The Importance of a Journal for Your Travel Memories

Almost all the great writers I know have at some time kept a journal going during their travels, usually back when they were traveling just to travel instead of doing it as a line of work. But you don’t have to be—or want to be—a writer to get a lot out of writing in a journal as you travel around the world. In some ways, it is the most permanent and reliable repository of your memories.

With digital cameras you are not limited in the number of photos you take, but there is a limit to how much time you have to sort through and look at those thousands of shots taking up many gigabytes on your hard drive. And while a picture may equal a thousand words, some experiences, sounds, smells, and feels can’t be captured with an image. Blogs, websites, and Facebook are great for showing off what you’ve experienced, but where will those posts be in a decade? In two?

Lavinia Spalding thinks this process of keeping a journal is so important that she’s written a whole book about it: Writing Away: a creative guide to awakening the journal-writing traveler. I’ve been reading it in spurts the last few weeks and I’m sold. It’s making me want to revive the act of writing in a journal each day when I travel, something I mostly gave up a few years back when I started cranking out multiple articles and blog posts from every trip. I’ve written some great stuff from those trips, but I’ve probably lost a fair number of details that are gone forever from my brain.

That’s not the case for this particular day more than 15 years ago, on my first trip around the world:

“What a perfectly Indian day this turned out to be. We arose at 5 a.m. to be at the bus stop for our trip to Jaipur. It was the only time available to get us to a deluxe bus. We first boarded a mini bus after enduring the incredible noise the locals manage to generate before the sun is even up and headed over the mountain to Ajmer. Once there, we disembarked and waited in front of a little travel agency shop for our bus to arrive. While waiting we were assaulted by the noise and blue exhaust fumes from dozens of huge belching buses, trucks, and empty auto-rickshaws, all apparently with somewhere really important to get to in a hurry. We watched two big pigs and a bunch of little ones scurry around sniffing for food, then watched in horror as a small lone baby pig slipped into a ditch and was immediately pounced on and killed by a pack of three stray dogs.”

There are two full pages on what followed, but if you’ve been to India you can probably see it coming. Our bus, for which eight of us had tickets printed with assigned seat numbers, was completely packed when it arrived. There was shouting, arguing, a near fistfight as the agency guy tried to make us all sit up front with the driver and we tried to get a refund. Eventually we all got off and got our money back, walked to the government bus station, and got a half-full local bus instead for half the cost.

I’d forgotten about most of this and as I read through the pages of my journal from that first trip, I was struck by how much more had faded over time, like many of the photos we got printed in dodgy photo shops overseas, in the days before digital. The images are still there, but they’ve lost a lot of their color. Reading through the old accounts though, the color all comes back, along with all the other sensory experiences.

Do you keep a journal when you travel, or have you given it up for something that requires electricity to function?

Comments
  1. Linda

    I’ve kept a journal on all my travels and it’s been great to look back on and relive those memories. I also keep things in it like ticket stubs and foreign money, which are exotic and interesting in some places.

  2. Mike in Thailand

    I will be keeping a journal now of my experiences in Bangkok,I have been to some very interesting hotels since I have been here that I would like to document.

  3. Julia

    I just read this after following the link from the interview with the author at your travel writing blog. What a moving example. I’ve really got to get better about doing this, even though the pace of pen on paper seems so slow now. I know it’s worth it.

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