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 recounts my illness in Lake Toba, that sleek orange one from Bührer in Geneva kicked off a European tour, and that tatty burgundy 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 come rushing in - and all the smells and sounds associated with them.
Thick, slim, colorful, dreamy, lined, spiral or bound, the cramped handwriting that fills them contains my memories, my very first 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 it all, in excruciating detail probably no one but myself will ever see.
But why keep a 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?
I'll admit it, 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 with pen and paper.
Whether beneath a jacaranda tree, in a Saharan tent or on a boat off Vancouver Island, the simple action of layering ink into a new 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.
Still, your choice of notebook could be important. It certainly is to me, and here's what I think a travel journal should be:
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 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 more ready-made.
This is my latest find - not one but TWO glorious Marco Polo travel journals. I took the one on the right side with my to Central Asia recently - incredibly smooth and slick. And it has a pocket and stickies and a pre-trip section. Love it!
Here are a few that grabbed my attention as I was strolling around Amazon:
This one is called the Old World Journal - and you can see why on the cover. (I'm a map fanatic so this type would appeal to me.)
The Valery is more elaborate and users seem to rave about it. One thing that stands out - it's refillable. And seeing it made me feel like a pirate!
The I Was Here journal is a different beast. While there's plenty of room to inscribe your thoughts, it also has prompts to jog your memory - tried this, don't miss that...
The ultimate classic. What more can you say about the Moleskine? Other than it was Hemingway's brand of notebook... (and Bruce Chatwin's!) Now modernized, it comes in many colors.
It really is a matter of taste. I may like the plainer journals, but it's all about what inspires YOU.
Sometimes when I travel everything seems important, and only when I reread myself do I realize how much useless information I've documented.
This is 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 routine.
When I'm on the road, I always dedicate my first hour of the morning to writing 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, 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.
I like to try different tones 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.
And what about the writing itself? Well, good writing is good writing, wherever it is. 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):
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 travel writing course over at Nomadic Matt's - so far it's the best travel writing course I've tested - and I think I've tested them all.)
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 were so fat I used thick rubber bands to hold them together. I cut out 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 the bus, a photo... And this is why you'll never catch me without my glue stick.
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 it is.
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, all of which nurtured in me the 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.
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.
Hello! Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. If you use them to buy something, you don't pay more - but this website earns a small commission, which helps pay the bills, so thank you!