Keeping a journal can be a great way to maintain a regular (or at least semi-regular) personal record of events, activities, actions, feelings, and whatever else kind of information you would like to have a form of simple chronological archive for. If you do any kind of travel with some regularity, keeping a travel journal is a great way to keep in touch with certain things that will probably be quickly lost in the maze of the mundane and excruciatingly unexciting pattern of daily life shortly after your trip ends. I know you probably think that you are going to remember the details of the conversation with that funny character in the seat next to you on the train, or that hairy situation you were into and thought you’re not getting out of alive, or maybe that awesome place off the beaten track that you accidentally found when roaming a new city on foot, or the feelings and first impressions you as you were visiting some place for the first time. But you won’t. What you will be able successfully recall when need be are just the general outlines of what happened, but almost never the details. No matter how good your memory is, whatever memories that remain of any given trip are faint traces of the exact happenings, interactions, conversations and experiences.
In a previous post, I briefly mentioned that I keep a regular travel journal. And by that I don’t just mean the posts I make on my blog- only some of what I put in that journal actually gets posted to the blog- , but rather an ‘old skool’ paper-based journal in a real notebook that I have been keeping on a relatively regular basis since around 2002. “But why would I need to remember all the details?” If you just asked yourself that question, you should instantly stop reading and go back to your boring life. Seriously though, the point is not to keep a religiously regular and detailed journal of everything you do, everywhere you go and anything that happens. The point of a travel journal is to record the notable, the interesting and the remarkable. It is the preservation of the noteworthy for future reference. Here is an entry from mine:
June 14 2006, Barcelona Spain: I did a lot of walking around today. At least a lot for the first day of my vacation. My legs strongly protested and I decided it was enough for the day and headed back to the hostel. I was bone tired and prepared to kill for food. I decided to shower, eat and hit the sack.
I got out of the shower stall to see a number of scantily clad, towel-wrapped young women drying their hair in front of the sink mirror. Remember how I said I was tired and hungry? I was probably also sleepwalking because I have apparently mistakenly walked into the ladies showers (no one was there when I did and there was no female stick figure sign on the door, I swear). There was a tense moment as they all stopped whatever they were doing and glared at me. I smiled dumbly and waited for a reaction. They simultaneously burst into a crazy fit of laughter. I ran out mumbling apologies and red-faced. At least they had a sense of humor.
The next day I teamed up with a group of guidebook-toting backpackers to go and check out the sights around Barcelona. One girl had a guidebook the size of an encyclopedia volume, heavy as a brick. I thought it might also come in handy for clubbing tourist hasslers. She had to stop every ten meter to “check our bearings” in the guidebook map.
Later I went to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, which is a pretty amazing piece of architecture. The thing is monolithic and the pictures don’t do it justice. They started on it in the 1880s, and it is yet to be finished. There was heavy construction and renovation work going on.
In a short entry I have recorded an embarrassing but humorous situation, a description of fellow travelers I randomly met and a bit about an awesome UNESCO World Heritage site that I visited. Here are some tips for keeping a travel journal and having fun in the process.
- Keep it simple: For every action there as equal and opposite reaction. If you try to keep a meticulously detailed journal, the inevitable result would probably be ending up not keeping one at all. In order to start the habit, keep things simple and low-overhead. Remember: you are seeking to preserve the notable, not keeping a record of what you had for dinner on every day of your one month long trip (although that would be cool too if trying out new and weird food is your kind of thing).
- Let it all out: Its your journal, no one is reading it unless you want them to. Go to town on descriptions and feelings and don’t hesitate to use whatever vocabulary you fancy. Spontaneity is the keyword here. Annoying person in the seat in front/next to you on the plane? How about something like this:
“...On the flight back from Abu Dhabi, the man in the seat in font of me reclined his seat all the way back for all of the flight time that my food tray dug into my stomach and I was nauseated by the repugnant odor of his hair gel. To make matters worse, he was not only a recliner, but a non-stop talker as well. He kept yapping to the girl next to him the whole time, and I could see she was repressing her aggravation with this traveler scum. I had this pressing urge to strangle him with the cord of my headphones, repeatedly stab him in the ear with my plastic spork, then smash my food tray on his foul-smelling cranium”
Note: These entries from my own journal are provided as examples of what to write, not how to write. I am not as aggro as the above entry might make you think, but flying cattle-class is usually really “inspiring”
- Get a good notebook: By a good notebook I mean a fairly compact, sturdy one that can take the punishment of travel, frequent usage and the occasional spilled coffee. I suggest a moleskine or something similar.
- Write whenever you get the chance: The freshness of the memory starts fading instantly and the details erode. Write while waiting to board flights, while on flights, in the train, while having lunch. Just whenever there is on-trip downtime. Don’t put it off until you return home. You’ll just never do it.
- Record peripheral but important information: Date, time, location, weather, etc.. Sometimes these little bits of info help rejuvenate your memory about whatever your record. I also allocate the last few pages of my journal for things like phone numbers and emails of people I meet.
- Stick in some ephemera: A cutaway from one of those city maps, a concert or museum ticket, a flight boarding pass, or maybe half a matchbook from that nice restaurant you dined in. Turn your journal into an art form of sorts and make it more interesting and nostalgia-invoking in the process.