I did my best not to buy souvenirs as I traveled. It wasn’t because I didn’t want them, it was because I didn’t have space. I had a single backpack; my life fit under an airplane seat.
Instead of souvenirs I bought patches. I bought one for each group I joined, each event I’ve been a part of, and every country I’ve visited. The patches were much smaller, much cheaper, and much more fun than trinkets.
As I went, I sewed my patches on my backpack. It began as forest green but quickly turned colorful. After six months of being colorful, additional patches made it tacky.
After a year of being tacky, the backpack became full-blown cliché. I stuck out at airports and got awed questions from strangers and occasional rolled eyes from fellow backpackers. As I went, I sewed on more and more.
My new backpack was now covered in patches — the flag of Greece here, a World Cup emblem there. It looks tacky, but the patches aren’t for showing off— they are for remembering. When I see the Mozambican flag I don’t think “I went to Mozambique,” I think about hitchhiking through the lush rain forest, fighting off muggers in broad daylight, and arguing with corrupt police officers, all done in a language I barely understood. The HOPE patch instantly brings me back to spending a morning doing a homeless outreach and a night patrolling San Diego with a group of Real Life Superheroes. Each patch has a story, some good, some bad.
Each is a memory, a two by three inch story of not where I’ve been, but what I’ve done. I wouldn’t trade any of them for a t-shirt or trinket.