How to shop for souvenirs like a local

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November 30, 2014 1:49 AM

Here are three strategies to avoid the usual suspects and discover something memorable, and well-priced, on your next vacation

I HATE shopping, and I’m not alone. The sensory overload, the paralysis of too many options, the stress of haggling—it can all be overwhelming. But when I’m travelling in a new place, I admit to getting outsize satisfaction from unearthing just the right souvenir. I generally don’t look for fancy items, but rather something functional and frugal that’s representative of everyday life in that place. 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 specialty, often one that makes for a great deal. Some are well-known. 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. Though 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 number one spice in the world, and yet people know so little about it,” says 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.”

Other sources for insider knowledge on what’s available where you’re going and the best way to get it are local expat magazines and websites; you’ll often find these publications in English-speaking hotels or cafes. And don’t forget to ask around, Lesieur says. It takes a bit of work, but a little conversation can yield valuable tips on saving you money.

Visit a neighbourhood store

Look for where locals buy ordinary, everyday things: pharmacies, corner stores, supermarkets. Chances are, they carry geographically specific items that are great gifts. During a recent visit to Honolulu, I visited the Longs Drugs location on South King Street. I was pretty excited to find that aisle nine was dedicated entirely to ‘Hawaiian Candy’ and ‘Baking Needs’. Small packs of Maui Caramacs started at 69 cents and boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolates of every variety were on sale for $2.49.

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).

Follow the immigrants

In many cities, Chinatown is a place to find inexpensive and colourful gifts; with no more than $5 in hand, I have purchased vintage postcards, funky, stylish wallets and small toys and crafts. But 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.

“The emphasis is getting people out of their comfort zone, into places that are a little bit unfamiliar,” says Myra Alperson, who has been leading Noshwalks tours 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.”

It’s an especially electric way to shop, and a rule of thumb that will serve you well, both in New York and in places far from it.

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