“A souvenir can be any object that can be collected or purchased and transported home by the traveler as a memento of a visit. While there is no set minimum or maximum cost that one is required to adhere to when purchasing a souvenir, etiquette would suggest to keep it within a monetary amount that the receiver would not feel uncomfortable with when presented the souvenir. The object itself may have intrinsic value, or be a symbol of experience. Without the owner’s input, the symbolic meaning is invisible and cannot be articulated.”
Three weeks ago, we were sitting on the beach in Fiji, eating salad and watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Earlier that day, I’d taken a walk by myself along the water, looking for shells. The tide was twice as low as normal because it was a full moon, and the bay we were on was shallow and ringed with a coral reef. The relevant result was that I could walk out a hundred meters past the high-tide mark without water getting above my knees and without waves rolling over me. Most of the time, I was walking on sand, or coral, but sometimes I was on black volcanic rock, pushing through the sea floor. It was quiet on this part of the beach. The other tourists tended to stay right in front of the resorts they were staying in, and I was far enough away that even the horses rarely came this far.
I’d read A Brief History of Time a few weeks earlier, and I was thinking about what it might be like to float in space and get closer to a black hole, feeling its dead, heavy pull, and to realize I was moving faster through space, knowing that it was completely useless to try to resist and wanting to see what happened as I rushed toward death. I was wondering what my last thoughts would be and what I’d miss and if I’d be able to send out signals to let people know what was happening and how it felt, when a giant white object caught my eye on the sand. I started walking a bit faster, checking around to see if anyone else could see what I saw.
A giant clam shell had washed up on shore, intact. If it had been alive, I would have thrown it back in the ocean, but I could already see the clam muscle hanging out between the shell halves. It looked like a giant wad of mucous. When I picked it up, the muscle hung on, flacid. I shook it a bit just to make sure it was dead, and it slapped the insides of its skeleton.
I had something to remember Fiji by.
I knew that if I carried it back with the clam still attached, it would just start smelling like the rotting seafood it was, so I pulled the shell wider, then used a smaller shell to scrape the muscle out. I let it fall into the water, and hoped that fish, or a seagull, would enjoy it. Then, I closed it as well as I could, and started walking back, hoping nobody would stop me and tell me I had to put it back.
When I got to our hotel room, I used one of the free hotel toothbrushes to scrub all traces of the former occupant off of the inside, and then left it outside on the balcony. What I was hoping would happen happened: within a few hours, ants had swarmed. I knew that they’d do the rest of the cleaning for me.
Even though it was just three weeks ago, I’d forgotten about the shells until yesterday. Our stuff was finally delivered to Edinburgh – eight giant boxes, 30kg each, packed with winter clothes, pots, pans, crates of books, Japanese incense, cowboy boots, a small safe, and souvenirs. I pulled a plastic bag out of one of the boxes; it was shaped like a small football, with ridges poking through the plastic, and hard, and I stopped, holding it in my hands and feeling the uneven plastic before unwrapping it. It smelled slightly of the salt and the clam and the seaweed that had clung to its outside. I reached into the box and pulled out a small box of Fijian coconut soap that I’d taken from a hotel in Suva. I opened the box, placed the soap where the clam had died, and then put it next to the sink, so that every time I used it, I’d remember our trip.