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How to Choose the Most Memorable Travel Journal
(and hold onto your memories the old-fashioned way)

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.

Travel journalsMy stack of travel journals - the green was for Cuba, the burgundy for my RTW trip, the spotty yellow one for Southeast Asia and the orange one for Europe.

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?

Travel journal quote

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.

Writing my travel journal in the desertSometimes, my travel journaling conditions are... ideal!

Why would you keep a travel journal? Lots of reasons.

  1. There is the reportage or information-gathering function - recording the facts, such as the location of a great satay stall or the (exorbitant) price of a Paris-Geneva train ticket. 

  2. Writing a travel journal is also a way of sharing your journey with new friends along the way, or with family and friends back home when you return.

  3. If you travel solo your journal is a friend. I often travel alone so putting it all down on paper is my way of sharing impressions, joys and discoveries.

  4. Your journal can also be intimate and private, never to be shown, to be guarded preciously, a recipient of your own visions.

  5. A journal is a tool for self-discovery. Mine acts as a mirror. When I write, I'm at my most honest. Since I can't really delete what I've written (tear one page out and a dozen may come loose), once my words are on the page, they stay.

So what kind of travel journal is best?

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:

  • Inspirational - and mean something, with a design that makes you want to write
  • Hard-backed - you won't always have a table or something smooth
  • Flat-opening - you'll know what I mean if you've ever tried to write on a curved surface
  • Lined or blank - lined makes it easier to write on bumpy buses although a smooth, blank page compels me to pick up my pen and make it mine
  • Not too large - you don't want the extra weight or volume while you travel

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.

And if you'd rather use a ready-made journal...

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!

Marco Polo travel journals

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

What to write about

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: 

  • What I see when I look around: colors, textures, buildings, trees, cars, games, foods, anything new or that sticks in my mind
  • People I meet: what they look like, what they're wearing, what they say, what gestures they use, their language, expressions and customs
  • What I hear: opinions, stories, random conversations
  • What I eat and where I stay: memorable hotels, huts, coconut vendors and food, always great food (sometimes I'm so busy eating I forget to write this down and could kick myself)
  • My day-to-day occurrences: what I do that's different from what I would do at home - take a shower outdoors in the tropical rain and soap with a bottle of baby shampoo would qualify, as would sitting through a four-hour Bollywood movie - without subtitles
  • My feelings: am I lonely, tired, happy, curious, homesick, exhilarated, recently showered (you'd be surprised how highly this one can rate if you've been on the road for a while)
  • My thoughts: what is different, what upsets me and why, new things I've learned, expectations exceeded or unmet, new ideas, plans for the future, new directions
  • And plain old daydreaming, which allows my spirit and soul to run free, even for a short time

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.

The actual writing bit

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):

  • Write like you speak.
  • When in doubt, read your writing out loud. You'll know immediately if it sounds pompous or unclear.
  • Keep it simple. No convoluted ideas. One thought, one sentence.
  • Use active verbs: He bought the bag - NOT the bag was bought by him.
  • Use evocative words. Rather than 'the sun was very bright', try 'the sun was luminous'. Rather than 'my clothes were very wet', try 'my clothes were soaked'. You get the picture.
  • Speaking of picture, draw them in your mind. A sentence that paints a picture in the reader's mind is a strong sentence.

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.)

Beyond writing

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.

Some final tips about travel journals

  • Always start with the date and the place. You'd be surprised how quickly everything gets jumbled up if you travel a lot.
  • Try to write on the same day or on the next day. If you leave it longer, you'll forget those essential first impressions. Anything not fresh from the experience will use only your mind's memories, not those of your senses. I learned this the hard way.
  • Add a Table of Contents to the inside cover once you're finished a journal. If you only have one or two, you'll remember what's in them. If you have a dozen or more, as I do, you'll waste a lot of time trying to find that description of Cuban beans on rice or of Table Mountain in the mist.

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.

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