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How to keep a travel journal

It's a wonderful way to process and preserve the experience of foreign travel.

Keeping a travel journal is one of the best ways to keep the memory of a trip alive. There's nothing like going back and reading your own words describing a day in a foreign country to make you realize how easy it is to forget little details. I think of my travel journals as extending and preserving my trips and squeezing more value out of them.

For people unaccustomed to writing on a daily basis (or for people like myself who write professionally all day long and feel little desire to continue doing it after-hours), keeping a travel journal doesn't have to be hard. It requires only a small effort. I usually set aside 15-20 minutes at night before going to sleep, which forces me to be concise and efficient.

I like to use an old-fashioned notebook and pen because it contrasts with the hours I spend writing on a computer and makes the journalling experience more special. Plus, I trust it to last longer than computer-based documents and will never go obsolete. To prove this point, I received a bag of old travel journals from my recently deceased grandmother's home, describing a year of camping around Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s and her life on the island of Crete for three years. They're perfectly legible and I love seeing her handwriting again.

Grandma's journals© K Martinko – My grandmother's journals

When keeping a travel journey, I recommend focusing on the highlights of each day, rather than doing an hour-by-hour description, which gets tedious for any writer. Ask yourself what made you smile, laugh, or cry, if you overheard funny phrases or words, what signs had been mistranslated, what you ate or smelled in the air, how a quirky character was dressed, what the locals were doing. I like to pop in small history lessons for context, the ages of monuments, any local legends or sayings that might entertain your future self.

On a recent trip through Sri Lanka, I committed to a nightly scribble, but only about two pages of my Midori Traveller's Notebook. That was enough to record an overview of the day, with sufficient detail to spark further memories and writing material down the road, if needed. Sometimes I reminded myself in brackets to look at a specific photo or Instagram post, in case I needed a visual reference. I also let grammatical perfection slip, using incomplete sentences, sometimes with bullet points. For example:

Dec. 9/19

“Negombo fish market at crack of dawn. Well, only 6 AM, which is early enough to catch tail end. Apparently market starts at 3:30 every day except Sunday.

A riotous scene of blood and guts, glistening sides of fish, the reek of sea creatures and muddy ocean, auctioneers shouting, birds crying. Lots of yellowfin tuna with bright yellow fins sticking out of their bodies like pieces of Post-It notes. Some weighed 100 kgs.

Sharks, too, small ones. I watched a guy cut off the fins, toss it in a pile, felt the guts splatter on my leg. It was surreal to watch something that I've read and written about, yet never witnessed. I am totally opposed to shark finning, and yet it seemed a natural part of life here.”

I could've written lots more about the market, of course, but the tuna and sharks made the biggest impression on me, so that's what I focused on.

While I recommend paper journals for daily writing, it doesn't hurt to have a multi-media approach. On the bus in Sri Lanka, it was too bumpy to write by hand, so I used my phone to take notes as thoughts or observations occurred. This turned out to be a rich store of random information that might appear like gibberish to anyone else, but makes perfect sense to me, and could possibly get turned into future writing projects. For example:

– Public bus ride, karaoke lights, Bollywood music blasting
– Guy cutting grass with machete
– Signs for ‘Jesus Miraculous Church' and ‘Do Not Seat Here'
– Bakery cart plays same song as my childhood Playmobil toy
– Dogs asleep on road in early morning because they like the warmth, can't lie down in wet grass
– P. says, “Tuk-tuks must be named after the sound they make going up a hill.”
– Spice market guide: “Red bananas are an aphrodisiac. Why do you think Sri Lankans are always smiling?”
– Palm trees riddled with bullet holes

Some travellers recommend carrying a glue stick, so you can add ticket stubs and other bits of paper to each day's entry, making a sort of scrapbook. Or you can follow prompts such as, “Which souvenirs do you wish you could've brought home?” and “What world events took place while you were away?” Writing down street names, describing any holidays or special events you witnessed (e.g. No alcohol is sold in all of Sri Lanka when there's a full moon), and listing unusual items found in a grocery store are other fun ways to get your creative juices flowing.

Keeping a travel journey should be fun, but you do need to commit to doing it daily. You'll find that the end result is well worth the effort; it becomes a treasured possession, something that will be appreciated down the road – if not by you, then perhaps your grandchildren.

It's a wonderful way to process and preserve the experience of foreign travel.