Travel Journals: the Mundane and the Moving

©BGabriel, 2015,

Meet my margarita: ‘Last Will and Testament’

Brian and I have recently considered drawing up our wills. So far, we mostly talk about it over rum and tonics with a healthy squeeze of lime, or a bracing prickly pear margarita.

You’d think it would be an easy process. We don’t have kids, we’re not bazillionaires, we don’t have a terrible secret that would be best left unexposed after we die.

What we do have is objects we’ve collected while traveling. Curated items that have remained with us despite periodic purges, like our latest move from a 2400 square foot house plus garage to an 840 square foot condo without as much as a storage locker. Without a guest room even.

What complicates will-making for us is that we also have, of course, private stuff: financials, partially written poems and essays (Please God, smite that file with a thunderbolt when I die); old letters, anniversary cards. Oh, and porn. Hahaha! Just checking that you’re still reading this. Moving on…

My niece came to visit us in Austin this summer, and, as family conversations often go when one party to the conversation is understood to be elderly and unlikely to last through dinner, the topic of what to do with our stuff came up. Erica asked if we would leave our travel journals to her in our wills, the idea being to sit with a glass of wine, read about our travels and marvel at our insights, smiling at the occasional globetrotter’s wisecrack.


I’d have to redact so much that the journals would look like transcripts of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes.


My first thought was, Damn, I forgot to think about what to do with our travel journals! Then I said, No way, baby.

You see, I’ve had our old travel journals sitting on my writing table for months, including a stack of them from a year-long journey by VW camper van in Europe and North Africa. I leaf through them now and again when writing about a place or an encounter. Looking at the journals can make for a good time, seeing those places and experiences again through the eyes (and pen) of my younger self.


Our younger selves…

Reading them also makes me squirm. My early travel journals are full of mundane details about changing money (changed 200 $ to £ at Royal Bank of Scotland this morning), whining about the weather (It rained all day. Again.) and getting ripped off, in tandem with griping about prices.

After that conversation, I spent a few hours randomly selecting pages of four notebooks spanning that year in our camper van to see if they were worth passing on for posterity. Turns out that when you live in a VW camper van for a year , you write a lot about showering. More accurately, about not showering. You dream about being clean and try to remember what that feels like.


There are other, similarly unremarkable journal entries about:

  • Car trouble: oil leak, cv joint, broken windows (receipts included)
  • Health worries- post-cancer exams, intestinal difficulties, and sinus infections. (receipts included)
  • Foul moods, petty arguments and boredom (mostly explained by weather, car trouble and health worries.)
  • Documenting (apparently) everything we ate or drank, (receipts not included!)- Cornish pasties, scrumpy, spaghetti Bolognese with horse meat in Sevilla; cafe com leite in Portugal, tagine in Fez, paté and a peculiarly pungent saucisson in Caen, France, that transported us lickety-split to the barnyard where it may have been created.

travel notebooks, europe


But far more compelling, sandwiched between the rubbish, are entries about things we saw and did. Such as:

  • History of places and people, like the folks who rowed the Cornwall Pilot Gig Association’s lifesaving boats and saved hundreds of lives from stranded or sinking ships.
  • People we met who gave us insight into life lived in those spots. Mike & Sheila in Guildford; Craig and Alison, touring by motorcycle in Morocco; the Berber girls in Tafroute who helped me with my Arabic. [Read more about my ‘Grammar Girls’]
  • List of things we found in second-hand markets.
  • List of Scenes from a Cafe in Moulay Bouselham, a small seaside village in Morocco.
  • Having an entire ancient town of Roman ruins to ourselves at dawn, aside from the guard who mostly patrolled his lunch and cigarettes.
  • Dashed expectations about places we had long looked forward to—Stonehenge with three busloads of tourists in pouring rain, with fenced off stones—followed by delight at discovering the ‘undiscovered’ village of Cadgwith in Cornwall.
  • Our experience in smuggling cigarettes into Gibraltar to sell on the black market and buying a new mattress with the proceeds.
  • An unexpected trip aboard a steam-powered boat on the Basingstoke Canal.
  • The sensory bombardment of traveling to a new place every day or two.
  • Isolation, especially when traveling independently in foreign countries.
  • Books we read. Second-hand bookstores.

There is some cool stuff there, right? Yes, but it didn’t change my mind about leaving our travel journals for future generations. To feel comfortable about that, I’d have to redact so much that the journals would look like transcripts of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes.

The good news is I’m heading out on another trip this fall, and reading those old journals prompted me to up my travel journal game. I’ve bagged my customary spiral notebook, replacing it with a classic moleskine, unlined, encouraging me to write (and draw) outside the lines. It’s ready to pack, along with a couple of pens I love, a non-photo blue pencil for initial sketches, pack of colored pencils, and black Flair pen. To be honest, I can’t draw at all, but my stickmen kick some ass.

©BGabriel, 2015

To prepare me (or maybe just loosen my conviction that I can’t draw), I’ve turned to Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. That’s teaching me to pay closer attention to what I see, do, and hear, and to draw without over-thinking or judging. Plus, it’s super-fun to draw at the end of my day.

There may be a travel journal in that will after all. Stay tuned.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. I think parts of travel are mundane and boring. At least the type of travel I’ve done. It’s part of the experience and it relates a truth that travel Is not always glamorous and glitzy. A lot of it is about finding showers in the midst of nowhere. I have whole days spent searching for showers and laundry machines and a host of interesting, albeit weird, people met in the process. Plus if you leave them the porn they’ll probably never get to the travel journals.

    • I read your comment, nodding my head in agreement, until I got to the last sentence. Then I laughed so loud my dogs came running to share in whatever was making me happy. Seriously though, great insight. As I was writing this post, I remembered spending an entire day (after planning my attack the night before) doing laundry in Oporto, Portugal. A beautiful, historic city filled with fortified wine, and I was stuck in a laundromat. This is travel, as it is life. Thanks for taking time to have a conversation!

  2. Sooooo, this will… Is this the one I’m not in??!?!? I’ll go ahead and say I inspired you.

  3. Always a pleasure to hear your tales. Always a smile on my face as I picture it all.

  4. You made me realize how pathetic my travel journals are. Very few exciting things in my journals such as selling on the black market. I will just leave my boxes of writing to anyone who wants to plow through it. It is likely to be the first thing tossed out.

    • I was disheartened at first, looking at my travel journals, but found nuggets of gold buried there. No doubt you will too. And isn’t that the truth about our ‘boxes of writing’? Precious to us, but no doubt someone else will say, “meh.”

  5. Have cannibalized my own travel journals for writing projects many times. Oddly, what disheartens me is the amount of time I spent carefully describing sights & historical details (easily found elsewhere) rather than the personal & mundane. Even so, I’ve stumbled on many a delightful forgotten insight or encounter.

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