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Do You Buy Local Crafts When You Travel?

So my visit to a Maasai village, which I blogged about a couple weeks ago, didn’t exactly fill me with the wonder of finding out about a new culture. What’s authentic anymore anyway? Why bother? And with all the trinkets they had for sale, it shifted my attention: Never mind authentic experiences, how about authentic souvenirs?

Weeks after the Kenya safaris, we checked into a guesthouse in Selçuk, Turkey (near Ephesus). Right outside was a carpet shop. They are everywhere in Turkey, of course, and legendary for roping you in for a long chat. The owner, Ali Baba, (seriously) was a friend of the guesthouse owner and seemed only mildly interested in trying to get us into the shop. This is highly unusual. At least an offer of tea? Nope. He explained, “I am trying to sell all this.” He waved his arm without looking at the dim room full of Turkish rugs. Didn’t even bother to turn the lights on. “We have the restaurant now [next door]. It is getting difficult to sell carpets. I can explain you how to find good carpet – natural dyes, thread count, double knots, made from imagine [original designs of the carpet maker, not John Lennon-themed] – but now the people don’t know about this things. They don’t interest. Carpets they make by machines. They can make in China. So they are bad quality, but they are cheap.”

Throwing in the rug – er, towel, I thought? What a pity. It’s true that buying a Turkish carpet requires some knowledge or you can end up with a hack job that won’t last. The good ones get passed down generation to generation. In a carpet store, the new ones are actually cheaper than a used rug from way back. So is China really making inroads in this market as well?

I find this everywhere I go. Not just Chinese junk, but in general: artisans who are not artisans. Craftspeople whose only craft is how to haggle or make you feel awkward enough to run for your life or pull out cash to make them go away.

We take a day trip to Şirince, a village with Greek character in the mountains above Selçuk, famous for fruit wines and special lace and fabric. Vendors line the main street with heaps of table cloths, all of which look nearly identical. Did they make all these? We wander the rest of the streets, narrow and empty, and from the front doors we are greeted by little old ladies: “Antique house?” each one asks. Sounds like a casual tour. They offer to show us inside so we can take photos… and hear the sales pitch. They offer the same cloths, same patterns, for about 30% less. (A good tip for a visit to Şirince: cheaper “traditional” lace and a home tour with photos to boot.)

But there is no loom in this tiny house. Nor the next one down the street. And where are the wineries? I know some of this stuff is authentic, particularly the jams and preserves with the unprofessionally made labels. But much of the fabric seems a pensioner’s spare earnings. Pin money, as my mother would call it. When Şirince was just starting to get independent visitors a decade or so ago, how many artisans were there? How many people jumped on board the gravy train when buses of cruise ship passengers started adding the village to the shore excursion itinerary?

So what’s the point of all this? We saw the same in a Maasai village in Kenya: loads of stereotypical carved African figures, copper jewelry in a dung village where the villagers surely weren’t working copper. It seems the only thing that is authentic in these travel destinations anymore are the authentically pirated brand-name items. Oh boy, is that a real Gucci copy?

I feel sorry for these people, because as their older generation that knew how to make things dies off, they will be left shilling irrelevant gewgaws with Made in Someplace Else labels torn off. (The Murano glassblower above lamented the same.) And as tourists get wiser, they will likely refuse to pay artsy prices for out-of-the-mold products. Or perhaps there will always be enough people out there that don’t care as long as it’s cheap and says I went to Venice and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. Whatever. I want my Murano glass to come from a Murano glassblower. If it’s a utilitarian matter such as a pair of cheap sunglasses (cue ZZ Top), that’s fine by me, but if it’s a craft I’d prefer there were some craftwork involved.

What do you think? Does it matter? What puts the meaning in a souvenir anyway?

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

9 thoughts on “Do You Buy Local Crafts When You Travel?

  • Completely in agreement with you here. I went to Puerto Rico in March and was really disappointed that nothing in the shops were made in Puerto Rico, aside from rum, so I didn’t buy anything. That was one thing I appreciated about the glass you could buy in the Czech Republic. Beautiful stuff for much cheaper than you would find stateside, at least when I was originally there in 2001 when $1 = 40Kč. And it was made there. I hope this trend of fake local crafts subsides, but I don’t think they will as so few people care anymore about quality or authenticity, or are just too dumb to check and see if their authentic Maasai woodcarving is actually from a crumbling factory in Wuhan.

    • Totally classic. Once back in my Turkey days whilst watching TV I saw a commercial: Handmade by Computer in Italy. Say what????

  • I feel ridiculous bringing gifts back to people from some wonderful destination to find they were made in Asia. So I scour markets for authentic items, only to find the handmade items for three times my souvenir budget. It’s a tough call. Usually I end up sending postcards. Cheap and to the point.

    • Yeah, postcards work OK. I look for nonperishable foods. Just got back from Japan: Royce chocolates! Yum! (For my wife, so I get to eat SOME of them anyway)

  • I love such art and craft things. the artists really works hard to create them. I usually bring some of these thing back to home and gift to my near and dears and some for my self as remembrance of my trip.

    • Yes, they sure work better than corny t-shirts and shot glasses! 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

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