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Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

My last international trip – in that sliver of time during the fall when it seemed like Canada may be seeing the tail end of COVID – was to Colombia, visiting Medellin and the outskirts of Bogota. I was there for a conference hosted by the non-profit Tourism Cares, which creates “Meaningful Travel” maps so travellers can experience local communities.

What came home with me from Colombia were two simple woven bracelets. They are black and cream and feature geometric patterns, one arrow heads, one pyramids. Their straightforward design belies the story behind them, which is complex.

The bracelets are my connection to the Wounaan people, an Indigenous community that lives in Ciudad Bolivar, on the southern edge of Bogota. I was visiting them through Retorno Travel, one of the local agencies included on the Tourism Cares map. The Wounaan started relocating to this area in 2001 after being violently displaced from their home territory in the country’s Choco region because guerrilla factions were encroaching on their land.

I spent my time in the community learning about cultural traditions such as dancing and art as well as its education system. While the youth attend Colombia’s public schools, they also take after-school classes to learn about Wounaan history, governance and language. We ate together (steamed fish and plantain) and I got a temporary tattoo in a traditional pattern.

I also learned about weaving, something Wounaan women do to earn an income for their families. It’s an essential revenue stream right now, given that the availability of work for the men is particularly scarce because of the pandemic, language barriers and a lack of occupational networks. When I wear the bracelets now, I don’t just think of them as fashionable accessories but as a key that unlocks the stories of the people I met that day.

The souvenirs that I’ve collected on other trips capture similar experiences. The rustic handcrafted clay candleholders on a shelf in my living room remind me of the women’s co-operative I met visiting the village of San Antonio in southern Belize. The group was launched to revive Yucatec Mayan food and craft traditions and provide a supportive educational environment for the women in that community.

The ceramic dish on my bedside table connects me to a pottery master I met in the tiny town of Hagi, Japan. Adorned with playful patterns and created using centuries-old techniques, it is the product of a family business trying to sustain itself and the region’s craftwork. At 70 years old, the master is now focused on teaching his craft to his sons and others from younger generations so the artistic tradition can carry on after he’s gone.

I wouldn’t have found these keepsakes and understood the meaning behind them if I hadn’t sought out these communities while making my travel plans. As a tourist, you’re free of your daily routine and often outside your comfort zone. If you lean into this vulnerability, it can open you up to new people and new ideas. Experiences that bring together visitors with community builders can showcase local innovation (like how the Wounaan are re-establishing their culture’s foundations in a new environment) and lead to personal growth.

Thinking back to buying my mementos, I remember often doing the cost-benefit math that I would consider for any daily purchase. Did I want it enough to warrant the price tag? But what we should also calculate when shopping abroad is the value of being reminded of enriching encounters through the objects around us.

These objects, be they a piece of jewellery or a ceramic bowl, can be vessels that hold memories of meeting the people who made them. The people who share the stories behind their creation and welcome us into communities that develop and preserve craft.

Style Advisor travelled to Colombia as a guest of Tourism Cares. The organization did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

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