Sniff That Curio!


Curbside report: tourists poking around curio stalls are advised to use the “sniff test” on items made of wood, before haggling over the purchase price. (Don’t know what a curio is? Click here.)

To make wood carvings more attractive, many curio sellers spend their mornings rubbing brown shoe polish into them. This selling strategy works: tourists home in on the shiny, dark miniature giraffes and glistening, earthy masks and swoop away with an armsful. Call it the magpie effect.

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It’s only later that they find strange brown markings on their hands and clothes, and notice the sharp smell wafting off the mementos and gifts they’ve bought. The shoe polish can be stripped off the wood with normal dishwashing liquid and hot water, but not without ruining the curio – and the smell never goes away. Items like carved salad tongs – always popular – suddenly gain new identities as wall adornments, never destined to toss leaves of watercress and rocket in foreign lands, with their inimitable African panache. (It’s OK to shed a tear for the poor buggers.)

The difference between polished and plain is made immediately clear by one good sniff. You’ll look a bit funny – and might start to get dizzy and have visions – but you’ll have warded off customer dissatisfaction, which you’ll agree is something we all need to ward off in this day and age, plus avoided a potentially hairy return visit to the curio stall for an exchange or refund.