I am a collector of Rubik's cubes. I've collected them for years, since before the 80's kitsch revolution and Will Smith's The Pursuit of Happyness ((The scene in which Will Smith, playing real life homeless-man-turned-stockbroker Chris Gardner, solves a Rubik's cube and is subsequently offered a job interview is a work of Hollywood fiction and never actually occurred.)) reintroduced the cube to popular culture, and have had the good fortune to pick up a dozen new cubes thus far on my South American journey. Rubik's cubes, along with beer labels and currencies, are my traveling collector's items; the things that remind of great times had in places I'll never return to, with people I'll never see again. They're individually linked to experiences far-gone: wandering though hectic foreign markets, drinking too much around a big bonfire, pooling money together to get one last meal before the border.
I believe that collecting something adds an extra unique motivation to the daily life of travel. I encourage all would-be travelers to think about potential collections before setting off into the world, so that their collection might achieve the kind of neat completeness that comes with consistent dedication. It’s perfectly acceptable to begin a collection mid-trip of course but, depending on the nature of the journey, it may be difficult to achieve that desired completeness. For instance, a backpacker might decide to save a certain thing from every country he or she visits. Deciding on the specifics of collection beforehand allows the backpacker to consider the necessary storage arrangements and helps to ensure a collection piece from every country is collected. Making such a choice a few weeks into an adventure might leave the traveler unequipped to properly store the collection and missing a few countries already visited. In terms of what should be collected, that is entirely up to the traveler. Owing to the logistical and packing constraints of backpacking however, there is a certain stereotype of a collected item that makes the most sense. This is something light, durable, cheap, widely available, consistently shaped, and that doesn't expire. Physical descriptions aside, the collected item should be something personal and memorable, with an interesting variety found between individual items. For instance, the Snickers candy bar wrapper looks almost exactly the same in almost all of 112 countries in which it is sold. Such a homogeneous collection might make sense for a true Snickers fanatic, but probably wouldn't suit a regular backpacker who doesn't particularly enjoy Snickers more than any other candy. Here are a few suggestions that might be of interest:
Currency – a classic idea for good reason. The currencies of the world are unique, descriptive, and often ruggedly beautiful. This is an easy collection in that the only effort required is remembering to tuck away the certain denominations you’re collecting before leaving a country. Some people even begin this collection unintentionally when they end up with varied loose change worth too little to exchange at the border. However, remember that coins can get unexpectedly heavy and it’s difficult to exchange certain currencies if you’re not in or near the country in which it’s used. Don’t keep $30 worth of Malawi Kwacha and expect to sort out the specifics at some later point in your trip. That 500 Kwacha bill is a gorgeous addition to any currency collection but few banks outside of Malawi will exchange it. For this reason, keep only what you need.
Magnets – The fact that magnets are cheap, small, and distinctive might make they seem like a great candidate for a backpacking collection. I’m not sure that’s the case. In many instances, they’re also fragile and a large magnet collection can be heavy. Furthermore, depending on where you’re traveling, magnets might not be as widely available as some other things on this list. If you do decide to go this route, remember not to store them near your electronics.
Pictures – I don’t mean the many thousands of photos you’re sure to take to document your trip. That’s a collection all it’s own and one many travelers treasure above all else. In this case, I mean a specific picture taken in different stops along your trip. This might be of you in some certain meaningful pose, or wearing a particular t-shirt, or including a small prop you brought along specifically for the purpose. I met a Kiwi once who was always taking pictures with a small stuffed bear. His plan was to give the bear, and the photo albums of it's worldwide travels, to his young nephew upon the completion of his trip. Taking this same photo in vastly different locations can create a unique collage and provides a creative alternative to the standard, smiling, arms-around-each-other pose you see in most people’s albums. Take a cue from Murad Osmann’s FollowMeTo collection which shows his girlfriend, Nataly Zakharova, leading him towards a series of amazing things around the world. Stunning, original, descriptive.
Trinkets – owing mostly to its broad definition, “trinkets” might be the most widely available global souvenir item. Almost everywhere you go, someone will be selling some form of a trinket. It may be a small statue of local wildlife, or a tiny plastic representation of some famous architecture, or a woven keychain bearing the name of the country, or a thousand other things. The point is it will likely be cheap, durable, light, and small. While a single poorly made piece of plastic might not make for a great gift, an entire group of them can make for a meaningful, colorful, kitschy traveling collection.
Tickets – like maps, tickets are much more than sterile leftovers from journeys past. They are the physical artifacts, written in a dozen strange languages, from an epic string of rickety trains, hectic buses, dirty boats, and shaky planes that flung you far out into the distant corners of the world and then all the way back home again. It’s not what they are – varied bits of multicolored paper stating rarely adhered to departure times – it’s the movement and speedy freedom they allowed. For all their diversity, they are various forms of the same key, shown to various stern vehicle commanders, that all say the same thing: “Take me onwards.”
Signatures – of every hobby or subculture that I know of, backpacking has by far the most interesting people. Some choose to capture these kindred spirits with their signature and maybe a short note in a journal, or on a canvas, I know of one guy who had everyone sign his guitar. This traveling equivalent of a yearbook can be a powerful record of the people you truly connected with and the laughter, inside jokes, and memories shared with them.
Postcards – after trinkets, postcards may be the next most common item sold to tourists worldwide. The fact that fewer and fewer postcards are actually sent doesn't seem to have diminished their popularity, though the increasing sophistication of digital cameras may hurt sales of a certain type. People who are increasingly able to take fantastic photographs themselves may be less inclined to buy a postcard just for the photo. But that logic certainly doesn’t apply to all postcards, many of which feature unique designs or funny local phrases. A collection of the most superb postcards from around the world is simple, light, cheap, and wildly diverse. You could even send these postcards to your home address as collect them, international missives from your past to future self. This would eliminate any (admittedly minimal) space concerns and you’d never be in danger of losing your collection. You’d arrive home to a selection of world-weary snapshots of your trip, complete with beautiful exotic postage stamps.
Maps – while the advent of GPS has mostly eliminated physical maps from our lives back home, traveling reintroduces you to the lost art of navigation. Maps are omnipresent in the backpacking world – they’re a key part of many guidebooks, given to you at hostel front desks, on the back of business cards and promo posters, hastily drawn by helpful locals – and each is as wildly unique as the place it describes. Even better, maps are naturally customized with notes, scribbles, highlights, and circles informing you of places to go, meet up, explore, and avoid at all costs. Old maps aren't just informational databases of street names long forgotten, they remind you of the scenery, the sounds, the people you met and what you did there. Your very possession of them is indicative of the reason you traveled at all - that the places you went were unknown to you but, armed with nothing more than a wrinkled map and a backpack, you journeyed down those foreign streets and made it home again.