Why Experiences Make the Best Presents

[Welcome back, Pocket Gypsy readers! It only took me four months to post something new, so I hope that you enjoy this. About the photos: Yes, they have nothing to do with this post. I have a few Burning Man write-ups in the works, but haven’t figured out the best way to tell that story yet – so in the meantime, here are a few of the most archetypal Burning Man photos, with more to come with extended explanations. And yes, I understand the irony of posting about the unsustainability of Christmas while presenting photographs of one of the most unsustainable festivals in America… to that, I say: Merry Christmas!]

Black Rock City, Nevada - Burning Man

Black Rock City, Nevada – Burning Man

Spoiler: Today is Christmas, and I don’t have any packages wrapped and ready under the tree.

Forget the fact that my family is Hindu, and we don’t even have a tree (more on that later). I wouldn’t have anything to share even if I were born to the most traditional, Christmas-caroling, stocking-stuffing household. And all things considered, I’m very happy with my decision.

“But it’s Christmas!” you might say, “The day when mandatory gifting is duly expected, and the month-long frenzy of shopping finally ends in a glorious climax of mid-morning sugar-fueled destruction!” (Okay, you might not say that last bit, but it brings me to my next point…)

Long story short: our society is on a collision course with nature. We’re exploitative and blood-thirsty and completely insensitive to the plights of those who manufacture (read: slave away over) the newest iPhone, the shiniest cars, the most plasticky dolls. Our quest for the perfect Christmas gift allows capitalist markets to significantly inflate the cost of cheap toys, while maintaining low working standards and wages for communities who oftentimes don’t even celebrate the holiday. Corporations benefit from enormous margins, which reveal themselves when shops slash prices just one day after Christmas, representing the hollow value of the item itself. Christmas trees, an apt symbol of man’s dominion over nature, get thrown out with the yard waste as soon as the day after, while chippers eat away at entire lots of abandoned trees, cut down and rounded up for no reason than to perhaps entice someone to decorate it for one month out of the year.

Black Rock City, Nevada - Burning Man

Black Rock City, Nevada – Burning Man

Indians know what’s up – a common practice amongst Indian-American families is for presents to arrive either much before or after the actual day, or in the form of “vouchers,” redeemable at a more economically sensible time. I don’t remember a time in recent history when my parents actually surprised me for either Christmas or my birthday – their approach is to ask me point-blank what I need, then get it whenever it’s most convenient. That’s how I ended up with a new laptop one year, a plane ticket another, some waived loans, my backpacking pack (after my original one got stolen out of my room), and my entire college tuition (note: my parents are awesome. Hi, parents!).

Since I began college, and possibly even before then, my philosophy has been to only give or request gifts that fit one (or several) of the following criteria:

  1. Consumable – Alcohol is popular, as is food. This can also refer to notebooks, pens, running shoes, etc. I don’t like having things pile up in my room, so some of the best presents are those that serve their purpose and move on in due time. These oftentimes overlap with the next category….
  2. Immediately practical – I visited my best friend in Portland just between our two birthdays, so we pooled our present-giving to that one week. I bought her dinner and, since it was the first week of my Voyage and I had forgotten a few things, she bought me a pack of razors, pads, face wash, and ice cream. This Christmas, I’ve so far received or have received commitment to receive: a comforter, rain boots, and money. All things I need!
  3. Experiential – The ideal present would include some combination of the three, like Ethiopian cooking classes or gym membership or Cirque du Soleil tickets (perhaps the last isn’t as “immediately practical,” but I do intend to see Kurios before it stops playing). Experiential presents are my preferred route, as they can be incredibly thoughtful, memorable, and shareable.
Black Rock City, Nevada - Burning Man

Black Rock City, Nevada – Burning Man

Some of my favorite gifts have been experiences: watching an off-Broadway rendition of RENT and getting dank Italian food in North Beach for my 16th birthday with my brother; seeing Erykah Badu for my 21st birthday in Warsaw; having an entire pizza shop sing happy birthday to me as a child in India when the skies opened up and ruined my perfect park party. I’ve had plenty of great material gifts as well, but the ones that stand out were those which were given with an experience behind them (a beautiful yellow coat, because I lingered at the window so often; a hardcover copy of 1Q84, because we talked about starting a Murakami book club).

This isn’t so much of a travel post, I realize, but instead one that I hope encourages people to spend their money more wisely and ethically. One of the easiest things that you can do, if you’re truly interested in traveling, is to request that gifts are in monetary form, or are things you’ll need for your journey. Don’t have a quick dry towel or underwear? Those should go on your Christmas or birthday list. Need someplace to get started? Check out this post for some recommendations. Encourage people to support your dreams and interests, not just their consumer conscience through having bought some cheap plastic nonsense.

Importantly, though, remember that you can also gift yourself experiences! The Voyage was a post-graduation present to myself, and I rewarded myself for surviving 24 years by heading to Burning Man. Be mindful to take care of yourself and your needs, even if some of those needs require some splurging and/or adventuring out of your comfort zone every now and then.

Black Rock City, Nevada - Burning Man

Black Rock City, Nevada – Burning Man

I’m lucky to live in one of the most extraordinary places on Earth, and am aware that the Bay’s true distinguishing factor is its immense opportunity for experiences. (For a business perspective, check out BlueBoard, which has captured that excitement and translated it into an experience-based rewards system for larger companies.) Since my last blog post, I’ve gone to Burning Man, Hardly Strictly BluegrassHarbin Hot Springs (and the local version, Archimedes Banya), and the California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife (twice!). I’ve also spoken on a panel on mentoring at NAWBO’s annual conference, gone wine tasting for my first time in Sonoma, charmed my way (read: snuck) into a few glamorous rooftop parties, and have gotten a lot more serious about climbing and exercising now that I have a solid core of friends who love those things as well. While not all of these things happened directly in the Bay, I have to credit it with having built a strong community of adventurers, wanderers, and thrill-seekers.

I could do an entire post on bullet-pointed experiences from traveling (and maybe I should at some other time) but the point is: you don’t have to travel the world to take advantage of fun and exciting opportunities. Find a Groupon for something that you’d really love to do, find a friend that you think would appreciate it, and make it happen. Gifting an experience can be sustainable, meaningful, and mutually satisfying, so do your research and get more serious about halting this holiday’s endless march towards environmental obliteration!

Black Rock City, Nevada - Burning Man

Black Rock City, Nevada – Burning Man

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