Paris is a dreamland. It’s exactly what I’d imagined. The flight here was tiring, but fun. Our [hotel] room is fabulous, but the first thing I did was sleep. – Paris, France, Nov. 21, 2007
Those few sentences began the entry to my first travel journal. I was thirteen, and visiting Paris for the first time. For five days, armed only with a shaky understanding of the French language and a paper map, my mom and I threw ourselves at every major attraction the city had to offer. Although I failed to document the entirety of our journey, what I did manage to write down triggers memories of that Thanksgiving just as clearly as any photograph.
Mom and I walked to the Eiffel Tower, waited in line and finally got to the top within an hour. The view was spectacular! I swear I could see all of Paris from up there. – Paris, France, Nov. 21, 2007
Today, I went to the Louvre. It is a huge, beautiful building. The building itself is a piece of art. I saw the Mona Lisa and the Venus di Milo. – Paris, France, Nov. 22, 2007
My observations weren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they did manage to preserve a shadow of what I was feeling at the time. If I can trust my memory at all, I was too overwhelmed to make anything sound very inventive. That said, memory is fundamentally unreliable, and one of the main reasons I can recall this experience with such clarity, is because of what a very jet-lagged thirteen-year-old me scribbled in a notebook.
Travel journaling was a practice I started before I owned an iPhone, and years before I had social media. However, the goal of this reflection isn’t to say that documenting a trip on social media is anyway inferior to keeping a log of daily activities and thoughts. It’s something to be used in conjunction with it. An Instagram post can give friends and family a glimpse into your travels, but the details unique to your experience are what so easily tend to slip away.
We swam in the ocean all day, and in a salt-water pool. In the pool, you had to wear a swim cap, so everyone looked pretty weird. Even my mom swam, and she never swims! – Viareggio, Italy, Aug. 7, 2008
Making a conscious effort to keep track of these moments is truly the only way to preserve them. Erosion of memory isn’t the only enemy of the traveller. Places also have a habit of rearranging themselves in your absence. For instance, the Paris I know today is much like the Paris I visited ten years ago. Yet, a city where you could stand freely under the Eiffel Tower (with no plexiglass barriers) and marvel at it all lit up in European Union blue, is an experience that lives in 2008. As someone who was there, it’s up to me to remember it, and before I reread the words, this recollection was sitting in the dustiest corner of my mind.
While photos can fill in many of the gaps, there are always shenanigans that ensue when pulling out your phone or camera is about the last thing on your mind. Making a quick note during the aftermath is really the best method of record keeping. (Not to mention it can capture a pretty accurate snapshot of your thought process at the time.)
My dad left our passports in the hotel safe [in Boston], thereby stranding us at JFK. Somehow, the hotel was able to send them with a flight crew staying there to LaGuardia??? My dad caught a cab over there to pick them up, while the rest of us spent four hours waiting in the terminal… – JFK Airport, Mar. 22, 2012
My punctuation in this entry clearly reveals my disdain at the whole situation. Thankfully, every year or so when I flip through those journals (currently in a wobbly stack on the desk next to me), any mention of the disaster is met with amusement.
That’s also the beauty of keeping a travel journal; it’s purely for yourself. There’s no pressure for things to be perfect. While I advise you try to at least keep note of dates and locations, there really isn’t a set of rules to follow. It’s a place for raw thoughts on the travel experience to live. At most, it’s a reference for later storytelling.
Maybe you have the same set of three adjectives to describe everything new you see. (Favorites from my teen years included beautiful, intricate, and huge, repeatedly.) Maybe your handwriting gets messy or words go misspelled. Maybe instead of writing in a notebook or on a computer, you scribble on napkins and hotel stationery. A barebones account at least grounds you in a time and place. As long as they’re words you can return to, I have no objections.
Aug. 7 – Went to Lucca & looked around
Aug. 8 – Pool day
Aug. 9 – Went to Borgo, saw Devil’s Bridge
Aug. 10 – Shopping in Lucca, packed, party at vineyard
Aug. 11 – Traveled to Milan
– Tuscany, Italy, Aug. 2012
While the polished version of your travels quickly goes up on social media, these logs are best revisited after some time has gone by. It’s pretty amusing to shock yourself with your old thoughts. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that fourteen-year-old me wrote that my first visit to Pisa was “more interesting than I expected.” Or, that I seemed more concerned about the bitterness of airplane coffee, than the fact that my family and I were on our way to send my little brother off to college.
Maybe what I love most about keeping a travel journal is the inherent honesty of what you choose to record. The passage of time tends to gild all the moments of fatigue and stress, as well as generalize your feelings towards what you experienced. When you’re jet lagged, overwhelmed, or even a little in denial about the intention of the journey, maybe the quality of the coffee you’re forcing down is all you can think about. A little dose of reality now and then never hurt anyone.
Honestly, I’ve been lacking in this practice for the past few years, and spend more time than I’d like to admit kicking myself for not recording my more recent trips. It’s so easy these days to just type a quick note into your phone (or even dictate one). I highly recommend you try to work journaling into your travel routine, even if it’s just for five minutes at the end of the day.
When I relish the long (or short) journeys, the best moments are upon descent. For a few precious seconds, the plane glides along the surface of the clouds, and I watch them whisper over the wings in misty waves. – Somewhere in the sky, Jan. 3, 2016
You won’t regret it, especially because of what you might find later.