A Travel Journal Worth Keeping

School’s out, the grade book is closed, and the room has been cleared for summer maintenance. For many students, attention has turned to summer travel. Some will be going on exchanges, others traveling with their families. Here’s the handout I share with students who are going abroad for the first time.

Of course they’ll take pictures and send them back home—theirs is, after all, the world of the iPhone and Facebook—but some things can’t be captured in photographs. I encourage my students to record the sights and sounds of other countries and the experiences they have as they travel in words as well as photographic images. And then, of course, they’ll have lots to write about when they return to the classroom and need story starters for their essays.

First of all, I tell them, there is no single way to keep a travel journal (except that you have to write in it or you won’t have one.) Your journal can be an old-fashioned diary—one that summarizes each day from dawn to dusk. This type of journal is sometimes called a chronicle because it details, in the order of what happened, everything about the day: what you did, who you saw, what you experienced, where you went, what you ate, or just some of this. Or, your journal can be topical (you write on just certain subjects and don’t necessarily record every last thing you did). It can be thematic (you write about ideas and how you see them play out in events and people you encounter). It can be a sketchbook. That’s right: You draw your way through the day—or in this case, the trip. It can be a scrapbook of odds and ends you collect as you go and paste right into the pages alongside your thoughts, observations, summaries, and sketches. In other words, the journal is yours—your business, your record, your expression of yourself, your portrait in words (mostly) of what you see hear, smell, taste, touch, sense, experience, and understand on your journey.

A journal can be a diary with a lock and key, a spiral notebook, a fancy blank book (lined or unlined pages) from someplace like Barnes and Noble, a sketchbook (unlined pages), or even a 3-ring binder! It can be any size that’s convenient for you. But here are my preferences for journal-keeping (based on years of keeping them):

• A spiral binding so the book will open flat—makes it easier to write on the left hand pages.
• An elastic band that slips around the front and back to hold anything loose you’ve slipped inside (of course, this can be accomplished with a big, fat rubber band, too).
• Lined pages—but, if you’re likely to want to sketch, you might prefer unlined pages. In that case, take a sheet of blank paper and draw heavy lines on it–thick ones, dark enough to show through the blank page. Slip the lined piece of paper under a blank page and presto: lined pages!
• Not so big you can’t slip it in your purse or backpack. Not so small you can’t write very much.
• A glue stick (slip it in your purse or pocket)
• Pockets (make these with index cards and scotch tape) on the inside of the front and back covers. You will use the pockets to keep stuff too big to paste into your journal.

Getting Started:

It may help to get started to imagine an audience. It might be your parents, with whom you will share your book when you get back. It might be a friend. It might be an imaginary friend. It might even be just you yourself that you’re writing to. But most people have an audience in mind—maybe subconsciously—when they sit down to write. If a “known” audience will help you, consciously pick someone to think about when you write. That way, you’ll “speak” directly to that person, in a natural voice, and you’ll think of the details that person would need to know to understand. This is very much like writing a letter. (Some very powerful diaries have been composed as letters. Remember Anne Frank’s diary to “Dear Kitty”?) Other people, however, prefer to just “free-write.” Do what suits you.

Naturally, you are going to apply everything you have ever learned about descriptive writing from every English teacher you’ve ever had. You know: appeal to the senses, think in metaphors, relish similes and other figures of speech, write about one thing by comparing it to another, choose vivid words, use action verbs, include details, details, details—etc., etc., etc. Besides all that, which is VERY IMPORTANT and ABSOLUTELY BASIC, here are some practical suggestions for things to notice and write about :

What to Write About:

Jokes you are told—what someone thinks is funny tells you a lot about their world.

Conversations—just a few lines that are provocative or thoughtful will begin a journal entry in an interesting way and capture the flavor of what you learned. Just by itself, with no elaboration, conversation is interesting to read. For example, I had this conversation with two girls who were translating for me when I was in Russia in 1998. (Both girls were named Anya.) Their summary of the teacher’s omniscience stays with me because I recorded the conversation.

In Russian schools, students sit two to a desk—a “seatmate” it is called.
I said to Anya 1 and Anya 2 that I was impressed they didn’t poke each other, they said, “Oh, we poke.” And then I did see one boy whack his diligent seatmate with a ruler.
“Seatmates are an advantage,” Anya 1 said. “If I don’t understand something, my seatmate can help me.”
“What’s to prevent cheating during an exam?” I asked.
“The discipline, “ they answered. “The teacher knows.”

Lists. Make a list of items in a room, books on a shelf, ingredients in a cupboard, CDs or videos in a rack, things on the table, foods in the market, music on the radio, vendors on the street, merchandise in a shop, breads in the bakery, people on the train, foods at a party. The list will capture the flavor without much further description.

Draw a floor plan of your host’s apartment if you are staying with a family. Label the rooms and explain who sleeps where. Later, if you are able to take pictures of the apartment, it will help your family and friends at home to visualize it.

Recipes for foods you liked. Ask your host mother to show you how to make a favorite bread or dessert. She will be pleased, and you will have an authentic recipe to share.

Journal Entry Starters:

Three things I should have brought…
Three things I didn’t need to bring…
Three things I didn’t expect…
Three things I’ll never forget…

Things I love about Russia (or any country)…
Things I miss about the USA…
Things that made me sad…
Things that made me glad…

Keep a record of the weather
Keep a record of the number of times you hear a certain word or slang expression
Keep a record of the dogs you see, or cats, or kinds of cars, or popular songs
Keep a record of the American products you see for sale

A surprise
A disappointment
A moment of gratification
A moment of annoyance
A wish
A hope
A dream

Take a walk down the street. Who else is on the street? How many and what kinds of cars pass you? How many animals do you see? What buildings do you pass? How are they different from buildings in America? What is beneath your feet? Straight ahead? What do you smell? What do you see on the horizon? What’s the prettiest thing you see? The ugliest? What feeling do you get, walking down the street?

Go shopping. Describe the procedure. What if you didn’t have a friend to help you? What would be the dangers for you? What would perplex you? Frustrate you? Confuse you? What are the advantages of buying items the way it is done in this country? Disadvantages? Compare and contrast with shopping protocols in America.

Watch TV. IT doesn’t matter whether you understand the words. Record the types of shows, the length of each one, the commercials (if there are any), the pictures that are shown. Who is the audience for each of the shows? How is TV in this country different from American TV? How many channels are there? How many American shows did you see? What were they? How many shows imported from other countries? How much news do you hear about the USA? How much about other countries? Compare international news abroad with international news in the USA.

Describe a dinner/breakfast. What did you eat? How was the table set? What were you served? Were you expected to eat everything on your plate? Did you like it? If you didn’t, how did you balance politeness with preference? What was dessert? How long did dinner last? Did the whole family talk? Did everyone clear the table? Who did the dishes? Did you offer to help? Were you expected to help? What was the response to your offer to help?

Describe traveling by public transportation. How long did it take to go from one place to another? How much did it cost? What was the procedure? How did it differ from taking a city bus at home? If you traveled to school, how did the trip compare with your experiences on the big yellow school bus here at home?

And of course, write about what you did every day.

Happy travels! Don’t forget to come home and tell us all about it!

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3 thoughts on “A Travel Journal Worth Keeping

    1. Thanks, Karolyn! I am glad that the blog resonated with you. I developed it some years ago when I took students to Russia on a series of academic exchanges, and I have shared it with kids going abroad generally ever since. Enjoy your travels! Sarah

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