Travel Journaling Will Save You Money

Souvenir.  The impulse to buy something to remember an experience. Or the impulse to buy something because in the moment, that key chain, purse or rock, seems like an excellent idea. Or the impulse to buy what everyone else is buying. Or impulse triggered by abundance – a market filled with painted pottery, a store packed with Hawaiian shirts.  Because it’s there.  Because you cannot get that particular item in the States. Or because you’ve been pestered so consistently it’s worth the money to get rid of the vendor.

Souvenir, in French, means to remember.  On most swept and tended grave markers,  the carved word souvenir is surrounded by candles, flowers, often a favorite toy.

It seems ironic.

Will we be remembered for ourselves or our stuff?  Or are the toys and photos for the living, a gesture to the dead, a shrine, a collection of precious memory triggers.

Of course, all our collected items are precious.  Necessary.  Dusty.

For me, I want it all. But I can’t carry it all, and I can’t just write it all down because doesn’t replace shopping (let’s be clear on that) but journaling has most definitely helped me shop.     

I do reconnaissance work before even boarding a plane.  I read the guide books and ask questions while I’m still in my small house:  What do I need? What do I want, and what will fit in the house?

The next question is, can I satisfy these needs easily, cheerfully and locally and then claim them as trip souvenirs?  Friends of mine scoured Thailand for the perfect garden Buddha, shipped their find to their home in Marin at great expense only to find its twin in a garden shop around the corner.  Can you get an Italian painted vase in San Francisco?

These are good questions to record before you are caught up in the moment or backed into a rug factory holding a glass of hot tea in one hand as you fish out your Visa with the other.   Did a friend suggest the perfect item?  Do you collect certain items?  We used to collect masks until we ran out of wall space.  My mother has created a tiny universe filled with miniature houses and boats she had collected from all over the world – key word – miniature.  After admiring our Indian rug, a friend commented that collecting spoons seemed like a good hobby.

Once you have the Buddha, the rug, and some random spoons, did you discover wonderful must have things that are exclusive to your destination?  The only way to know is to shop ahead.Medieval Japanese Armor

I make a list in my journal of what I have in mind, what I can’t find in my hometown and what would be interesting to possess.   And don’t worry, I am always prepared to pay the price for falling in love. Not that all my love is requited.  We fell in love with a full set of Medieval Armor we spotted at the market in Kyoto on the morning we were leaving the country and didn’t even have enough yen to get back to the hotel let along pay cash for a priceless antique.  We had to leave it where we found it.

Years later we discovered a full set of Medieval Japanese armor on display in Nevada City, which again, just goes to show.

Create a list of what you are interested in, like beautiful bangles from India.  Research the availability, and the cost.  It helps to know the price of what you want, more or less, so you have a place from which to bargain.

Here is where the journal comes in, record what you want and what is a good price and what you are willing to pay.   This will give you a general, very loose, creative kind of budget.  It isn’t necessary to constantly reference your shopping list.  Just writing it down creates consciousness as well as creating the magic of intention.  Additionally, knowledge is power, if you know the price of silk scarves at home, then you’ll better recognize a bargain in Laos.  If you know, really, that you cannot access books by local authors and poets through Amazon, then there will be no guilt shopping the local book stall.

My husband enjoys reminding me that any “bargain” purchased on a trip really costs the price of the trip.  I just as consistency ignore his observation. What I haven’t ignored is the dire need for an internationally understood gesture that says –    I love what you are offering, small boy following us up from the Ganges and dogging us for the last two miles, but I have no more room in my suitcase and your cheap item at 300 rupees actually will cost $25.00 in increased baggage fees.

What can you collect if you have enough stuff?   (Until we moved to a small house – specifically so we could travel more –  I didn’t think there was a such a thing as too much stuff. There is.)

You collect impressions.  Keep shopping. It’s fun, tactile and part of a travel experience.  Touch things, admire things. Now that you have the list of what you want, and how much it should cost, list all the beautiful things you’d buy if neither money nor space  was a consideration.

  • I would buy five hundred bracelets in Jaipur.
  • I would buy ten kimonos just for the feel of the heavy silk.
  • I would buy an enormous purple and red Murano Chandelier.
  • I would buy a room size inlaid red lacquer screen in Vietnam.   
  • I would buy a ten foot long  inlaid marble dining table from Agra
  • I would buy three drawer hand crafted wood dresser  from Hakone
  • I would buy dozens of paintings from that elderly artist in that small town in central China.
  • I would buy Medieval armor.
  • A 68 pound stone head of Green man.
  • The 69 pound stone carving of Tutankhamen.
  • That really big, really yellow vase from Provence.
  • Wine, I would buy a lot of wine

You get the idea.  Write about all the wonderful stuff.  Write about how a full set of armor from Britain would astonish your friends.  Write about it as the bus pulls away from the souk.     

Write about what you would love  to own while your fellow travelers negotiate prices and call in to clear their Visa (on tours there is always a lag at the larger shops while people, possibly not you, are purchasing.  Use the time to write in your journal.)

If you are very fortunate, and I have been fortunate a couple times, you will be traveling with a true shopper. This woman carries an extra suitcase and holds a black belt in bargains.  She is shopping for the holidays, she is shopping for friends and she is wonderful to watch.  Buy her a drink at the end of the day and ask to see her finds.   Take photos, touch, exclaim.  You will get a vicarious thrill and she will get to share with someone who is really interested.   

Describe both her and her stuff for a later story or poem.  Capture the exchange.  And in the end, come home with exactly what you want, exactly what you need: the perfect souvenir.

Upgrade your work to First Class – Travel Journaling as Memoir

Sponge Bob in AmsterdamLinda Joy Meyers founder of  the National Association of Memoir Writers, has this to say about memoir:

“Writing your story will change you! As you are writing your story, perhaps you already have experienced a shift in perspective about your life, your family, and the events you lived through.  Our stories carry a wisdom we didn’t know we had. Memoir makes its demands on us, pressing us for stories we’ve never written before, leading us to moments and memories as we drop into another time and place. To write a memoir means to wrestle with truth. We are the narrator and witness to the life we’ve lived. Writing a memoir means that we learn how to move through time as we draw upon writing craft to create a world the reader can relate to, a world that brings them into the magic of a story.”

What we create when we write during our travels is a memoir.  Sounds classier and more important than “just making notes about the Great Wall” doesn’t it?   Memoir, essentially, chronicles a short, specific period in your life, if you are lucky, that includes a recognizable narrative arch.  Like what happened during your dream trip to Italy or Iceland.

Memoir requires structure, discovery, and change. Coincidentally, this is often exactly what travel provides.  Travelers ask all the right questions that memoir needs:  who am I?  What to do I want?  Why am I here?  If the answers are:  I am the plus one, I want more gelato and I’m here because the hotel was free, so be it. That is your starting point.

A new place pulls us from our everyday and gives us foreign space, different food different directions, and different stories so our life is not only enhanced, but illuminated against a new sky.

The idea that no matter where you go, there you are, is right. But it’s also right that as soon as you go, as soon as you board the plane, something changes, and you are a little bit new, a little bit altered.

With that in mind, how do you approach your travel memoir?  Write about how  this new place affects the old you.  Do you relate to something, is there something about the light in the streets that remind you of something in the past? Very often, we can’t write about our home in South Dakota  until we start drinking tea in Beijing.

If a place reminds you of another place, why?  What is it about the place?  What appeals and what repels?

I want to think that travel changes me for the better.  One of the many benefits of travel is we are forced to face the world as just us.  We can’t use the  trappings and symbols of the big house to bestow influence, we can’t throw around our   job title to impress, we left behind our expensive clothes and precious jewelry to connote importance.    It’s just you.  Struggling in a different language, dissecting unusual food searching for onions (if you are my son).  It’s just  you and the world, unvarnished and real.

The experience of travel  can become  a path to discovery both externally and internally.  That too is the essence of writing memoir.  How wonderful to combine the two and create stories that even if never published (and most aren’t) instead enhances the trip experiences and in the process, nourishes your soul, something that will last for the rest of your life.   

To Tour or not to Tour, that is the Troubling Question

Everyone likes to dis tours. Tours were for lesser, less adventurous, less intelligent tourists.  We were travelers armed with AAA maps and   Fodor’s $5.00-$10.00- $50.00-Never Mind, a Day.    

Tours were for those who didn’t know what they were doing, or why.  Tours were restrictive, crowded, uninspiring and boring.  Tours diluted the foreign experience by isolating you with your own kind on a big bus. Tour food was bland and catered to the lowest common taste bud.

We do not tour.  My mother didn’t even tour with her mother – apparently travel by enormous cruise ship that empties a thousand American’ tourists into port experiences catering to Americans tourists fresh off the cruise boat is completely different.   

Tours were out.  Until my mother lost both her favorite travel companion, my father as well as her travel bete noire, her mother. Until she wanted to travel to Egypt.

At the time – about 15 years ago, a woman could not comfortably travel

Luxor, Egypt

Luxor

through Egypt without the protection and the organization of a tour.  It was a scary first time for both of us.  Not Egypt, the damn tour.   

We chose  Overseas Adventure Travel, I don’t even remember why except the price was probably right for what we got.  It always is.

Mom still brought maps and ideas but we did not pack   Fodor’s Egypt on $100 a Day.  Instead we clutched a copy of our pre-determined schedule and hoped we could endure the experience of bus rides that were necessary if you wanted to see the Valley of the Kings.    

There were a couple of features of a tour that dramatically differed from doing it yourself

Before-  Landing

Back in the day when we did it ourselves, we landed in London. My parents gathered the luggage, yelled at my brother and I to not wander around Heathrow and with much debate shuffled us all towards the car rental parking lot.   Because we are driving in London.  I remember my dad experimenting with the left hand gear shift while telling us he didn’t care if we were hungry.  Mom found the dot on a complicated London A to Z map and announced it shouldn’t be long.

I don’t remember being particularly terrified.  I should have been.   A car in London is a terrible idea. Clearly, we survived.

After –  Landing

We disembark in Cairo.  The airport is crowded and disorienting.  Streets even more so.  I keep an eye on mom so she doesn’t wander off searching for a restroom. Instead of dragging to three successive information booths to learn where to pick up a car that may or may not be a good idea, we are greeted by a professional guide holding an easy to recognize sign.

The guide escorts mom to the restroom.

The guide fetches the rest of our luggage, she walks us to a waiting bus. The bus driver already knows the route to our hotel.  In fact, the hotel is already taken care of, which is an ordinary thing on paper at home, it is a bloody miracle on your first day in a foreign country.

So when you descend the  switch back single lane road out of the mountains and down to the planes of Thermopylae in a big bus praying to whatever god strikes your fancy (in Greece there are still many to choose from: worship Mary if someone you loved did not survive the road down to Thermopylae, St Christopher if you did)  you can take comfort that your husband is not driving and your mother is not helping

Before – Getting Around

Even with Siri, even with GPS, even with a map, you can become terribly lost.  Or worse.  A best friend was guiding the rental car up in the hill towns in Spain and the GPS voice told him to turn left, and he did, and the car got stuck between the two narrow stone walls.  Trashed the car.   

Yes, if you drive or take the train, you can control the journey.  Take the road less traveled (which may or may not end up deep in sugar cane field), turn at the sign promising a castle (it did, it was amazing), and enjoy the day meandering up and down lush green hills.  You can also spend the day on a highway with unmarked exits, with your partner bringing up old grievances at the exact time the GPS delivered crucial directions.

After – Getting Around

On a tour there is limited opportunity to get lost.  However, if you are traveling on a time budget, it is worth the money to get where you want to go and back as efficiently as possible so you can spend the maximum time viewing the thing you came to see.  The bonus of the bus and of not having to worry about navigating the roads  is you can write about the monuments and experiences immediately after viewing them. And you don’t need to tell anyone where to go, either physically or metaphorically.

Before – Sleeping

You may already know to book a hotel room for the first night of your trip. You already know that the mind-set for such a hotel and first night is that it will be the most expensive hotel and dinner of the whole trip because you had no time to explore the area  and figure out the cheaper options.  As long as you can get to the hotel – from the air terminal, to a water taxi, to the dock, dragging the luggage over the cobblestones and discovering the right hotel a second before a storm. As long as you do that, you’ll be good.

After the first comfortable night, each day of the trip is spent either finding the right hotel, or finding the hotel  or AirB & B you reserved but doesn’t seem to be located at the published address.  Again, with our maps and phones, it’s not as difficult as it used to be.  But the search, discovery, moving the luggage, all the  pieces, chew up sightseeing  time.

After – Sleeping

Flam, Norway

From the Flam Railway

Tours often book far more beautiful and well-located hotels than you could afford on your own.   We know.  We tried.  We priced a trip to Norway a la carte so to speak and the cost was prohibitive.  We gave up and booked the same countries (Norway, Finland, Denmark and st. Petersburg)  with Grand Circle Tours (which is different from an OAT and I will discuss that if you’d like). With the tour, we enjoyed five star hotels, a cruise that offered caviar for breakfast and the perfect ride on the Flam Railway   We had more time to enjoy – in this case – the stunning fjords and views and less time worrying about where we’d sleep that night.

Don’t care about hotels?

Wait a few years, you will.

Travelers have always hired guides. How else can you know what you are seeing?  How else can you get around in the best, and for many of us, most efficient manner possible?

I took comfort that if Herodotus, one of the first travel writers, needed a guide in Egypt (who by the way, told his Greek tourist that the hieroglyphs on the top of the pyramids were a list of foods, which Herodotus dutifully wrote down.  It wasn’t true, but even in 550 BC no one could read hieroglyphs), then we could too. And so can you.

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