Whenever I travel, I always look for things to bring back to my family, boyfriend and sisters in my sorority. Yet when I returned from my most recent trip, I realized that I hadn’t bought myself anything. I had photos and visual memories, but I didn’t have anything with a fun, lovely, personal story behind it. So this time, I decided to be a little selfish and get myself souvenirs first.

Little Gems

In the first week I was here, I found a set of three little wooden elephants as I was walking around Bissau. I stumbled upon a small artisan market where a boy was sitting on a tree stump carving them. He had animals of all shapes and sizes, but what intrigued me were the elephants laying in front of him, all with quirky smiles.

I asked how much they were, and for the equivalent of $7, I took them home. Though bargaining is common in Bissau, I didn’t do it. For me $7 is very little, but for him it may have been all he made that day.

If you have a specific item that you buy as a keepsake from your travels — postcards, matchstick boxes, shot glasses or if you’re like me, culturally relevant images or items — let yourself wander and explore the different corners of the city or village you are in. Oftentimes they happen upon you — they find you — and sometimes you have to go out of your way to find them. Avoid the touristy areas — the markets made to sell over-priced handicrafts and mass-produced t-shirts. Go to the local markets, the side streets.  Not only are these more authentic, they also (normally) have a story behind them.

The pants and dress I had made.

Made to Measure

I don’t think there is anything that I love more than eccentric, colorful African fabric. Most are heavily waxed, which gives it that glowing shine and the starched look, and others are smooth and light, which allow them to fall beautifully when worn. I have been on a mission to find various fabrics with different patterns and textures to make numerous things. Fabric is bought by the panel, with each panel about 2 meters wide. Each panel should sell for $3 yet the “white tax” on top can sometimes make it $6 or $8 unless you negotiate (more about “white tax” in a bit).

To make a dress you need three panels so that you have enough for a head scarf as well. The traditional Guinea-Bissau women’s dress is an ankle length, hip-hugging, mermaid-like skirt, with a matching corset-tight top adorned with ruffles and embroidery and a head scarf wrap knotted extravagantly at the forehead: the busier the dress the better. Being that these dresses can get expensive pretty quickly, not all women wear them every day since most work in the house or at the market. Nevertheless they’re beautiful, and have inspired me to get my fabric made into clothes here too.

Getting dresses made in Africa is one of the best souvenirs I think one can have. You select the fabric, you pick the style and you contribute to the economy directly. If you are interested in getting anything made, shop around for a good, moderately cheap and experienced tailor. Since being in Bissau I have gone to three different tailors because each one has a specialty. I asked colleagues at the UN as well as locals for advice and guidance.

The key with tailors though is that you need to be very clear and consistent with follow-up because they can easily get over excited and add frills and folds and pleats and this and that “to make it look better” even though you didn’t ask for it.  Remember I said the busier the better?

“White Tax”

“White tax” is by no means a politically correct form of taxation: it is a term created and defined by the locals for the price inflation they put on items when selling them to foreigners. I have experienced this in both Tanzania and in Guinea-Bissau.

Be aware of the currency and its exchange rate with dollars or Euros: write it on a sticky note, for example how much $1, $5, $10, $50 is in the local currency, to help you figure out how much should actually be paid. If the price is fixed, such as a restaurant, negotiating for a bargain is less likely to happen, but at a market or on the street, make sure to do so.

Talk to locals, or someone you’ve met that you trust, to help you figure out how much you should be paying for an item you’d like to buy. Sometimes people will ask you how much you will pay: give them the lowest you will pay and negotiate up from there. As I admitted before, I do find it hard to negotiate when it is a local seller because I know I can give them a little more than they’ll get from other locals.

The longer you spend in a country, or a specific culture, the more you learn about the pricing, customs, and especially the tipping strategy. It comes with time but don’t get blindsided right on your first few days by making purchases right away. Wait until your second week or least the third or fourth day if you’re on a shorter trip. Just make sure to buy something to remember your travels by, and don’t make the mistake I’ve made before and forget about yourself!