Shopping in a foreign country can carry risks—and rewards—that you may not be aware of.
In yesterday’s New York Times, I read a story about a St. Louis resident who bought some Red Army medals and old ruble notes from a street vendor at a market in provincial Russia in June. When Roxana Contreras, a Chilean citizen, tried leaving the country to return to St. Louis, where she is a student, custom agents discovered her souvenirs. She has been accused of trying to smuggle national treasures out of the country and has been detained, awaiting trial ever since. Her purchase has been valued at approximately $20 by investigators, so these were not museum-quality artifacts, but common market finds. However, Russian law prohibits the export of any cultural object that is more than fifty years old. Ms. Contreras claims that she had no idea that it was illegal to take the trinkets that she bought out of the country and had no intention of breaking any laws. Apparently, that defense will not keep her from being tried for the crime, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
There’s something Kafkaesque and chilling about Ms. Contreras’ experience. I confess that one of my favorite things to do in foreign countries is to browse for unusual keepsakes. Among my treasured finds: a rug from the market square in Samarkand; a series of elephants in descending size that were used for weights in Laos; pipes and lacquered bowls from Cambodia; miniature paintings from Rajasthan; amulets from Oman to protect children from evil spirits and a thanka from a musty shop in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. A lesser find—I am not sure where it is now, even—was a stash of Soviet medals that I bought with one of my sisters in Budapest in 1991. We were in college and decorating our jean jackets with Red Army pins and Soviet slogans seemed the height of anti-authority chic. They were sold out in the open streets by vendors displaying their cache beside tourist landmarks. When I bought some of the other treasures, the vendors probably vouched for their age—the older, the better—and there may well have been laws against removing antique objects from those countries. Yet my buys were not Khmer statuettes or antique coins, something that I knew should belong in a national museum instead of in a traveler’s suitcase. “Lack of knowledge does not free one from responsibility,” one of the Russian authorities is quoted as saying. And there’s no doubt that such logic would have prevailed in many of the totalitarian countries where I was shopping.
I can’t claim that I didn’t know that I was doing something potentially illegal when I followed a friend through a back alley and someone’s kitchen to a dark store room full of counterfeit designer goods in Shanghai last year. Sure, everybody does it and many right out in the open. I had visited the counterfeit market in the French Concession, where people carried placards and made loudspeaker announcements about the illegality of counterfeit goods. Shoppers just sailed right by and into the maze of stalls selling knock-off sneakers, bags, DVDs and watches. “As long as the government has signs saying that they are officially against fake designer goods, it is paying homage to the spirit of international law,” explained one expat friend. A cheap imitation watch or very convincing Balenciaga knock-off bag didn’t seem worth suffering anxiety in the airport, which seemed the worse that could happen, even if odds were good that I wouldn’t be busted. When I was in Paris this spring, I noticed a new ad campaign against counterfeit goods that declares that even possessing a knock-off Lacoste shirt or Vuitton purse can cost you a huge fine and jail time.
All of this raises ethical and practical concerns for the traveler. My resolution is to be more aware. My shopping solution is to now seek out another kind of find—one that is even more gratifying to buy—and that is the local craft that aids small communities. I have found carved wooden bowls in Brazil, bead work in Tanzania, textiles in India and Zanzibar and jewelry in South Africa; all of which had been made by the local artisans or a community project who sold them . I get to take away another beautiful keepsake but I leave behind money that benefits local artisans and their traditions.
If you discover artisan projects with sustainable economic components, please share them with us and we will add them to the site so other travelers can support them. Send an email to email@example.com.
To read the New York Times story, click here.
To read an interesting New York Times op ed piece by Dana Thomas on the cost of buying counterfeits, click here.
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