Travel Journal Tips

Remember Your Roam: Tips and Techniques to Bring Your Travel Journal Alive

By Kelly Westhoff

A page in a Cuba travel journal.
A page from a Cuba travel journal.

I am not a diary buff. My last attempt at keeping a journal ended nearly as soon as it began. I came across the book just the other day. It held three short entries, all from June 2002. Yet I do keep a dairy on the road.

My travel journals are filled with notes and observations that seamlessly flow from page one to the end. In some entries, doodles dot the margins. On other pages, my earnest attempts at art overwhelm the lines. Postcards, maps, ticket stubs and labels carefully peeled from bottles of beer are pressed in between.

My travel journals recount various romps through several European nations, a month-long expedition in Peru, a school year spent in Buenos Aires, a summer chicken-busing it across Guatemala and an educational tour of Cuba.

More recently, I took six months off to journey through Mexico, Patagonia and Southeast Asia. On that trip, I tried something new. Instead of a travel journal I kept a travel blog.

The blog worked well. The Internet is available in nearly every corner of the world. Often, for mere pennies, I was able to log on and post new tales from anywhere. The updated pages were immediately visible to my family, friends and anxious mother back home. I could add photos and links to make my stories come alive and readers could post questions and comments along the way. It made the journaling experience interactive and fun.

Safe Memories

Beyond that, another thing I grew to love about my travel blog was that my memories were safe and sound on somebody else’s server. My journal was protected.

Yet keeping a travel blog did have a down side: A blog is public. Anyone reading it has access to your most private travel thoughts. As I updated my travel blog, I often found myself censoring my comments. There were some things I just didn’t want the whole wide world to know about my trip.

Yet I still felt a need to document those personal, private reflections. I found myself keeping an old-fashioned, pen-on-paper travel journal anyway.

When I flip back through the pages of my travels, I wonder at my ability to journal on the road. Sometimes I think the reason I’m able to keep such detailed travel accounts is that I know my journey, and hence my journal, will end.

A travel journal starts and stops with the trip, unlike a daily diary where the time commitment stretches into the unforeseeable future. Somehow, the fact that my travel journal has an end date frees me to be more diligent about the task. It’s a temporary thing. The pressure is off.

But there’s also the fact that I rarely feel more alive than when I travel. Travel taps directly into my five senses in a way that the daily, hum-drum home routine does not.

Travel involves my ears, my eyes, my nose, my tongue and my touch in surprising ways. My body yearns to record all the new stimuli least I forget it what it feels like to be so engaged with the world.

A page in a Rome travel journal
An untitled page from a Rome travel journal. I wrote: ‘This feather floated, swayed, drifted, danced, blew, meandered through the hole in the Pantheon and landed so quietly no one noticed – but I watched it from the sky.’

My travel journals are my favorite souvenirs, but I find them hard to revisit. The pages upon pages of my loopy cursive are daunting. It’s easier to reenter my old travel tales through a picture I drew, a recipe I noted, a list I scrawled or a quote I jotted. Once I reread just a tidbit, I am drawn in again. I’ve found these snippets, these shorter entries, intrigue me most.

And so, I’ve culled my travel journals, both on paper and online, for quick and easy writing prompts any traveler can use to kick start or revive their very own travel tales.

  1. Sooner later, every traveler will curse their packing job. What is the single best thing you packed? What did you shove in your bag but never use?
  1. Travel brings our stereotypes into focus. What did you think you were going to find before you arrived and what did you actually discover?
  1. Travel awakens curiosity. Now that you’re someplace new, what are you curious about? Even if you don’t know the answers, the questions themselves are interesting.
  1. When I’m in another land, locals can easily pick me out as a foreigner. What makes you stick out? Is it your skin? Your clothes? Your shoes? Your bag? Your hair?
  1. At home, I’d never boast about successfully withdrawing money from a cash machine, but somehow, completing the simplest of tasks in a foreign land makes me burst with pride. What have you done on the road that makes you feel proud?
  1. Graffiti is everywhere. What does the local graffiti look like? What does it say? In Uruguay, I caught these words spray painted on a wall: Tus ojos me miraron, tu boca sonrio, y quede enamorado de ti. Translation: Your eyes looked at me, your mouth smiled, and I stayed in love with you. Three blocks later, I spied these words painted on another building: Bush Terrorista. No translation needed.
    7. Some nights, travel wears me out and I sleep soundly. Other nights I flip and flop, my ears tuned to every new sound. Make a list. What do you hear in the middle of the night? Dogs yelping? Roosters crowing? Trucks revving? Bottles breaking?
  1. I love shopping, but I rarely buy souvenirs. Usually I’m traveling on a budget, which means I’m protective of my cash. Or maybe I’m worried about suitcase space. What have you seen for sale that you would love the buy but refuse to purchase? Why won’t you let yourself indulge?
  1. What songs have you heard playing in the background? In a Santiago taxi, my driver was listening to Michael Jackson’s Beat It. In a Pamplona grocery store, I heard Prince belt out, “You sexy mother fucker.” Walking through one of Bangkok’s red light districts, I heard Britney Spears singing, “Oops, I did it again.” How could I not write these things down?
  1. At the back of my Guatemala journal, I jotted a quote from the mouth of my travel buddy: “My biggest fear in coming down here was that I was going to take a picture of a kid and someone was going to kill me. Now I’m just scared of mosquitoes.” I’ve yet to take a trip on which nothing scared me. Something is always intimidating. What scared you before you left home? Have those fears been realized? Have you developed new fears now that you’re actually on the road?
  1. In addition to that bizarre mosquito quote from the mouth of my friend, that’s not the only time I’ve written random quotes in my journal. I often scrawl down the words of fellow travelers, hotel clerks and tour guides with no other explanation. For example, in Buenos Aires I caught my husband saying this: “This city exudes sex.”
  1. I notice acts of faith in other cultures. I notice a Buddha pendant hanging around a woman’s neck, a Virgin Mary statue stuck to the dashboard of a bus, a spirit house in a Phnom Phen Internet café, a black and white framed portrait behind the front desk of a Saigon hotel with sticks of incense smoking away. What religious acts, big or small, do you notice on the road?
  1. Have you purposefully ditched anything along the away? At the end of one trip, I left all my t-shirts in a folded pile at the foot of my hotel bed. I only took one home — the one I was wearing. Why did you leave behind the things you ditched.
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