Travel Narrative

Many of us have had the opportunity to travel beyond our community and region, perhaps even to distant countries.  We visit sites of natural beauty and historical significance. We encounter different cuisines and cultural practices. We meet interesting people whose way of life makes us see our own in a new light. After days or weeks, we return home with photographs, notes, brochures, souvenirs, and a host of stories we share with our family and friends.

Yet, in time, our vivid memories begin to fade. We struggle to remember in which city or at which site a particular photograph was taken. We can no longer recall the names of people we’ve met or with whom we’ve travelled.  Worst of all, some of the deep feelings that once defined our travel venture now seem vague and indistinct. 

A Travel Narrative can help us to capture or recover many of our memories and the richness of our experiences. It also may convey to others what we have learned about other people, other places, and ourselves. “Travel far enough,” wrote British novelist David Mitchell, “you meet yourself.”

Our goal in this Writing Activity is to create a narrative at least several pages in length, recalling factual details of a particular trip and reflecting on our experiences as we travelled.

Travel Narrative Writing Guidelines:

Recalling the Travel Details:

You may refresh your memory of your trip in a number of ways.

  • Look at pictures you or others have taken. Photography has become inexpensive and now we tend to take many pictures, even on a short trip. They are good aids for our memory.
  • Re-read any diary notes or journal entries you may have made.
  • Re-read any letters or e-mails you sent, if you have access to them.
  • Visit with others who accompanied you or who have visited the same locale.
  • You likely have told others about some of the travel experiences you wish to describe. Jot down the stories you tell most often as they tend to distil much of one’s experience.
  • Review any promotional literature you used to plan your trip or any accounts you find written by others. 
  • Search out YouTube videos taken in the places you visited to stimulate your own memories of visiting them.

Beginning of the Trip

  • Why did you travel to this place (or these places)?
  • When did you begin to plan the trip?
  • How did you go about your planning? (reading brochures or travel guides? travel agent?)
  • What were your hopes or expectations for this trip?
  • Did you travel alone or with other persons? (If with others, did they share your hopes and expectations?) 

Middle of the Trip

  • What mode(s) of travel did you use to reach your destination(s)?
  • What sites did you see en route to your main destination?
  • Did everything go as planned? (Any travel delays or detours? Lost baggage? etc.)
  • Did you visit primarily one place or a number of places? How long did you stay in each place you visited?
  • What attractions did you see (e.g. historical, cultural, religious)? Why were these of interest to you?
  • What events did you attend? In which activities did you engage?
  • Where did you stay while travelling? (e.g. hotels? private homes? bed-and- breakfasts? other?) What were your lodging experiences?
  • What did you eat while travelling? (Did the cuisine include any memorable dishes, either enjoyable or difficult to eat?) 
  • Who were some of the interesting people you met or travelled with?
  • In what season of the year did you travel? How did this affect your experience? What kind of weather did you have and how did you like it? 
  • What do you regard as the highlights of your trip? 
  • How well were your initial hopes or expectations met?
  • Most trips have both their “ups and downs.” 
    • What challenges (if any) did you encounter? (e.g. getting lost, asking directions in another language? losing possessions? being robbed?) 
    • How did you deal with any frustrations you experienced?
  • Did you have any health issues or serious mishaps? (If so, how did you deal with them? How were they resolved?)

Conclusion of the Trip:

  • Were you ready to return home when the time came?
  • How well did your return journey go? 

Reflecting on Your Trip:

A Travel Narrative is more than just a written report on a trip, telling of where ,when, and how you went, what you saw and who you met. Such details are important, but not central to your real story. At the heart of your account is your own personal experience, your recollection not only of details from your outer journey, but also from your inner one. The outer details may shape the plot of your story, but it is your inner experiences as the point-of-view character that give your story its real interest. 

The following questions explore your growth and development as this travel story’s main character:

  • What personal connection did you feel with the places you visited and the people you met? 
  • What were your emotional reactions to the events you attended and activities in which you engaged?
  • What would you say that you learned—about yourself and about life in other places?
  • Looking back from the start to the finish of your trip, how would you say you changed? Did you gain a different perspective or better understanding of the place and people you visited? Was your travel experience in any way “transformational”? Did you come home a ‘changed person’?
  • in his  memoir Doubting Castle, Manitoba writer Paul Hiebert said: “One travels in search of spiritual Truth as much as ‘one travels in search’ of scenic vistas and grandeurs…”  Did you return home from your travels with any sense of having gained insight into a larger truth?
  • In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-loved fantasy story for children, Bilbo Baggins returns from his adventures to write a memoir “There and Back Again.” With his knowledge of the world, Baggins has a greater appreciation for the humble shire where he lives. Do you find that your travels—There and Back Again—give you a different view of home?
  • “Be a traveller, not a tourist.” What does this familiar advice mean to you? Is it more than the mantra: ‘Been there, saw the sites, bought the tee shirt’?
  • Most journeys can be described as one of four kinds: an adventure, a wandering, a quest, or a pilgrimage. Which of the following descriptions applies most to the trip you’ve described and why does it seem to be so?
    • An adventure has a known destination, though reaching it may involve risk, discomfort, even great challenge. A curious person, the adventurer seeks excitement and asks, “What’s next? What’s around the bend?”
    • A wandering has no defined destination, but the hope of a discovery. Continually open to the new, the happy wanderer is attuned to such pleasures as may come along the way.
    • A quest is a search inspired by something special—a person, place or thing—that adds to life’s meaning. The quester does not know the destination but anticipates that one will be revealed.
    • A pilgrimage is a pursuit of a known destination, however difficult it may be to reach. A devoted traveller, the pilgrim seeks fulfilment from arrival at a shrine or some sacred place.
  • Does the trip you have described symbolize or reflect in any way your larger life journey? If so, how?

Writing Your Narrative:

We all have experience telling stories and that can get us started. You may have photos, notes, letters or e-mails, and travel itineraries and brochures available to consult. You also will have considerable pre-writing draft material if you have responded to questions above in “Recalling the Travel Details” and “Reflecting on Your Trip.” The challenge now is to put it all together in an interesting and readable form.

The following suggestions may help you as you organize your material:

  1. It’s a story: Start by thinking of your travel experience as a story, one with a beginning, a middle and a  conclusion. Then decide how much of that story you will tell. 
  • Will you recount your travels from start to finish? 
  • Or will you focus on one special part, perhaps the site or event that motivated you to travel, or an activity or encounter you now deem to be the trip’s highlight, or a particular travel day you hope never to forget? 

2) Where to begin? Determine where you will begin your travel story. In Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit was advised: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Lewis Carroll probably wrote those words with a grin, because usually it is not good writing advice. Since ancient times storytellers have begun in medias res—in the middle of things. To capture the listener’s interest, they start their tale close to the first big moment of action and then use flashbacks to fill in what has gone before.

3) More than just chronology: However you begin, aim to get beyond the drumbeat of unfolding time: “…and then, and then, and then.” In retrospect, you can discern moments of great importance which merit development into key scenes and others of less relevance that can be condensed in summaries. Most important of all, determine what is the “climax” of your story, the moment of highest tension, strongest opposition, most intense satisfaction, or deepest fulfillment.

One way to break out of a straight chronological telling is to include an occasional comparison-contrast, showing how one place or person is like or unlike another one (us and them; here and there), or how this time is like or unlike another (then and now).

4) Your characters: The primary character in your story is you—your experiences, feelings, attitudes and perspectives. A reader tends to look for three things in a character: 

  • the key traits (the character’s age, appearance, general manner, etc)
  • the motivation or goal (what the character needs or desires)
  • the change (a change in the character’s attitude, understanding, knowledge, personality, or philosophy)

In your travel story, how will you convey your key traits, motivation, and change?

The secondary characters are those with whom you have travelled or met along the way. You again might be considering their traits, motivation or change. At the least, you may want to show how these persons helped you to fulfill your needs or desires or how they got in the way, thus creating conflict.

5) Your description: Description is an important part of most travel narratives. As you develop the scene or scenes that make up your account, think in terms of your senses—what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. Those details, chosen well, help your reader to join you in the experience.

Good description is not just decorative. It can serve many story functions. It might suggest the passage of time, depict a setting important to the plot, reveal a character’s reaction, and even set up the action in subsequent scenes. 

Here is a brief excerpt from Betty Enns’ Living Our Prayer, a description of her and husband Bill’s van ride from the airport in Lesotho, Africa to the M.C.C. centre where they would reside and work:

“Our party of seven boarded the MCC van and headed toward Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, which lay eighteen kilometres away. As we drove along, I gazed out the window at the country that would be our new home. Everything looked brown and dry; there was no green grass and the trees were bare. People seemed to be milling about everywhere. Most wore toques and wrapped themselves in blankets of various colours—blue, gold, brown, red or grey. Some of the blankets looked fine; others appeared to be tattered and dirty. I saw emaciated dogs and donkeys that looked like walking bags of bones and, in the ditch, rotting corpses of half-eaten animals” (39). 

Interspersed with dialogue, Betty’s description continues for several more paragraphs, culminating in the van’s arrival at the MCC centre. The reader has a sense of the slow, eighteen kilometre journey as well as the poverty that will characterize many of the people with whom Betty and Bill will work. The reference to the bare trees and “brown and dry” grassless setting reflects the lack of rain and foreshadows Bill’s political work with water issues. 

6) Your title: The title of a travel narrative should attract the attention of prospective readers and derive, in some way, from the account. Although the title is the first part of a story that a reader sees, often it is composed after the story is written. Your story title can be fun to write and also reflect your personality as a writer.

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.