Wooden Horses and Seashells

Why do we buy souvenirs? Is it because we want to bring back a piece of our trip, something that triggers a memory? Or do we just love things that we can’t find at home, something unique to the area we traveled to? I have a friend, Alanna, who always buys a magnet and a shot glass when she goes on a trip. Some friends have asked me to bring them something as simple as a rock from The Grand Canyon or the driveway of Graceland. When I spent a summer studying abroad in Beijing I bought 3 packs of chopsticks for my friends at home. Each pack held 10 sets and only cost 10 Yuan or Kuài, which equals $1.45 in American dollars. Nowadays when I travel I only make a point of buying gifts for friends who are helping me out in some capacity while I’m traveling, like my roommate who takes care of my cats or a friend who drives me to the airport or someone who lets me borrow something to take along for my trip. Buying souvenirs for everyone, while being a nice gesture, can become very expensive and weigh down your bags when you are traveling.

Opposed to the touristy trinkets, I prefer more authentic items as keepsakes, which sometimes can be a little pricier, or not available. I’ve found that Christmas ornaments make a nice memento that doesn’t take up much space and serves a purpose when brought home. I don’t know about others, but some souvenirs people have brought me I’m either afraid to use because I don’t want to damage or break them or they are pretty useless and just create clutter.

On a recent trip to Europe I refrained from buying anything (other than a pair of electric blue boots at a Salvation Army in Reykjavik) until I reached Stockholm, Sweden. During our pre-travel research many of the websites about Stockholm that I visited shared pictures or drawings of a simple painted, wooden horse. This handcrafted wooden figurine is a Dala Horse. The Dala Horse has been hand carved in Sweden and sold in various markets and stores since the 1700s. These colorful wooden horses range in price from $18.00 for a 5 cm horse to well over $2000 at 75 cm and come in a variety of colors. As this was the only thing I wanted I splurged, buying a 15 cm green Dala Horse for $40.

Like most things that are in high demand, one must be careful where they procure their Dala Horse while shopping in Sweden, as there are many fakes on the market. If a Dala Horse appears to be inexpensive and a good deal, be wary. It’s probably an imposter. Fake Dala Horses are lightweight and are usually found in shops selling cheap trinkets and touristy merchandise. I waited until I arrived at the Wooden Horse Museum on Stortorge Street to acquire my hand carved pony. Set in the center of Old Town the Wooden Horse Museum displays a vast collection of wooden horses ranging from thimble size and antique to ones the size of a toddler’s rocking horse. The horses are sold individually, but one can start a collection of different sizes to display in the fashion of a Russian nesting doll. The colors of the horses range the full spectrum of the rainbow making the decision of which horse(s) to purchase somewhat difficult. Most of the wooden horses seen around Stockholm and Swedish websites are red. I deliberated my color choice for almost an hour before finally deciding on a green horse the color of a perfectly ripe avocado. According to museum and shop owner Bill Odell the original colors of Dala Horses were the green that I selected, black, white, cornflower blue, a deep burgundy, and black. The bright red that has become the mascot of Sweden is a newer color. Though the turquoise, pink, and bright red horses were quite beautiful, I wanted to pick a color that was traditionally used to paint the horses since their creation My little green Dala Horse is displayed on my dresser where I see it everyday as I reach for my perfume. He stands there, waiting for me to add fellow wooden horses to his herd when I take my next trip to Sweden.

Like the Dala Horse, my newest token from my travels is both a piece of history and culture. Last week I went to Oahu for a week to visit my friend, Liz. I met Liz last summer when she got a job at the restaurant I’ve worked at for the past five years. One of the first things I noticed about Liz was that she wore the same jewelry every day, a simple silver watch, a few matching bracelets and a small seashell necklace on a delicate gold chain. One day while we were rolling silverware and talking I asked her about her shell necklace, wondering what its significance was. Was it a shell she found? Was it a gift? Did she buy it from a store or from a booth at an artesian fair? The story behind Liz’s shell actually let me learn more about who she is and what her life had been life before moving to Wilmington, North Carolina. For ten years prior to her move to Wilmington Liz had lived in Hawaii on Waikiki Beach where she bought her shell necklace from a vender at The Honolulu Night Market. The Sunrise Shell is named for its bright colors mimicking those of a Hawaiian sunrise with its reds, pinks, and purples hues displayed in its scalloped edges.

Wrapped twice in a subtle gold or silver wire so not to distract from the bold colors of the sunrise shell, the charm can be worn as a necklace, on fishhooks as earrings, as a ring, or secured on a bangle to display on one’s wrist. While Liz and I were driving around the North Shore we stopped at several stores and co-ops along our route. At one particular cop-op I found a selection of locally made jewelry, some of which were sunrise shells. These shells were rather costly and not particularly dazzling. That was when Liz suggested we go to the Honolulu Night Market, if it was happening that night. It wasn’t, but in its place was the Lokahi Festival, filling Kalakaua Avenue with food vendors and booths selling jewelry, bags, and other handmade items. As Liz and I explored the block party we came upon the same artist whom she had bought her sunrise shell necklace from years ago when she first moved to Hawaii.

Since I am not the kindest to my jewelry that is worn on my hands or wrists I decided against purchasing a ring or bracelet that could be broken with one bump against a sharp or heavy object. I considered the four rows of brightly colored shells in front of me before selecting one with a gold wrapping that radiated a bright orange and pink with a small sheen of blackish green on one side. The necklace cost only $40 and since my return I’ve managed to wear it every day. I’ve received several compliments and questions about where it came from along with one gentleman who mistook my brightly colored shell’s natural glitz for a painted craft. I assured him that the colors weren’t a simple brush of acrylic, but really a piece of a Hawaiian sunrise that once washed up on shore and can now only be found at the bottom of the ocean. Once abundantly found on the beaches of Kauai and the North Shore of Oahu, because of the growing demand for these treasures they can mainly be found by divers venturing 10 to 30 feet below the surface of the Pacific. This doesn’t meant that while walking along the beach on the North Shore you won’t see one sparkling in the sand, it’s just rare so consider yourself lucky.

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