange for how many pens or mirrors or Cherry Cokes; how many nights' shelter had been paid for in cowrie shells or peacock plumes or chocolate bars.
During five U.S. assignments for that magazine, I made only one entry in that category. A grizzled codger who, I was told, knew the secrets of life on the California Delta, would not allow me to board his faded galleon home unless I'd sweeten the interview with an offering of Myers' Rum. I wrote off a pint under Gifts to Natives.
What to Take?
The phrase still flits through my mind when I travel. What do you take as gifts to people in other lands or other states? What are off-beat and packable notions?
A practical approach is to learn about the duties and taxes of the country you'll visit. Cigarettes and alcohol may be prized items (such as in the Scandinavian countries and Japan), and you can purchase them duty-free at an airport shop as you depart.
Photo books of national parks or your home city make nice gifts if you're going to be a house guest or honored at a party. Sets of linen napkins are welcome in lands where tea is a daily tradition. Paper products--including an assortment of cards and gift wrap--have proved a hit in South American cities. Browse the endless gadgetry of a Brookstone shop if you're stumped for ideas. That's where I bought a dibble for a chap who did not have one.
If you are visiting Americans abroad, think what they are missing. I brought tears to the eyes of a friend stationed in England by carrying cans of chili peppers and a hot-off-the-press recipe collection called "The Salsa Book" by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan.
Buttons and Badges
Buttons, badges and T-shirts are popular, and the more timely the better. I had an extra sky-blue Expo 86 lapel button from a preview of the fairgrounds in Vancouver. I gave it to an Aussie who admired the one I wore.
My current favorite travel gifts are brightly colored, enamel pins commemorating the 70th birthday of the San Diego Zoo. They come six for $12 at the Zoo's gift shop--or you can get a different one free (while they last) with admission during the six-month celebration. Hugging the No. 70 are a koala, tiger, giraffe, flamingo, toucan or black mamba.
I have pinned an assortment of these inside my tote bag to share with old friends and new. Children like to pick a creature.
Travel gifts are welcome in the graduation season. I know a woman who, last May at 82, offered her granddaughter a week's cruise in the Caribbean. The only catch was that grandmother would go along. Though she had traveled a lot in this country, it meant getting her first passport.
Both reported having fun. The graduate learned to scuba dive and spent hours by the pool with young travelers. The grandmother learned new dance steps and spent hours at the bridge table and at lectures.
This week she phoned in high glee: "Now that I have a passport, I've booked a summer trip to Hawaii."
I would not dream of mentioning statehood.