When I moved to India in 2010, I didn’t consider myself a travel writer. I was a freelance essayist who wrote about family and social issues. Travel was a way to escape the mundane and perhaps fill a memory card or two with pictures along the way. I had a vague yearning to someday pen a memoir or novel, but at the time my desire was only that; no book was burning its way from inside of me, and I assumed that’s how it would remain as long as my children were young. What I did know was this:
This guest post is by Jennifer Magnuson who won the Oregon Journalism Education Association’s Pica Stick Award for Outstanding Journalism in 1988 while taking summer seminars at Southern Oregon State and is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child and Bitch magazine, along with various websites including Mamazine, The Imperfect Parent, Sanity Central, Top Blog Magazine (now Blog Nosh), and her own blog, Get in the Car. Get in the Car was nominated for best humor blog in the 2007 Blogger’s Choice Awards. In 2008, Jennifer was approached by Nickelodeon to help launch their parenting website, Parents Connect. Jennifer recently returned from Abu Dhabi and now lives in Oregon with her husband and five children. Visit Jennifer on her website, jenniferhillmanmagnuson.com.
I wanted to document our time living and traveling overseas so that our experiences as newly-minted expats would not soon be forgotten. The twelve-and-a-half hour time difference made communication with the United States difficult, so I created a private blog to share stories with friends and family back home.
As the months passed, I realized that the act of writing about that which was all around me enabled me to see and remember details I might miss with a camera, or – more precariously – my own memory. The more I wrote, the more I noticed, and the more I wanted to continue to observe and create a record for posterity. [Like this quote?— Click here to Tweet it!] I t was a delicious cycle for a writer; having suffered my fair share of writer’s block I was delighted to discover that being surrounded by the unfamiliar was perfect fuel for what I call writer’s lust. Wanderlust, of course, is often the precursor.
Life in India meant coping with frequent brownouts that rendered technology obsolete; instant gratification and high speed internet often fell by the wayside, necessitating the purchase of my first notebook from an artist cooperative in the former French Colony of Pondicherry, on the Bay of Bengal. Bound in handmade paper the color of saffron and embossed with the golden outline of a lotus flower, it was a wise purchase. Resuming the practice of writing in longhand was more than a way to write when the electricity went out; the cadence of putting pen to paper became a metaphor for the pace of life in India as I adjusted to the slower cultural flow of life outside of the United States.
I still carry this notebook, now lovingly tattered, alongside iPads and laptops to Europe, The Middle East and everywhere in between. The act of recording the beauty that is born from the sheer otherness of places far from home is now my primary concern, the method is always secondary.
As the years pass, it has also become clear to me that a beautifully bound travel album isn’t enough to memorialize an experience. With each year that slips behind me, my recollections become as sepia-toned and blurred as the pictures themselves.
I hold in my hand a picture of a street vendor in India squatting next to a hand-woven basket of peanuts. But without my travel journal, would I remember that the nuts were roasted in red sand? Would I remember the small, wiry man and how he ran, barefoot, to catch up with our moving car to toss us a hot, steaming bag as we slowly navigated the crowded streets of Faridibad? In ten years – five, even – will I recall how, after greedily shelling nuts, the peanuts stained the tips of my fingers ocher, how this made me feel like an Indian bride fresh from her mehndi ceremony? Had I not scribbled my observations in my journal, I’m certain I would have forgotten how the air smelled of kachoris; how they dripped with clarified butter onto hissing coals, the aroma of spiced lentils and vegetables fried golden brown sending a beckoning finger of scent into our car.
One of the stories I shared via the blog made its way into the hands of a literary agent (with whom I shared a mutual friend), and when I returned home to Nashville, TN she asked me to write the first two chapters of what was to become my first book, a travel memoir about our time in India called Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East. My belongings, along with the notebook, were still on a boat en-route to America. I began writing the chapters, confident that my recollections would suffice. It wasn’t until I finally unearthed my notebook from the last of the packing crates that I realized how much had escaped me in a few short months. A random flip to a page confirmed this.
I am going to see the Taj Mahal with someone I hardly know these days – myself. Our car hurtles past a semiarid landscape punctuated with splashes of red, gold, and fuchsia bougainvillea climbing implausibly over stone walls surrounded by dust and rocks. Peacocks perch themselves on boulders, sharing space with the cows, ducks, horses, chickens, and occasional monkey that make up the incredible roadside wildlife found in this region.
We whiz past towering white-stone temples with tinny Hindi music bleating from loudspeakers affixed to spindly turrets with a little wire and luck. It’s such a contrast with the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where I live, where temples sprout up between concrete buildings on every street in a riot of colors and faces and arms, every towering inch a jumbled mass of gods and goddesses. We wind through the village of Faridibad, whose aesthetics are more like those of my temporary Indian home with its piles of trash, water buffalo, and hogs alongside each other in the muck. Street dogs with long, sad-looking teats (which look disturbingly familiar and cause me to straighten up from my slouch) push tiredly at bright cans and boxes, unmindful of the potential slaughterhouse of cars just feet away.
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Nearly every word from this journal made it into my revised chapter, now part of the book. I had forgotten these small details, and even if I weren’t journaling with the intent of publication, I am content knowing these notes forever cement the vignettes of my travel in a way a picture cannot.
As much as I adore my travel photos, a camera limits me to what I see through the viewfinder. Journaling expands how much I notice, enabling me to absorb my surroundings in a way a photograph cannot. Not only does travel writing help create a time capsule of sorts, it fosters my ability to remain present, allowing for the transformative nature of travel to encompass all of my senses. And, as a writer, I am better able to place a reader in scene if I have remembered to capture the ephemeral details such as the scents, sounds and feelings of a particular moment.
I hold another photo in my hands, this one of my youngest, a baby at the time, sitting on a veranda in the sleepy beachside town of Mamallapuram, India with a red plastic bucket on his head. What would I remember, ten years from now, had I only this memento? That he played in the sand with his one bucket brought over from the United States? My journal entry from that day tells a different story.
We are finally here. It has the air of a place forgotten. Our relative solitude underscores the feeling that we have somehow stepped into another time. The air is thick with dragonflies – they are enormous, zipping around like bright blue helicopters. Henry and I are relaxing on the veranda while Bob and the older kids chase down an elderly man leading his herd of goats along the beach. It is high tide. I lost sight of them after they passed the brightly-colored canoes that dot the shoreline just beyond the palm trees. Henry and I need to investigate.
Without my journal, I fear the photo, dusted off years from now would just be baby Henry, adorable in his red plastic bucket hat. And so, when my travels take me from home, I am quick to remember that each beautiful photograph I take has its own story, begging to not be forgotten, and the pages of my journal whisper, take me with you. Remember.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.