Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Travel Journal (Peru, 1987)

Today, for the second time this week, I saw a hummingbird perched on one of the spindly maples by the jogging trail. They haven't graced the white-flowering currants in my yard this spring the way they have in past years, so perhaps they've moved. The currants are nearly done blooming by now. Maybe it's just been so rainy that I haven't been outside, and missed them.

As I was thinking about migratory hummingbirds relocating across town, and congratulating myself that all my zigzagging to dodge the deeper mud pits was surely adding at least a mile to my workout, I met up with a friend. This friend is much fitter than I am--when she says "running," it's not a euphemism for creeping lope--but I tried to keep pace. She's planning a trip to Peru. I've been to Peru so, when asked, I naturally tried to offer advice. Huffing and wheezing all the while, for greater drama and impact.

None of it practical advice, of course. I was twenty, traveling on my parents' dime and my parents' planning efforts. When she asked if we made hotel reservations in advance, I didn't have a clue.

But I remember the trip. I used to keep detailed travel journals, trying, at the end of each day, to mentally retrace my steps and note everything down. I've lost that habit, but it fed a fine discipline of noticing that I have tried to hold onto, even as I've gotten lax about the recording. I have the journals, all of them. I've scarcely opened one after coming home; maybe the initial writing was enough. Sill, I'm glad they're there.

Some details of the Peru trip--Dad's hypothermia on the Lake Titicaca, the giant spider in the bathroom, the unsugared oatmeal on the Inca trail--have become the stuff of family legend: often rehearsed, repeated--altered? No doubt. Memories can be stories we tell ourselves, and when we tell them to others, they slip further beyond our control and become their stories, too.

I listed destinations and remembered stonework. Misadventures and an extraordinary moonrise. Go to Ollantaytambo, I told my friend. And when she praised my memory for detail, I said, "I spent years trying to write a poem about it." Almost as an excuse. 

I did write that poem. It was published in The MacGuffin 9.1, 1992. The journal doesn't have an online archive that I can link to, so I'll share the poem here, with thanks for the editors' early hospitality, and hope they won't mind. In honor of National Poetry Month, and travel journaling and embroidering, and trying to remember it all and get it down in words. And, always, missing something big.


  1. I kept my first journal on a trip to Greece in 1981, for no reason other than that I had read that travelers in the Golden Age did so. That journal, I have since noticed, was pretty awful, but I have done so on every trip since, and for most of my ordinary life, and it has proven a delightful experience. Other people always seemed to get tired of my trips before I did, and as a general matter my life has always been more interesting to read about than it seemed when I was living it.

  2. Davis,
    I used to be a much more disciplined keeper of travel journals. I haven't reread many of them, but I found it helped my looking and noticing during the day, to go back in the evening and sum up, even mentally retrace my steps. At-home journaling has been much more slapdash. Some journals may be pretty awful, but perhaps the writing more than the rereading is what's important.

  3. Amalla,
    You have just given me an idea. Recently, I wrote about trips my wife and I took to Spain and to Mexico, and I was quite delighted with the way they came out, despite the fact that I had made no notes at all on the trips and they took place almost fifty years ago.

    Pay attention at the time and write down what you remember, however long it is after the fact. If you didn't remember it yourself, it probably won't be very interesting anyone else.

    Remember: we're not writing anthropology or journalism. Those are work. This is supposed to be fun.

  4. It is fun, isn't it? But I think we have different kinds of accounts, depending on how close or far from the experience we might be; and I think the intention of writing about something, and then the act of writing, affects how I remember events, whether or not I ever look at what I've written.

  5. In Turkestan Solo by Ella Maillart, an account of her 1935 trip from China across Central Asia to India, a Russian acquaitance says to her “I envy you being a writer . . . one remembers better what one sees."
    I misread that as “one remembers better than one sees,” which seems to me possibly the more true.

  6. “One remembers better than one sees" -- I love that!