Excerpt from Chapter 8: Travel Journaling When You’re Not Traveling
This is an excerpt from the bestselling book, Globejotting: How to Write Extraordinary Travel Journals (and still have time to enjoy your trip!) by Dave Fox.You can order autographed copies on this website or download it for Kindle.
Return to Hammamet
I had one of my most powerful journaling experiences on a trip to northern Africa a few years ago. Writing at home before my trip, I was both pre-journaling and post-journaling at the same time.
In 1976, when my family was living in England, we spent Christmas in Tunisia. I was eight years old. My brother, Steve, was four. We took off from Heathrow Airport on a chilly London night. Four hours later, as we touched down in Tunis, I was plunged into the most amazing culture shock my young mind had ever experienced.
We spent a week in Hammamet, a coastal village of dirt roads and palm trees. We made day trips to Muslim holy cities, rode camels on the beach, and drank tea in the spartan home of an orange farmer.
After we moved back to America, Hammamet swirled in my mind like a surreal dream. My memories faded with age, but they never vanished. My entire childhood year living in England was memorable, but our week in Tunisia stood out. Everything had been so radically different that week from any other week I had ever lived. I longed to return and experience it again.
By my mid-20s, Tunisia had become a strange part of me I needed to reconnect with. It was so far in the past, I began at times to question whether I had even been there. I had the passport stamp to prove it, but the memory was hard to believe. I needed to go back and prove to myself I hadn’t made the whole thing up.
Before leaving America, I sat down to pre-journal about my upcoming trip. As I began writing about my expectations, I realized they were all based on memories. The tricky thing was I wasn’t sure how many of my memories were accurate, and how many were images I had concocted in my mind.
I remembered towns we had visited on day trips – little bits and pieces at least – but the details had blurred together into one coagulated glob. So I stopped trying to recapture the journey in any sort of chronological order. I just began spilling random thoughts onto the page.
My journal entry became a scrawled list of memories: riding camels on the beach, women in veils, stray cats at our hotel, an excruciating leg cramp on Christmas Eve, bottled water – a brand called Safia, pink Safia bottle caps with a red logo in Roman and Arabic script, a three-foot-tall man in a fez who made change for the hotel’s pinball machines, palm trees, pungent food in olive oil that my eight-year-old taste buds hated, the Muslim call to prayer billowing from minarets, walking along the beach with my mom on the day my dad was sick with food poisoning, the walled city nearby, a beggar with deformed feet who passed his time at the city gates.
That last memory, of the beggar, popped into my mind suddenly. I hadn’t thought about him in years, but I could picture him now, gesturing down at his deformed feet, which pointed inward toward each other instead of forward. My list went on and on. I wrote myself into a frenzy, losing track of time. One detail triggered another. Two hours later, my trip from 20 years earlier was down on paper. Finally it felt real again.
I remembered the hotel we stayed in. It had been our home for a week. I remembered the courtyard, and my brother’s obsession with the stray cats that hung out there. I remembered a friendly waiter in the hotel restaurant who winced when I refused to eat the food. Now I wanted not just to go back to Hammamet, but to stay in the same hotel. Could I find it?
I phoned my mom to ask if perhaps she had written the name down somewhere. “Oh,” she remembered nonchalantly, as if our trip had been a week ago, “it’s called the Fourati.”
I wrote to the Tunisian embassy in Washington, DC, and asked if they had heard of the hotel, if it even still existed. Two weeks later, I received a response:
“The Hotel Fourati is now the biggest hotel in Hammamet. You will find that Hammamet has changed considerably since your visit in 1977. Tunisia’s tourism industry has made great strides, and Hammamet is now a popular resort town.”
A resort town? I recalled dirt roads and only a couple of hotels. I didn’t want to go to Tunisia to hang out in a resort. But I had to stay at the Fourati. It was beckoning.
On a break between guiding tours in Europe, I hopped an 80-dollar flight from Rome to Tunis and caught a ride down to Hammamet. Walking back into the hotel was like stepping into my own past. Tunisia had come to seem fictitious, but I was there again now, surrounded by it. I was overwhelmed with culture shock, even more so than I had been when visiting with my parents at age eight. But more than culture shock, I was flooded with memories.
The hotel had expanded, but the original buildings were the same. The food had improved slightly, but the desserts still had their familiar, oily flavor. I struck up a conversation with a waiter one evening. He had worked at the hotel when I was there in 1976. Was he the same, friendly man who had hovered over our table two decades before, concerned that I wasn’t eating enough? I’ll never know for sure, but I believe he was.
My most mind-blowing experience, however, came the following day. I hiked along the beach, just as I had done with my mother 20 years earlier, a couple of kilometers to the medina, the original walled city. Outside the city walls, Hammamet was modern now with paved roads and high-rise hotels. Within the medina, the same shops bustled as they had for centuries.
I approached the city walls and remembered their brown, blocky shape. I recalled teenagers who, 20 years earlier, had tried to sell toy camels to my mother and me for a coin or two. I wondered if the same guys were working in the medina now.
As I came to the gate, I saw the beggar. It was him! The same man I had remembered from 20 years earlier. It had to be him. He was in the same spot as he had sat in 1976, with the same pointed-in feet. I was stunned. I was sure by now he would have been elsewhere, if alive at all. But nearly every day of the last 20 years, he must have sat there, one hand cupped and outstretched, the other hand pointing down at his feet as people walked by.
I wanted to tell him my story, but I was too shy, too afraid it might hurt his feelings that I remembered his feet from 20 years earlier. So I gave him a couple of coins and continued into the bazaar. He nodded and thanked me. He had no idea how he had helped me connect with a small but resilient childhood memory.
Had I not pre-journaled before my trip, I never would have believed this was real. I would have convinced myself it was a weird déjà vu experience – that my mind was playing tricks on me, that actually, I was seeing him for the first time and imagining I had seen him on my previous trip. But back in America, in my bedroom in Seattle, were the couple of lines I had scrawled about him. When I returned to my American bedroom several weeks later, the first thing I did was check to be sure I really had journaled about the beggar.
Sometimes, in the moments when we journal, we don’t realize the power of what we’re writing. Sometimes, we’re sending important messages to ourselves, messages whose true value we will discover sometime in the future.