Updated 27 July 2017 — Every travel journal sitting on my top left-hand shelf holds my memories.
That thick yellow-and-black one from a small shop in Jakarta details my illness in Lake Toba; the sleek orange trip diary from Bührer Stationers in Geneva kicked off a European tour; that tatty burgundy travel notebook was bought in preparation for my trip around the world.
I just have to glance at the shelf and memories of elephants and savannahs and wood fires tumble in, along with all their smells and sounds.
Thick, slim, colorful, dreamy, lined, plain, spiral or bound, the cramped handwriting that fills them contains all my impressions of a place - its musty tropical smell, the rough texture of sun-baked walls, the black clothes of weather-worn women who look older than their years. I documented everything, in excruciating detail probably no one but myself will ever see.
But why keep a traveler's journal these days when there are so many other ways of collecting memories? You can write a blog, post photographs and quotes on social media, email your thoughts home... Why not just a digital journal? A diary app?
Of course you can do that. I just don't choose to.
To me there's something magical about putting pen to paper. Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned. Even though I've been pulled into the technological age (kicking and screaming) my thoughts and feelings still flow better through my handwriting.
Whether beneath a jacaranda tree, in a Saharan tent or rocking on a boat off Vancouver Island, the simple action of layering ink into a fresh journal notebook is almost ritualistic: it tells me my voyage has really begun.
Not just any notebook will do, at least not for me. Scribbling in a cheap school exercise book may get my words on paper, but it won't make inspiration flow.
I'm a stationery addict.
There. I've said it. I could go on for hours about the virtues and vices of each different kind of cover and paper and thickness and... but it's your lucky day and I'll spare you.
You, of course, can write in anything you choose, including scraps of stray paper. I can only thing of one criterion your journal has to meet: it must inspire you. When you look at it, you should feel that urge to write. It should be calling your name.
Here's what my perfect journal is like:
And - your choice of pen also matters.
I know you can pick up a cheap plastic Bic anywhere in the world, but some flow better than others. Haven't you noticed that a certain kind of pen will make your words fly across a page?
You might also want a pen that won't leak, like a space or bullet pen, some of which can get wet, hot, greasy and still work.
I've seen beautiful vintage journals and handmade travel diaries, with artwork and feathers and paintings, so if you have an artistic bent, go for it!
But what about people like me, whose art skills lie somewhere between drawing a straight line with a ruler - and not? I need something ready to roll.
This is my latest find - not one but TWO glorious Marco Polo travel journals. I took the one on the right side with me to Central Asia recently - incredibly smooth and slick. And it has a pocket and stickies and a pre-trip section. Love it!
Here are some travel notebook ideas that grabbed my attention as I was strolling around Amazon:
It really is a matter of taste. I may like the plainer blank journal books, but it's all about what inspires YOU.
I'm terrible at taking travel notes: I want to write it ALL down.
Only when I reread myself do I realize how much useless information I've documented.
Here's what I tend to write about:
You, of course, will write how and about anything you want.
That's the beauty of writing a travel journal - there is no set way of doing it. Every way is correct.
I like to have a journal writing routine.
When I'm on the road, I always dedicate my first hour of the morning to writing in my travel journal (and drinking coffee). I gather my thoughts, write up the day before, and test my thinking for the coming day. Others prefer writing a travel journal in the evening (as I should, because memories are clearer then - but I'm a morning person).
I do have a trick to keep things fresh: I carry around a small recorder; in past that was a Dictaphone and these days I use my iPhone. I record snippets, like a crazy lady talking to herself on the bus or on the street. When I play it back, what I'm hearing is still new, still immediate, and I'm filled with first impressions.
Sometimes I make an outline in my head and know exactly what I'm going to write. Other times I just write - about anything that comes to mind, with my heart and soul rather than my mind. Both work for me.
If staring at a blank page fills you with dread, and it often does, even me, a travel journal template might help: decide what matters to you and divide your page into those sections - every day, over and over. In addition to the date and the place, typical sections could include the weather, 3 top places you saw, how you felt during the day, a lesson learned, something you hated, something you're grateful for, a smell, a taste... anything you feel you'd like to remember.
I like to try different tones and voices in my travel journal - I use dialogue, humor or a specific point of view, depending on my mood. I can be serious or flighty, political or naive. They all work and I like the variety. I can be as silly or as rude as I want - no one will read this but me, not unless I want them to.
And what about the writing itself?
Normally I don't care. The words just come. But there is an exception - when I'm on assignment or writing for my blog. In those cases I write as though I were about to be published. I eventually WILL be so this makes sense and saves time. If being published is your goal, do keep an eye on your writing.
Here are a few basic writing tips that I try to keep in mind when I make the effort to write well (and I admit I don't always):
In the end, the only way to write - is to write. In this case, practice really does make perfect. (If you happen to be a budding writer in search of training, award-winning travel writer David Farley is teaching a fantastic travel writing course which is well worth the effort - I've written about it here.)
The written word is only my first step in keeping a travel diary. Then come the nuggets and bits and slices of life.
A travel journal can sometimes be more like keeping a travel scrapbook - some of my journals became so fat I used thick rubber bands to hold them together. I cut out local magazine ads, add bills from hotels or restaurants, glue in bits of local cloth, the corner of a banana leaf I used as a plate... or business cards, a few seeds, snippets from local newspapers, a feather from a chicken that was plunked on my lap on a Mozambican bus, a photo, maps, stamps, candy wrappers, labels, receipts... And this is why you'll never catch me without my glue stick. (See why using an app won't do it for me?)
I also use colors. I carry a highlighter pen and colored pencils (stationery addict, remember?) This allows me to mind map (I love these! It's the closest to art I get...) or draw (I'm really bad at this) or add graffiti or doodle. Since no one's watching, I can get away with it.
Finally, if I meet someone memorable, I might ask them to write something in my journal - not a dedication or an autograph but a few words about their own world or thoughts. Unless it's someone famous in which case yes, an autograph.
Travel journals have been around for a long time, as long as people have been traveling. Some of my fondest memories revolve around reading Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra or the even earlier travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, which helped nurture my desire to run away and see the world. More neglected, sadly, are the travel diaries of early women writers, who set the tempo for the many talented female diarists who followed in their footsteps.
For centuries travel journals were the only window we had on certain corners of the world: we had no internet or YouTube, no mass media, no Twitter, no radio or TV, no way to know about China or Africa other than by reading the painstaking notes taken by earlier travelers.
If you really want to run away, at least in your mind, take a look at this Goodreads list of historical travel journals.
Some people have unbelievable artistic skills and these unique travel journal examples reveal just how talented some people are.
Whatever notebook or pen I use, however I write, whatever the cover looks like - my travel journal is the one thing I never part with, either on the road or when I return home.
Writing a travel journal is an essential part of my journey and I don't feel I've really lived a day on the road until it has been set down on paper.