One common sighting in any airport in Africa is people lugging enormous wood carvings around with them. Nobody wants to take the chance of losing (or breaking) a three-foot-high giraffe or a hand-painted platter they’re already planning to fill with squash and gourds at the next Thanksgiving Day table.
As the daughter of a travel writer, I get to accompany my mom on many of her trips. On one recent trip to southern latitudes on the African continent, I could see the appeal of all these things people were buying. More than see it. I wanted everything, from wood-beaded earrings and necklaces to oil paintings.
Only one problem. My mom and I were on a “flying safari” which meant we had to cram ourselves into tiny Cessnas (about the size of our Volvo wagon) to go from camp to camp. We were given strict luggage measurements and watched with horror every time they stuffed our bags into the little “cubby” under the plane.
Even without buying anything, your bags swell when traveling, don’t they? How did everything fit fine when we left the house but after three days of traveling, I couldn’t zip it up?
All the camps we went to had gift shops with truly dazzling African souvenirs. There were masks the size of my dog (full disclosure: she’s smaller than most cats), sculptures made out of everything from clay to wire and jewelry I HAD to have. Every time we went into one of these stores, mom would tell me that they had very similar items in the Johannesburg airport which is where we would be hanging out for several hours before catching our flight back to the US. I didn’t really believe her, so I was a little bit concerned I would go home empty-handed.
All the airports that I’ve been in have not exactly been a shopper’s dream. They might have some souvenirs like an I Heart NY T-shirt and the Greek version of People magazine (which, actually, is kind of cool). But for the most part, the shopping I do in airports consists of getting a magazine and a pack of Mentos for the plane.
Once we cleared customs in Joburg (arriving from Zambia), my mom said, “Okay, now you can shop for souvenirs and gifts.” I thought that there was no way that airport trinkets could compare to what we had seen earlier.
But when I spotted Out of Africa (which was just one of several great stores in the airport), I froze. In front of it stood a huge Mandela statue made of some weird material and inside the store, every square inch was used to display items. There was the best jewelry you could ever find, also handbags, crafts (including Ndebele-beaded dolls), handmade toys… the list goes on. Best of all, absolutely everything was made in Africa AND the prices were comparable (if not less than) to those we had seen along the way. We bought little slippers and a bib with lions on it for my new baby cousin, a necklace for my friend’s birthday, some wood carvings for my dad and…of course…a couple of pieces of that jewelry I had to have. When I first heard we were going to have to kill several hours in the airport, I had dreaded it. But…five minutes into looking around this store, I was checking my watch, wondering if I had enough time!
I managed fine…and best of all, it was nice to know that as I walked around the airport with my bulging bags of wood carvings and other African finds, I didn’t have to worry about whether I—and my luggage—could fit on the plane.