We were seven travel writers crowded behind a large wooden table piled high with our words-travel books, magazine articles, travel anthologies, and, in the very middle of the table, a beige clothbound notebook filled with my scribbled notes and several rough watercolors from this year's wanderings.
The evening had been advertised by the neighborhood's travel bookstore as a panel discussion about travel writing for profit, pleasure, or both. As I listened to the other six writers talk of the books they'd researched, the newspaper columns they'd penned, and the commissions and royalties they'd earned, I realized that I was the evening's sole nod to the joys of travel writing purely for pleasure.
I was pretty sure that the standing-room-only crowd had not packed the bookstore's aisles to hear me talk about why I've been keeping travel journals since I was 12. And so, as the next-to-last speaker began to describe his series of books and magazine articles on travel to Italy, I cast a furtive eye at the crowd. What were the chances that I might escape without speaking-disappear into the crowd and run home without anyone noticing?
It was then that I spied the white-haired man sitting in the front row. He had a small book in his hands. How rude, I thought, to be reading a book while the delightful Italian travel writer was still speaking.
Then I saw that the book the old man was holding was my travel journal. This was much, much worse than rude. I watched in horror as he turned the pages and then passed the book to the young woman sitting next to him. How could I leave the bookstore now while my travel journal was in the hands of strangers?
The speaker finished his talk about Italy and turned to smile encouragingly at me. It was my time to speak. Shaken and shaking, I stepped forward to face the crowd.
'I've published only two travel articles in my life,' I said. 'The first was 30 years ago; the second was last March. So I guess I'm here to talk about why I've been keeping travel journals for the past 35 years.'
I glanced in the direction of the white-haired man and then at the table. Much to my relief, my journal was back, safe from prying eyes. I took a deep breath and started again.
'Why keep a travel journal?'
My reasons are simple and few. I write to capture a place, a moment in time, the people I encounter, and, importantly, a sense of myself. In short, I write to remember.
An art instructor at the Louvre once told me that to remember a scene you must draw it. Then it will be indelibly etched in your memory. So I draw with words and sometimes with paint.
My first journal is housed in a small, pink, spiral-bound notebook, the kind you can buy in the corner drugstore. The pages are yellow and brittle with age. An entry from the first day of my family's cross-country drive to California reads, 'The loveliness of this morning is to me a good omen that we shall find beauty everywhere on our trip.' I have to admit I am more than a little in love with the eager 12-year-old who wrote those words, trying on grown-up ideas the way she once tried on her mother's petticoats and long dresses.
Then there is the journal that I kept at the age of 27, when I traveled to the Soviet Union. Much of that journal is unreadable. In a fit of fright, I crossed out pages the night I was followed, picked up, and questioned by the KGB. And although much of that journal is illegible, it is not lost to me, for I can still look at a page and remember exactly what once was written there-like the story about a young doctor who to make ends meet secretly dug graves at night.
I remember these and other stories because I once wrote them down.
For advice on how to create a travel journal that converts tourism into mindful traveling, read Jim Currie's The Mindful Traveler: A Guide to Journaling and Transformative Travel (Open Court, 2004).
If you fear your trips are not worth writing about, William Zinsser's Writing About Your Life (Marlowe & Company, 2004) will convince you otherwise. Zinsser is a wise and gentle man who prods his readers to live more, dare more, and write more.
Deborah Burand is executive vice president at Grameen Foundation, an organization that helps people escape poverty. Reprinted from Transitions Abroad magazine (March/April 2006), a practical guide to the alternatives to mass tourism. Subscriptions: $28/yr. (6 issues) from Box 745, Bennington, VT 05201; www.transitionsabroad.com.