Depending on the journey: I like to collect natural items from the shoreline vs. manufactured items. The latest additions were smooth river stones from a lake in the Otago region of the South Island of NZ, an abalone shell from a river running thru a coastal winery in the Marlborough region, and smaller clam and mussel shells from the North Island, with a sprinkle of black iron sand from the beach where “The Piano” was filmed. They keep me connected to the place as well as the memories of the hiking, wine tasting, birdwatching and other activities from those areas.
Closer to home: I’ve collected sand dollars and fossilized shark’s and megaladon teeth in Baja California Sur, near Ojo de Liebre lagoon, where gray whales (the oldest whale species on the planet) migrate every winter.
One year I also found a whale’s fossilized ear bone.
When I do purchase items, I ask shopkeepers for unusual, traditional, local, and/or hand-made items. Pawn shops and second-hand stores are the best sources of these things- something may not be popular with locals, but offers a unique reminder of a region’s culture and history.
In Santiago, Chile, I found an ornate mate gourd, with a stylized metal straw, in a second-hand shop.
In Baku, Azerbaijan, along the traditional Silk Road, I explained to a pawn shop owner I was looking for items unique to the region. He went to the back room, and returned with a Muslim prayer stone in a small hand-woven fabric bag, made of silk and gold thread. Also a similar bag, smaller in size, that contained kohl- a traditional eye-liner for women.
These meant little to the locals, but I was intrigued.
He then opened an academic book on traditional Central Asian textiles, published in the former Soviet Union in the 70s, with color plates showing similar fabrics from the 19th century. He wrote me a receipt, verifying the items were “household goods” and not valuable artifacts (they had been turned in from an estate sale) and we had a good talk about the collapse of the USSR and what that meant for his country.
I enjoy thinking of the people and circumstances that lead me to these items, as much as the stones, fossilized teeth, and silk-bags themselves.