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Chapter 1 – Travel Journals: The Ultimate Souvenir

This is chapter one of the bestselling book, Globejotting: How to Write Extraordinary Travel Journals (and still have time to enjoy your trip!) by Dave Fox. This chapter is online in its entirety. Excerpts from each of the other chapters follow.

If you like what you see here, you can order autographed copies of the book on this website or download it for Kindle.


You’re going on a big trip? Woohoo! The rest of us are very jealous.

What are you going to bring? Some clean underwear, we hope. A toothbrush and one of those travel-sized toothpaste tubes so the cool people you meet won’t run away. A passport, perhaps, if you’re leaving the country. And what about a camera? Sure. Everyone brings a camera on vacation, so they can return home with fascinating snapshots of their left index finger — in what is probably an exotic locale, only we’re not sure because we can’t see the locale behind the finger.

How about a travel journal of some sort? An 89-cent spiral notebook? Or maybe some schmancy leather-bound volume in which to document your journey? Since you are reading this book, I will now invoke my extremely impressive psychic powers and predict that yes, a travel journal of some sort is on your packing list.

Excellent! So what are you going to do with this amazing travel journal? Are you going to write in it every day and use it as a record of your wanderings that will remain accurate even when your brain is old and fuzzy someday? (Hey, no offense. Our brains are all getting older and fuzzier, one day at a time.) Or are you going to do what most people do with their travel journals: jot down a few sentences on days one and two, then leave it until day six when you decide you can no longer recall what happened on days three, four, and five, therefore the most effective use of your journal for the duration of your journey will be to serve as ballast at the bottom of your bag?

Seriously, that is what happens to thousands of travel journals every year. The owners of these journals return home safe and sound, but their journals die a quiet and lonely death.

Oh, the humanity.

Then there’s another breed of travel journaler who does manage to write on most days. Yay for them, but there’s still a problem: Many of these every-day journalers dislike what they write because their journals sound so…everyday. Their writing is like grocery lists — pedestrian, step-by-step accounts of their trips, bundles of words that ooze with clichés and feigned excitement, writing that has no soul.

“My trips are always so exciting,” a woman confessed one time during a class I was teaching, “but my journals are always boring. What’s wrong with me?”

“Wrong with you?” I said. “Nothing is wrong with you. You are totally normal. It’s the successful travel journalers, the ones who come home with books full of enthralling, emotion-packed, detail-saturated stories, who are the abnormal ones. Sadly, the norm is that most people’s travel journaling endeavors flop, just like yours have.”

* * *

Hi. Welcome to my book. My goal for the next 175 pages is to help you break free from these totally normal journaling syndromes. I want to help you become one of the abnormal ones, one of the successful journalers. I want to help you become a travel journaling superhero. Maybe someday, you’ll even get your own action figure.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve got a few things to teach you before you can go shopping for a cape.

And hey…maybe I’ve got you all wrong. Maybe you already are a travel journaling rock star. That’s awesome, dude! Seriously, if you already are a travel journaling rock star, I am now waving a cigarette lighter in the air and swaying gently to and fro in homage to your awesomeness. But stick around anyway. I’ve got cool new techniques to make your journals even rock-starrier.

Photographic Memories
I was working as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship in the South Pacific recently. As we sped toward Samoa, I took the stage in the ship’s auditorium and opened my travel journaling talk with the same question I always start my talks with:

“How many of you aren’t wearing any underwear today?”

Just kidding. That’s not really how I usually start my talks.

What I really start my talks with is, “How many of you bring a camera with you when you travel?”

As I asked this question, I got the usual response: Nearly every person in the room shot their hand up, as if to say, “Duh! Of course we bring our cameras on vacation, dummy!”

I followed with another question: “And how many of you keep a journal when you travel?”

With this second question, the response wasn’t so confident. About a third of the people in the room raised their hands. Among those who did, most did so timidly. Many had uneasy winces, as if I had just asked them to confess something embarrassing and dirty. Others were hiding behind the person in front of them.

“So you all use cameras to remember your travels, but when I brought up journaling, a lot of you started to look seasick.” I said. “What’s going on?”

A polite yet awkward silence hung in the air for a moment. People don’t want to be rude and tell the journaling guy they like photography better. But eventually, a man in the third row got bold. “Journaling takes too long.”

He was right — sort of. Photography is quicker and easier than writing things down. It only takes a few seconds to aim, frame, and shoot. We can zap a moment and get on with our day. We don’t have to worry later about recalling what we’ve seen. We don’t have to carve precious time out of our too-short vacation. Once a photograph is taken, the memory is captured.

Journaling is more time consuming. But quick, easy, and accurate as photography is, taking pictures has its limits. Photos capture slivers of time — fractions of seconds confined within the walls of our viewfinders. A well-written travel journal can record all sorts of things you just can’t capture on film. (In the next chapter, and the final one, I will teach you how to tackle the time issue.)

Photography is a visual art. Its primary focus is what we see. In writing, we can document all the senses — not just sights, but sounds, tastes, smells, and physical sensations. We meet a lot of people when we travel – interesting people, beautiful people, weird people, ugly people, helpful people, grouchy people, smelly people, tasty people, all kinds of people who become unwitting characters in our own personal travel tales — and for all kinds of reasons, we can’t always photograph them. Even when we can, we still miss out on so much about them – the way they spoke, the way they moved, the way they laughed, blinked, ate, sneezed, walked, smelled, sneered, begged, cowered, or kissed. Photographs can’t capture the stories they told us, the wisdom they imparted, the ways they helped us, taught us, inspired us, or freaked us out. And the shortcomings of photography extend beyond people.

Often, places don’t photograph well either. Rainy weather dulls the lighting. An angry museum docent is practicing his two words of English: “No photo! No photo!” We’re in motion so our subject is blurred. Or maybe the landscape’s just too vast to squeeze it all into a photograph. In a journal, we can overcome all of those issues.

There’s something even bigger we can’t capture on film. I call it our “inner journey.” Your inner journey is everything that goes on inside your brain when you travel — the unique thoughts, emotions, and reactions you experience in unfamiliar surroundings. This inner journey is often the most powerful part of a trip. Our surroundings have a huge impact on our thoughts and emotions.

Venturing into unfamiliar places can spark big revelations about ourselves. All too often, however, once we return home, these discoveries are lost, buried beneath our everyday mind clutter. We can’t photograph any of the things that flit through our mind as we expose ourselves to unfamiliar places, but we can write about them — and return to our pages long after our trips are finished for refresher courses on the stuff we’ve learned while traveling.

This having been said, I don’t want an angry mob of photo aficionados on my doorstep, threatening me with sharp gardening tools or big zoom lenses, so allow me to stress that I am not anti-photography. Not at all! I love taking pictures when I travel. Later, I’ll even teach you ways to merge your photos and journals together. So by all means, take lots of pictures when you travel. But write too. Your journals will help you remember aspects of a trip that photos alone can’t capture. And your left index finger is less likely to get in the way of a journal.

How Travel Journaling Changed My Life

I was born and raised in the United States, but shortly before my eighth birthday, my family moved to England for a year. My parents understood our year abroad would be a unique experience that would stand out above the other years in our lives, so whenever there was a school holiday, we’d travel.

Some of our adventures were road trips in the fluorescent orange station wagon that came with the house we were renting — to the battlefields of Hastings or the Roman ruins in Bath. Other journeys were farther flung. We wrinkled our noses at Dutch fish markets and had summer snowball fights in the Swiss Alps. We splashed among Greek island jellyfish and rode camels in northern Africa.

When we first arrived in England, my parents gave me a big red book. It was a hardback book — intended to be a day-to-day calendar for adults with busy schedules. I used the book differently. Whenever we traveled outside our South London neighborhood, I would write mini essays recapping where we had been. Even at age eight, I got it that I was having a different kind of year from the rest of my life so far. I wanted to remember where I’d been, so I wrote about our adventures. I’ve been journaling ever since.

More than a decade later, in college, I went through the post-adolescent meltdown commonly known as “sophomore slump.” I began to wonder what I was doing with my life. I had lived a childhood year in England, and a teenage year as a foreign exchange student in Norway. I didn’t feel totally American anymore. I didn’t feel European either. I just felt kind of lost, like I was missing something, like there was a big, big world out there, beyond the confines of my cinderblock dorm room, and I needed to go see it. So I took time off from school, saved money to travel, and spent three months on a super-low-budget romp through Europe, sleeping in youth hostels, on trains, on beaches, and train station floors. (This was an amazing trip in a variety of ways, but the coolest part was that it totally freaked out my parents.)

I had a goal for that journey. I wanted to write a book — a memoir of the places I visited and the people I met. So along the way, I journaled obsessively, sometimes for a couple of hours each day. I didn’t want to miss a single detail.

Don’t panic. I’m not going to tell you to journal for several hours a day in your own travels. On the contrary, I had not yet learned the time-saving techniques I will teach you in the next chapter.

After I returned home, I spent two years polishing my journals into a travel memoir. When I was finished, I realized I had broken a completely useless world record. I had just written a 550-page manuscript — the longest version in history of “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” I was still a fledgling writer. My skills had not yet evolved to the level of professional author. That book, in that form, would never be published. I buried my manuscript at the bottom of a desk drawer, all but forgetting about it, until several years later.

Then in my mid-20s, I approached travel writer and television host Rick Steves to grovel for a job. Rick asked if I’d be willing to share some of my writing, so I sent him a few of the chapters that had evolved from my journals. He hired me, based on those chapters, and for more than a decade, I’ve worked for him as a tour guide, living my dream of a career in international travel. (My other dream career is to be a superhero, but nobody seems to be hiring these days.)

Eventually, I did publish my first book. Getting Lost: Mishaps of an Accidental Nomad became my collection of humorous stories about things that have gone wrong in my lifetime of overseas wanderings — starting with my childhood in England, spanning forward to my adult years, guiding tours and working in the travel industry. I dusted off the pages of my earlier book attempt and rewrote some of them. The book I wrote in college, once condemned to the bottom of my desk drawer for eternity, eventually made it to life in published form.

My first book, my international career, my adult life as a professional traveler, all happened because of my travel journals. So did that South Pacific speaking gig that I mentioned with irritating nonchalance a couple of pages ago. What began as a hobby has brought me work on six continents. (And if anyone on Antarctica wants to fly me in for a seminar on continent number seven, I’ll do it for a discount.)

I can’t promise you becoming a dedicated travel journaler will land you book deals or globetrotting careers, but I will promise you this: Follow the techniques in this book, and over time, you’ll notice your travel experiences growing richer. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of who you are and how you interact with the world around you. And you will learn to capture your travels in ways that keep your memories burning bright for years to come.

How to Use This Book
Rule number one: Break the rules.

There are lots of different ways you can use this book. My number one goal is that you have fun with it. I’m going to offer suggestions for successful ways to approach your journaling — approaches that have been successful for me, and/or students in my seminars – but this isn’t a high school English class, and I don’t want to be a stodgy, set-in-his-ways teacher. I’m not going to flunk you if you do things differently from the ways I suggest. So find what works best for you. I will even let you chew gum. In return, I humbly request that you not scrawl nasty things about me on bathroom walls, okay?

Okay then. Let’s get started.

We’re going to tackle several issues in the coming pages. Among other things, I’ll teach you how to break free from conventional journaling styles, and write in bold new ways. You’ll discover how to be more aware of your surroundings as you go about your day, absorbing more details and then writing those details into the pages of your journal. In doing so, you will not only write better, you’ll travel better too, getting more deeply in tune with the places you wander through.

You can learn every brilliant writing technique in the world, however, and if you can’t find the time and fearlessness to use them, these techniques are useless. So we’ll also tackle the time and fearlessness issues. I will teach you how to write faster — and better — than you ever have.

Journaling should not be an interruption in your travels. It should not suck precious time out of your vacations. Vacations are supposed to be fun, and if journaling isn’t fun, you’re not going to want to do it. So we’ll look at ways to integrate journaling into your journeys without sacrificing travel experiences. If you’re cooped up in your hotel room with your nose in your notebook while an exciting world is happening outside, you’re not journaling constructively.

We’ll look at alternative ways, times, and places to write. Travel journaling shouldn’t feel like an irritating homework assignment that you must do when you really want to go out and play. You should go out and play – as much as possible.

And fearlessness? What do I mean by that? Writing can feel scary sometimes. Especially writing about ourselves. There are lots of psychological forces that can drag down our writing. Every great writer experiences self-doubt about his or her words at times. With journaling, we have the added challenge of writing about our own, sometimes spooky, emotions. Putting feelings on paper can make them seem more tangible, and sometimes we’re timid about getting so close to our thoughts. We’ll talk about that. I’ll teach you how to write bravely.

So in this book, you will learn how to write faster, better, more constructively, and more fearlessly than so-called “normal” journalers write. And you — you journaling-superhero-in-training, you — are going to learn these things by writing along with me.

In most of these chapters, you’ll have an opportunity or two to hop in the “Flight Simulator” and take the lessons you are learning for a test flight. You wouldn’t try to fly a plane before getting some practice on the ground, would you? We’re going to take the same approach with journaling, so that once you’re really traveling, you won’t crash your journals. The more you write at home before you go off on your next odyssey, the easier your writing will flow once you’re in a real travel journaling environment. Think of it this way: You can buy an electric guitar and let it gather dust, but don’t pick it up five years later and expect to magically sound like Jimi Hendrix. The same holds true for writing: The more you practice, the faster you’ll become a travel journaling superhero.

So I suggest you buy yourself a notebook of some sort to do the “Flight Simulator” exercises in. Or if you’re wrapped up in the digital age, create a file on your computer and type them. If, however, you don’t have time for that — perhaps you are hastily scanning these pages, already en route to your next destination — that’s fine. If you don’t have time to practice before you go, you can still learn these techniques just by reading this book. Skim quickly if you must, and jump to the sections that seem most helpful to you. Read through the exercises even if you don’t have time to do them. As you travel, they’ll serve as prompts for your writing.

I’m also going to share some of my own travel journals with you. I hope you feel at least a little special about this because I had a big fight with my editors over this. You know how you’re shy about sharing your private diaries with others? So am I.

For reasons I’ll explain in Chapter Three, I believe your primary travel journals are things you should write for yourself, and yourself alone. You shouldn’t censor your thoughts for fear that someone else might read what you’ve written. (We’ll talk later about when and how to share your journals with others.) And if you’ve promised yourself not to share your words with others, you must keep that promise.

I’ve made a similar promise to myself. But such a promise gets messy when you suddenly find yourself with editors offering you a book deal, and simultaneously demanding that you reveal your travel journals to the world.

So we have reached a compromise, my editors and I. All of the sample journal entries in this book are blurbs I have deemed suitable for public consumption. A few of them I have rewritten — either because the original version was too personal, or because the original version was too lame. Yes, lame. My travel journals, back before I had aspirations of becoming Super Travel Journaling Man, were, at times, incredibly lame. I’ve gotten better over time because I’ve journaled a lot. So I have polished up some of these earlier bursts of journaling because the purpose of including them here is to show you good journaling, not lameness. Between each chapter, you will find a hopefully-not-lame, quick journal entry from my travels. If you like them, you can read lots more of my journal entries and travel tales, share your success stories, offer me feedback on how this book’s working out for you, sign up for online classes, learn about my in-person classes and international journaling tours, and check out other cool travel journaling stuff on my website at traveljournaling.com.

Ready for Take-Off!
What do you think of when you think of a souvenir? A T-shirt? A piece of artwork? A splurgy bottle of wine? A snow globe or a floaty pen? When some people travel, they bring along an empty suitcase to fill with purchases along the way. Others travel light, savoring their memories instead. Whatever your own personal travel style is, when most of us think of the word, “souvenir,” we think of material possessions — elegant or kitschy — that we purchase on a journey.

But the word “souvenir” has a deeper meaning. It’s a word we’ve swiped from the French language. In French, se souvenir is the verb for “to remember.” A souvenir is a memory. In English, it has come to mean something we accumulate when we are away from home that will help us remember a place we’ve visited.

For years, when I thought of “souvenirs,” one of the first things that came to mind was the T-shirt vendors who hang out outside the Colosseum in Rome. For five euros (or the equivalent in US dollars or Japanese yen), they’ll sell you a T-shirt with a sketch by Michelangelo or a cartoon of some ancient ruins. Tourists go crazy over these cheap T-shirts. I’ve watched people flock around the streetside vendors and walk away with armloads of them. And, I will confess, I’ve bought a couple myself.

When I return home to Seattle after a season of tour guiding, one of the first things I do is sort my laundry into two piles: clothes I need to wash, and clothes I need to burn. After living out of a backpack for a couple of months, some clothing takes on a whole new aroma, and it’s not pretty. But if I’ve bought one of these cheap souvenir T-shirts, it goes in the wash pile.

I put it in my washing machine. Then I put it in my dryer. An hour later, when I take it out of the dryer, my “souvenir” has shrunk so much, it won’t even fit my cat.

And we call this a memory?

Traveling is one of the most adventurous, eye-opening things we can do with our lives. A two-week journey reverberates much longer than the two weeks we’re away. For months, even years ahead of time, we’re filled with anticipation and excitement as we make plans and wonder what our trip will be like. Once we return home, we may be far from the places we have visited, but the memories linger. Many journeys, once we have taken them, are experiences we carry with us for the rest of our lives.

Like T-shirts, however, memories fade over time. They become contorted. Details become fuzzy. Names or faces of people we met are things we can no longer recall. Sights, sounds, and smells become dulled. And saddest of all, sometimes the powerful revelations we experience, away from our usual lives, fade into our mental ether as we recoil back to our default personality, the one that has been shaped by our familiar culture. When this happens, potential opportunities for personal growth are lost.

Travel journals don’t shrink. They endure. If you journal about your experiences as you travel, you’ll collect your memories for easy retrieval whenever you want.

If you have tried travel journaling before and felt unsatisfied with the results, or if you have never journaled before and want to begin, this book will help you grow as both a traveler and a writer. So, friends, unfasten your seatbelts and follow me. Prepare to travel like you have never traveled before — and to return home with the ultimate souvenir — your own memories, true stories kept alive and vivid in the words you scribble as you wander our planet.

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Published on Thursday, May 15, 2008

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