I Want to Chronicle My Travels but not Write a Blog. Any Suggestions?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
06.08.09 | 10:56 AM ET
I’ll be leaving on a round-the-world trip starting this summer, and I want to keep a record of my travels. I don’t really want to blog (I’d rather keep my thoughts private), and I don’t want to take a laptop (because I’m afraid it will get damaged or stolen). Any suggestions?
—Renee, San Diego
Your question is intriguing, since it wasn’t that long ago that blogs didn’t exist, and nobody dreamed of taking a computer with them on a long-term trip. As recently as 10 years ago, there was no question as to how you kept a record of your travel memories: You wrote them down in a journal, with a pen. In addition to diary entries, most everything went into your travel journal—sketches, poems, ticket stubs, beer labels, pressed flowers, photographs, addresses—no scanning or USB connections required.
Thankfully, the ubiquity of blogging hasn’t made pen-and-paper travel-journal writing obsolete. The only elements required are a pen, an inexpensive notebook and the willingness to write in it regularly. Granted, a paper journal may not be as public as a blog or transferable as a computer file, but it’s a great way to record your journey. This in mind, I got in touch with writer and editor Lavinia Spalding, whose book Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler debuted in May. Lavinia isn’t necessarily anti-blog; in fact, she encourages tech-savvy travelers to keep both a public blog and a private journal (she calls this the “surf ‘n’ turf” approach). Still, she posits that keeping a hand-written journal has certain advantages over a blog or a digital diary. It’s a convincing argument, and here are her top five reasons why:
Sometimes, depending on how remote or extreme you plan to go, carrying a computer or PDA simply isn’t practical or appropriate. For example, it’s better not to bring your laptop camping, trekking, river rafting, on a wilderness skills course or to stay at an ashram. Electronics are prohibited inside many official buildings, and carrying them in certain poverty-stricken countries can be unwise. Plus, you might not always have cell or Wi-Fi service, so even iPhone blogging won’t be an option. But with a journal, nothing’s holding you back; you can write anywhere—in a cave, a canyon, a canoe or a convent.
In the hubbub that generally accompanies travel, it’s important to find ways to ground yourself, and keeping a traditional journal accomplishes this. Writing by hand is more of a ceremonial slowing down; not only does it calm the mind, it also connects you to the physical world in a way machines typically fail to do. Rather than escaping into that other world of technology, you’re actually leaning even more deeply into your journey. It’s immaterial what you write about; the very act of sitting still to record your thoughts frames you inside the moment as you focus on your direct experience.
One of the more obvious advantages of a paper journal is the keepsake factor. We lose a lot in a typed journal—we lose the personality of handwriting, all the attendant cross-outs, doodles, sketches and memorabilia. But worst of all, we lose the ability, some future nostalgic Sunday, to curl up in bed with a battered old notebook and spend hours lost in its pages. From a practical standpoint, a handwritten diary may also prove a more permanent souvenir—I can’t count the electronic files I’ve lost over the years, but to this day I cherish my journals and mourn all the travel memories that got sucked into cyberspace.
A travel journal is more than just words and photos—it’s drawings, maps, notes from friends, gravestone rubbings, postage stamps, ticket stubs—all of which contribute greatly to preserving memories. Foreign travel offers a limitless source of creative inspiration, and getting crafty with your journal reinforces the meditative quality inherent in keeping a handwritten journal; while still engaged in a creative pursuit, you can veg out as you serenely sew a museum pass to a page or make an ink print of a ginkgo leaf. Most importantly, the act of infusing your notebook with artistic visual components immediately intensifies your connection to a location, adding another layer of self-awareness and expression.
One dilemma many travelers face is reconciling the personal and public sides of a journey. Far from home, we still yearn to connect to an outside community and share our stories; it’s a natural, primordial human impulse. But the effect travel has on us is sometimes far too profound to reveal to the world, and our metamorphoses needn’t always be broadcast on a public forum so strangers from Jersey to Jerusalem can post inanities about their validity or lack thereof. Some thoughts should be kept for ourselves. True, the option exists to password-protect entries or even maintain separate blogs—one private and one public—but in the end, I think most of us grow accustomed to writing for others and edit accordingly. We leave out saucy escapades, not to mention precious impromptu travel snippets (overheard conversation, inside jokes, song names, random thoughts). Because of this, it’s the rare blog entry that can match the honesty and authenticity of a handwritten journal. Think: rereading your travel journals 10 years from now, which will you want to remember, the true story or the watered-down one you fed the public?