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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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

Dear Renee,

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:

1) Versatility

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.

2) Connection

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.

3) Tangibility

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.

4) Creativity

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.

5) Authenticity

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?


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


15 Comments for I Want to Chronicle My Travels but not Write a Blog. Any Suggestions?

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 06.08.09 | 11:46 AM ET

Thanks for the advice.  When I traveled to Scotland in 2007, I bought a notepad and pen at a store.  I didn’t feel like lugging my laptop with me.  I know someone who has been traveling since November 2008 and she brought her laptop with her.  I think she also had 2 backpacks with her as well!

I thought about buying a “net book” because they are compact and cheaper than a laptop.  Then again, I must ask myself, “...do I want to transfer information from my net book to my laptop?”  Not sure.  Maybe, I’ll stick with the pen/paper and a recorder.

Powered by Tofu 06.08.09 | 12:02 PM ET

Isn’t this why the Moleskine Cahier notebooks were invented? :)

Jennifer 06.08.09 | 12:20 PM ET

This is strange to me!  We aren’t that far removed from pen and paper that this would be such a difficult thing to figure out!  Maybe 50-100 years from now, but not yet!!!  And ever then!!!

dzot 06.08.09 | 2:10 PM ET

Yeah, my first thought was “write it on paper, duh” but I’m assuming there is an unspoken implication to the question that it needs to be digital, meaning she is just going to regularly stop at internet cafes or hotel business centers to do her writing.

In that case I’d just create a Google docs file.  It is private and can be accessed from anywhere.  No software/laptop required.

Jenny 06.08.09 | 2:12 PM ET

Travel for me is losing the 24/7 overload of tech gadgets that complicate life and waste vast amounts of time in everyday life. I travel to uplug and get acquainted with the right side of my brain once again. Think, draw, slow down and notice what’s going on around me, jot down what I see. I have journal/sketch books of travels that go back 25 years. Some of the journals have soy sauce stains, obliterated passages due to spilt beer, and the ticket stubs, pressed flowers, and labels from Camodian candy, etc that got gathered along the way. Opening these journals is like taking a step back into that particular adventure. Long live paper and pen!

pam 06.08.09 | 2:41 PM ET

Sometimes, Rolf, even though we’ve not met, I think you’re just trying to wind me up.

“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?”

Have you read Road Junky? Are you not familiar with anonymous sex bloggers? Did you read that awesome Pico Iyer short piece on things overheard in Honolulu? I think it was on… oh yeah, World Hum.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the physicality of journals and I still carry a notebook with me when I travel, but I think there great bloggers doing honest, candid storytelling on the web, writers who are not, by default, “watering it down for the public.” And there’s no guarantee that a journal is going to be brilliant and personal and insightful either. For the 9 billionth time, a blog is a MEDIUM. It’s doesn’t, in and of itself, make you a better or worse writer, no more than a handwritten journal would.

A sideline, to be sure. And I’m with some of these other commenters—the question seems absurd. Do people really not consider journals an option any more? I find that tragic and shocking at the same time. Imagine the inverse. I’d like to read some stories but I want to do so offline. Got any suggestions? Yikes.

Lindsey 06.08.09 | 11:31 PM ET

Good on ya Rolf! You’re always so thoughtful and supported in your written work.  Seriously nothing is more tangible than the look, feel and touch of a well loved travel journal. Let alone what’s written inside! :)

Robert Reid 06.09.09 | 8:51 AM ET

Agree with Mr RP. I will always keep handwritten notes when I travel, and I love using local journals in destinations I visit—if you can find them. Seeing the smeared ink from a Cambodian rain, or the story of tracking down a Bulgarian journal in Shumen, triggers memories that Helvetica or Impact fonts just don’t get. For me anyway.

Jean - OurExplorer Tour Guide 06.12.09 | 8:38 AM ET

Good to go back to the original way of pen and pencil. Easy and everywhere, every time. Think anohter good alternative is voice-recorder.

RAEchel Running 06.12.09 | 5:18 PM ET

A techno postcard from Mexico! Came across your blog via a FB link from Lavinia. As a contributor to her book and as an avid journal keeper for over 32 years I advocate both. One can’t do watercolors on a screen and one can’t share the intimacy of the written world unless scanned and uploaded. I would like also offer writing letters/postcards to ones self, or someone you care for. It is a point of reflection, to gather, to share, to reflect; to put down impressions; to reconnect; Check out ted.com for some great inspiration on letters and tales of passion. I also love Dan Price, and Dan Eldon, Sabrina Ward Harris.
Here’s to the image and the word. Don’t forget a gluestick, a small watercolor kit, a good pen or three….
I also reccomend a couple journals; one bigger 8.5X 11, and smaller (moleskin size), and I recently met a woman who works with index cards that she files….just begin and invoke your muse! happy traveling inside and out!!!

jesse 06.14.09 | 11:29 AM ET

My wife and I traveled to Belize and Guatemala last spring.  And I have to agree that pulling out the electronics in Tikal would have been well,  wrong.  We already had the camera and I think writing down my thoughts in a journal was the best choice I could have made.  It was a little more work for me because I dont write as much as I used to.  Reading my journal really brings the trip to life and when I write something down it really stays with me.  Thanks so much for your insight

Mike M 06.14.09 | 5:11 PM ET

The old fashion way with pen and paper is tried and true, but e-mailing yourself is a newer alternative, and best for some who think and write faster that way. When you come to those computer cafes, or the occasional computer in hardware stores, etc. for a small hourly fee.

Bilety lotnicze 06.15.09 | 8:59 AM ET

eBook or PDA imo are the way to go. You can get charged up anywhere connect via bluetooth and post anytime.

Chas 06.15.09 | 12:13 PM ET

Rolf, you’re right on again!.  I filled a plain moleskine cahier while visiting Maui and Hawaii last month.  I enjoyed making quick sketches and doodles, daily highlights, and expanded entries easily and anywhere.  Highly recommend it.  Also, I had some new Sakura pens leak due to pressure changes so make sure to bring pens suitable for air travel (or pencils).

James 06.18.09 | 12:19 AM ET

I agree - a few nice notebooks on hand and write/document as you see fit.  You can still back them up too:  If you have a digital camera with you simply take a photo of the page after it’s complete - (using close up setting.)  Should something happen to the physical book you’ll still have your writings preserved.

If you DID want to type but don’t want the responsibility of a laptop consider a mini-PC like the Asus EEE or HP Mini.  They’re incredibly small, decent keyboard, and under $500.  They are light, and take abuse, and take the same amount of space as a few notebooks.

james…

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