A Journal to Remember

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.

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