Go local when buying souvenirs
I HATE shopping and I'm not alone. The sensory overload, the paralysis of too many options, the stress of haggling - it can be overwhelming.
But when I'm travelling in a new place, I admit to getting outsized satisfaction from unearthing just the right souvenir.
The best way to find these gems, I've found, is to immerse myself in a destination and seek out the unusual. With that in mind, here are three strategies for thinking like a local - avoiding the usual suspects to discover something memorable and well-priced to take home.
GO TO THE SOURCE
Every place has a speciality, often one that makes for a great deal. Some are well known: tailored clothes on the cheap in South-east Asia and vividly hued leather slippers in Morocco.
But seek out less obvious items and you might find even better deals. Even products that might be expensive at home can be found cheaply at the source - small factories or farms, for example.
Kampot, Cambodia, is known among foodies for its quality peppercorns; cooperatives like FarmLink have made it easy and affordable for tourists to buy them from local farms to bring home (US$4 or S$5.20 for 40g of the spice - half of what it costs when purchased abroad). Although FarmLink was founded to help farmers prepare their crop for export, it now offers free educational tastings and tours of its facility, which farmers use to process their pepper.
"Pepper is the No. 1 spice in the world and yet people know so little about it," said Christophe Lesieur, an owner of FarmLink, who points out that Michelin-starred chefs are ardent champions of Kampot pepper. "Coming to learn about pepper in Kampot can be compared to visiting a vineyard in Bordeaux." (I'd add that it's a lot cheaper.)
Other sources for insider knowledge on what's available are local expat magazines and websites. Don't forget to ask around. It takes a bit of work, but a little conversation can yield valuable tips on saving you money - asking guides to take you to "real plantations" instead of "tourist farms", for example.
The right guide can also mean locating a community-run textile factory in Laos or finding the best coffee beans grown and roasted in northern Thailand.
VISIT A NEIGHBOURHOOD STORE
When we were in college, my Honolulu-raised friend Ken used to buy Hawaiian macadamia nut chocolates for mainland friends at Longs drugstores. His rationale: Why spend more than double the price at the airport or elsewhere, when the neighbourhood convenience store always has the best price and selection?
Look where locals buy ordinary, everyday things: pharmacies, corner stores and supermarkets. Chances are that they carry geographically specific items that make great gifts.
During a recent visit to Honolulu, I followed Ken's advice and visited the Longs Drugs location in South King Street. I was pretty excited to find that Aisle 9 was dedicated entirely to "Hawaiian Candy" and "Baking Needs".
Small packs of Maui Caramacs (my favourite) started at 69 US cents - I picked up a handful of these for my husband and sons, who all have sweet tooths - and boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolates of every variety were on sale for US$2.49.
According to readers who weighed in on Twitter, the same strategy works everywhere from Kazakhstan (caviar-flavoured potato chips!) to Cape Town (packs of biltong, or South African jerky) and Austin, Texas, (bluebonnet wildflower seeds), where all manner of intriguing local items are carried at convenience stores - even the 7-Eleven.
FOLLOW THE IMMIGRANTS
In many cities, Chinatown is a place to find inexpensive and colourful gifts; with no more than US$5 in hand, I have purchased vintage postcards, funky, stylish wallets, and small toys and crafts. What about lesser-known but no less rich immigrant populations?
Look for neighbourhood cultural centres as anchors, and don't be afraid to walk in and ask questions about how to navigate the area.
Chicago is known for its Polish, German and Swedish roots, but next to the city's Indo-American Centre, you'll find Devon Avenue, an Indian corridor dense and lively with shops selling table runners and colourful Lac jewellery, as good as you'd find in Jaipur.
"The emphasis is getting people out of their comfort zone, into places that are a little bit unfamiliar," said Myra Alperson, who has been leading Noshwalks tours (www.noshwalks.com) of New York's ethnic neighbourhoods for 15 years.
"That means getting out of the areas where they are in the majority and going where the shops and restaurants aren't explicitly catering to them. This is where you're going to see the places in a city where people actually live."