Here's the thing: I don't know many people who keep a travel journal. I suppose most feel that it's just one more unnecessary item to pack—one extra thing to keep track of. Besides, who wants to expend the time and effort it takes to write while there are more "important" things happening: catching planes, pitching tents ... chasing off gypsy pickpockets. (It's a long story.)
My reasons for doing so are simple, really. Pictures, like memories, are incomplete. They deceive photographers into thinking that they've recorded all they'll ever want to remember about a specific event, time or place. The truth is pictures don't even come close.
Capturing the Experience in Words
The attraction of travel, for me anyway, is the romance of new lands, the intrigue of different people, the challenge of living by my wits and experiencing the unique adventures that just don't happen at home sitting in front of the television. Trying to capture all of these things, every sight, sound, smell and memory, just isn't possible with a camera.
Consider the times you've been surrounded by beautiful countryside. Perhaps you were in the Atlas Mountains, or maybe just beyond, in the northern Sahara. Maybe you were relaxing at the pool outside your hotel room and experienced a moving, beautiful sunset. You take a picture. When it's developed, the image seems diminished and unimpressive—not the way you remember it at all. In fact, you find yourself explaining to friends and family that, yes, your camera doesn't do the image justice, but they'll just have to take you at your word that it was the most amazing sunset ever. Yeah, sure.
It's harder to dismiss the specifics that a journal can provide. Written words convey the excitement, wonder, anxiety and fine details of your experiences with passion, humor and, if not clarity, sincerity.
Pictures are also limited in scope, showing only the relationship between the photographer and the people or place in the camera frame. In a journal, you can sketch charts, maps, drawings, recipes, graffiti—whatever you need to better capture the flavor of your journey. I once stayed in Mexico City, right on the central market square in front of the Palacio Nacional. I took dozens of pictures, but not one could show the relationship between my hotel, the square, the Templo Mayor, or any of the nifty little cafes and shops I'd discovered nearby. It was important to me that I remember, so on one page of my journal—intruding right into the middle of the day's record—I drew a rough map. It shows exactly where I stayed, the layout of the market, the location of "Flash Taco" —a peculiar restaurant where I had lunch one afternoon—and a small section of the city where I went hunting for Cuban cigars.
After more than six years, my experiences in Mexico City are still vivid. It's like virtual reality. I can close my eyes and "see" the landscape as a whole—just as if I was still there.
Start Your Own Travel Journal
When buying a journal, I recommend you get one that reflects the kind of travel you enjoy. For example, my journal is bound in leather with detailed maps of Europe and the United States printed on the inside front and back covers. I like that it looks lived in, that the physical evidence of all the places I've been are apparent on every page. Some pages have coffee stains, others have dirt on the edges or ground into the binding. One page is smeared with ash from Mount Vesuvius. The leather itself is worn and scratched, like my hiking boots, and the maps have been written on. It's high quality and rugged; able to survive getting trampled, getting wet or even getting dropped off a cliff (another long story ...).
Whatever your preference, get a journal that reflects your unique interests. Record every valuable memory and intriguing moment. It's easiest if you stop moving. Sit still for a few moments. Order a cup of coffee and just watch the people around you. When you leave the familiar environs of hearth and home, the world changes and the most amazing things take place. You only have to watch for them.
Don't wait. Get in the car and go. Fill the pages of your journal from edge to spine with the memories that make your life extraordinary. Every time you see it, you'll fondly reflect upon the unique adventures you've had, and how they've helped shape you into the person you are.
This article appeared in the February 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.