Where will your travels take you in 2020? It’s probably one of the most pleasant questions to ponder. I hope that you’ll go to places both far and near. Wherever you’re going, you’re sure to make some amazing memories.
But as every traveler knows, memory can be—what I like to describe as—“fluid.” It’s difficult to take in all your new experiences when they’re happening, and it’s even harder to recall and recapture them after the fact. No matter how powerful, unique or touching your journey may have been, your mind is not a reliable guardian of the particulars. A travel journal, then, becomes your personal travel insurance, protecting your memories from wandering off, alone; vanishing without so much as a backward glance.
Your travel journals don’t necessarily even have to be about exotic locations or grand adventures to provide you with fond memories, significant insights and deep meanings. You can have an exceptional adventure exploring the world nearby. All you need is a destination.
So, while there are no set rules for what a travel journal has to be or how to create one, here are some thoughts to get you started.
Create compelling content
I think the anticipation of going on a trip can sometimes be just as much fun as actually being on the trip, especially if it is to a place that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. Before you even embark, then, you can begin writing your travel journal, jotting down what you imagine it will be like and then comparing it to the reality, once you arrive. What are you most looking forward to, and what are you hesitant about? Did you get any advice before you departed?
Another idea to write about before you actually leave is why you’re going on this particular trip. People travel for all sorts of different reasons or for no reason at all; and certainly not every trip needs an explanation and not every vacation needs a justification. But if your travel has a purpose, write about it.
Once you reach your destination, you may want to consider the following tips and prompts for making a travel journal you’ll want to reread over and over again:
• Avoid just listing activities
You’ll want to create a captivating story that brings your experience to life, not a mundane list of things you’ve done. And, you don’t have to include everything; for example, grabbing a quick breakfast at the hotel may not merit mention. And just because something is happening in a foreign country doesn’t make it appealing. Rather, pick out an event or thought from each day and write about it.
For example, on a Natural Habitat Adventures trip to Patagonia in 2007, I and my fellow travelers strapped on crampons and hiked on a glacier. At one point, our guide had us sit down for a rest while he began chipping away at the ice at our feet. He then served us each a small cup of Baileys Irish Cream, chilled with those glacial shards. It was the highlight of my day; and after writing about that experience, there was nothing else that I felt I needed to tell.
• Engage all your senses
Just as with the Baileys-on-a-glacier episode, don’t make the mistake of overly focusing in your journal on the things you see. A compelling entry will also capture what you tasted, heard, smelled and felt during your travels. Have you tried the local brew, wine or cocktail? Were there any foods you loved or dishes you hated?
Describe the scents of the local plants or how the winds felt on the wide-open plains. Such details will help you to recall the trip and drop you back viscerally in that same place years down the road.
• Document the animals you see
Were they different from what you see at home? Was it a rare sighting, or one that you had always wanted to have?
• Make records of your interactions with local people
One of the best parts of traveling is meeting people who are very different from you, whether it’s a local resident or a fellow tour group participant. What did that person wear, and how did he or she make you feel?
Did you attempt to converse with someone in an unfamiliar language? Could you understand the local dialect, even if you were fluent in the language? Sometimes, struggles with communication make for the funniest stories.
• Note any unusual words
Write down common words that have different meanings in your destination. Some of my favorite travel souvenirs are books about localisms. When I was on a Natural Habitat Adventures trip to Newfoundland in 2007, I bought a book titled Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador: A Unique Collection of Language and Lore. I learned that there, lashins means “plenty”; as in “I’ve got lashins on my plate, so I’ll have to say no to more potatoes.”
Also, taking down the names of streets can be a look into the history of a place.
• Write about the items that you wish you could have brought home with you
Were there iconic souvenirs that you couldn’t afford or that were too big to carry back home? This could provide insights into what you found attractive about a new place or what you valued.
• Describe how this place celebrates events or holidays
If you are visiting during a holiday or a special event, mention how local people celebrate it and how homes and shops are decorated.
In 2006, I had an opportunity to travel to Alaska. On the Fourth of July, our group happened to be in Talkeetna. We had lunch at a restaurant where we could sit outside at picnic tables, facing the main street. At noon, the town had a parade consisting of a fire truck, a man on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam and a group of children. When this tiny procession reached the end of the short street, it simply turned around and went by again!
• List any major news events that happened during your trip
Did any world or local news events affect your travels? Where were you when those events happened? Read a few local newspapers and add those events into your journal to give your writing context.
• Report on how you slept
Did you sleep in a tent under the stars for the first time? What natural sounds did you hear? Did you slumber to the rhythm of wheels on train tracks?
• Mark the lows as well as the highs
Even the best trips will have ups and downs. Don’t be afraid to be honest and include the things that were unpleasant or that you regretted.
Did you miss a connecting flight? Did you pack too many clothes? Do you wish you’d brought a backup camera? When you feel afraid, frustrated, homesick or powerless, you might need to vent. Your travel journal can be your safe place and refuge in the midst of upheaval. Writing can act as your portable therapist.
Often, your bad experiences will be the most dramatic and interesting bits in your journal.
• Document your reentry
What was it like to return home? Who did you miss most?
Add high-voltage visuals
Combining photographic images of your travels with your words can make your narrative more personal and immediate. Go for a combination of landmark shots and informal portraits to add variety.
If you are so inclined, add sketches or doodles. They don’t have to be great works of art; making line drawings of the sights can actually help you focus on details that you’d otherwise miss. You could sketch a simple scene from your hotel window or from the sidewalk in front of a coffee shop. Another option is to support the local economy by purchasing a small drawing or painting from a street vendor.
Painting with watercolors directly on your journal pages can get messy, so you may prefer to paint on postcards or other paper and then add them to your journal later. Gel pens are a good option because they can easily write over most materials, and they come in several colors. Or use Prismacolor or Verithin colored pencils.
Do add a map to your journal. Find one online to print out and cover your journal with it, or print out a black-and-white map and highlight your route with a colored marker.
If you forget or don’t have time to write in your journal for a few days, you’ll be glad you took some pictures or made some sketches so that you can use them to jog your memory and fill in the blanks.
Write while it’s fresh
It’s far easier to remember moments when they are fresh in your brain. Writing at the time will help you achieve the most accurate, engaging and vibrant content. If time is scarce, just jot down keywords. When you go back to the entry later, those keywords can trigger the emotions you formerly felt.
Writing about events and emotions once a trip is over and you’ve returned home often results in false memories. You might find that writing a brief journal entry every evening is a nice way to unwind at the end of the day.
Make yourself the hero of your travels
Think of yourself as the main character, or maybe even the hero, of your journeys. All the best stories have the protagonist go through an arc and a change, bringing about growth and a better version of himself or herself.
A useful exercise to help you learn more about yourself is to record the things on your trip that challenge your entrenched beliefs and opinions. Write about situations that you don’t understand or that are different than what you experience at home.
For example, on my first trip to South America, a local guide told our tour group that he was going to drive us by the most beautiful home in the area. I expected to see a grand old house or some sort of mansion. However, when we passed it, the residence—by U.S. standards—was incredibly small, and its paint was peeling. But the guide talked longingly about the children’s swing set in the yard and the view that must be afforded from the front windows. It made me realize that wealth doesn’t mean the same thing in all nations, and that it has many measurements.
Pick the form
Paper and pen are my tools of choice because they’re easy to carry, you don’t have to worry about power or reception, and they’re ready to go to work in a second. I get to keep my paper journals forever, no matter what changes in technology. And science has shown that writing things down greatly enhances your recollection of them long afterward. Writing forces you to notice things, parse what’s important and linger on them. Just make sure to opt for a journal that’s small enough to easily carry and has acid-free paper to ensure that your writing and sketches will hold up for years.
My many travel journals are tucked away in file drawers. I like the tactile sensation and look of them; volumes filled with coffee cup rings, my penmanship that has gone through metamorphoses over the decades, and Wite-Out where I strayed outside the ruled lines on bumpy roads or somehow wobbled in my writing. I like to think of them as a form of time travel back into my not-so-neat but storied life. Your own travel journals are so much more than just scribbles and random thoughts; they’re your own personal artifacts.
Many people, however, prefer to create a vlog, a blog that contains videos. Vlogs are easier than written journals to share with others. You could also use a travel journal app that allows you to take notes; upload images, text and videos; and link to the websites of places you’re mentioning.
Others like to include mementos from their travels within their journals, such as airplane boarding passes, business cards from restaurants and hotels, labels from beverage and food products, paper menus and logo napkins, tickets to local attractions and receipts from purchases to help chronicle their journeys.
Relate to the real and raw
Whatever medium you choose for your travel journal, remember that the best ones are straightforward, truthful and raw. Travel isn’t so much about physical places as it is about emotional and mental states of being. It’s about your attitude of wonder, your desire to explore and your quenchless curiosity. As French novelist Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Let your travel journals be the windows to your soul.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
I have journals from a three extensive, early trips, from my college days and a bit later, and I’ve loved going back to read them. However, these days I’m too lazy to write much during a trip. That feels too much like a school assignment!
But I do make some random notes that make me smile years later, as of some evocative road signs in Bhutan:
(Much more vivid than “Loose Gravel.”)
(Friendlier than “Road Construction Ahead.”)
Then there was the sign on an Indian lorry, an inspirational reminder (to the driver? to passers-by?) posted on the outside of the truck instead of a bumper sticker:
MUST BELIEVE IN MY SELFS
(Ooh, yes, Baileys on a glacier!!! That was true luxury.)
GREAT road signs, Joan! Sometimes, things get better in translation. —C.G.A.