Secrets from my Gap Year Diary

Keeping a diary might seem archaic, but a travel diary is the ultimate souvenir, here’s why >>

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As a writer, you’d think a diary would be a must, but it wasn’t till I accidentally stumbled upon my travel diary (from my first big trip as an eleven year old) that memories came streaming back; proof a travel diary is the greatest souvenir one could bring home from your travels.

In a dusty box, in my grandmother’s shed lay a year of my life, neatly tucked away, in a student diary. It’s by no means a masterpiece, and I doubt even an eleven year old would find it interesting, however for practically every day of that trip in 1989, I kept notes on:

  • What we ate
  • Who we hung out with
  • Where we stayed
  • What souvenirs I bought and how much they cost

Combined, they paint a vivid picture of what I experienced, and most importantly it helps spark memories. Prior to finding my diary, I recalled moments of that trip, like cutting my foot on a deserted beach in Thailand, (a story told as a bonus podcast episode on Patreon), but only from reading my diary did I recall that whilst still hobbling on one foot, my mum made me seek out clues to find Easter chocolates; which explains partly why I dislike scavenger hunts so much as an adult.

Another entry predicts my future as a podcaster:
Sunday March 5, 1989 – (Singapore) “This morning Mum and I decided to go to the crocodilarium for the day, but when we went to get some money, we changed our mind and decided to go shopping. At [SIC] shopping we bought a walkperson* that you could record on for S$125.
*Feminist upbringing

Back before the internet, when international phone calls were ridiculously expensive, and letters and postcards were the norm, mum and I would make tapes about our overseas adventures and post them to friends and family back home. When travelling for a long period of time, receiving a cassette from back home, was always super exciting and it felt we were living in the future.

I’m not sure where any of those tapes ended up, they probably got thrown out but if anyone has one, please get in touch.

The following entry:
Friday April 21, 1989 – “Today we did nothing because it was cold, wet, drizzley [SIC], miserable, cloudy and dull. The only thing we did was eat and oh I just remembered at night we went and saw a circus/acrobatic show.

May not sound like much, but simply reading it, I was back in Shanghai, staying at the Peace Hotel, along with a dozen other foreigners and that evening we all went out for dinner. One of them was a German guy, Hans (written as Hands in my diary—who was travelling with his friend Christian, who we ended up staying with in Munster, Germany and where I drunk my first non-alcoholic beer, and their flat mate Anna bought me chocolate ciggarettes, then we stole Mercedes symbols off parked cars, but that’s a whole other story), anyway, we were all out at this busy restaurant in downtown Shanghai, near the Bund, at a big round table, and there was so much food, Hans wanted to take some away (we were all poor backpackers) and when he asked the waiter for a doggy bag, the waiter horrified, called back “no dog, no dog.”

So even though none of that was mentioned in my diary, re-reading snippets, helps my brain to dig out associated memories.

I have a brief flashback of being awed by the acrobatics, at the circus but more clearly, I recall walking back to our hotel at night, it wasn’t that late, maybe about 9pm or 10pm, but Shanghai was a ghost town, there was no one anywhere. Everyone was in bed, it was foggy, and occasionally a tank would roll down the Street.

Wednesday April 26, 1989 – “(In Beijing) When we woke up, we went to the Forbidden City (or also known as the Imperial Palace). At the Forbidden City I bought a pair of Jade chopstix [SIC] for ¥6. When we got back to our hotel Barry and Alison were there, and at night we went to the Beijing Hotel for dinner.”

Whilst I have distinct memories of the Forbidden City and in particular of a sign pointing to a museum which read ‘The Hall of C ocks and Watches’ — either they ran out of the letter L, or some Chinese worker had a dirty sense of humor. But in walking across Tianamen Square, to get to the Forbidden City, we had to navigate our way through thousands of students, sitting peacefully. On our return, they were marching along E. Chang’an Street all holding hands. Eventually several of the students noticed we were trying to get through, and so held up the march, unlinked hands, just so we could walk across, to get to our bus stop.

It was only weeks later when we were in Japan, that we read a newspaper, which featured a story about the Tianamen Square Massacre, and realised those friendly and peaceful students, could now be dead, and how easily we could have been caught up amongst it.

I’ve been to Scotland numerous times as an adult, but I’d completely forgotten that I’d been to Glasgow until I read my diary entry.
Wednesday July 26, 1989 – “(In Glasgow) After breakfast, we walked into the city and I bought a miniture [SIC] snapshot camera. After that we went to the movies and saw ‘A fish called Wanda’ and ‘The Naked Gun’ again.

What’s remarkable about this entry is that bright green camera was one of my first cameras. It was so small you could fit it in your palm and the viewfinder you had to lift up. It took odd shaped film and not every film processing centre could process it. I remember wanting that camera so bad. It cost something like £2 and I was so excited to get it, because it was my camera, and I could take whatever photos I liked.

It wasn’t practical to process the films whilst travelling, so I carried them around, and then placed them in a box upon returning home. Years later, as an adult I found them (having no recollection what might be on them) and sent them in for processing. I was flabbergasted at 22 years old to receive photos when I was 11 of being at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, and photos I’d taken in Dover, England; which included Princess Diana exiting a restaurant. Amongst them was a photo of the first time I saw snow, in a tiny mountain village in Norway, called Hell.

All of those photos unfortunately burnt in the fire, but I’d forgotton about that camera until I read about the diary entry and it was that £2 camera that sparked my interest in travel photography, and helped carve my path in life as a photographer.


Diary entry from October 1989 (Switzerland and Paris)

So it’s not just about creating a memoir to show off on Instagram, keeping a travel diary can help spark multiple memories. It can help you relive journey’s long after they’ve ended, and whilst photos and souvenirs are great conversation pieces in your living room; it’s memories that make a life.

Memories go with you, you can move house, move country, end relationships, have kids, lose everything in a fire, but reading an old diary entry, will help retrieve memories long forgotten, from trips taken long ago.

Whilst there’s numerous apps that will store your photos and notes, (some will keep GPS points of your travels) nothing beats the excitement, as you turn pages, reading your own handwriting, and recalling treasures past.

Do you keep a travel diary? Do you have a a preferred style of notebook, or do you buy a  new one each trip?

Comment below or tweet me @jadekinsjackson

> If you love travel then check out my podcast, Travelosophy which features life lessons learnt from travel, along with inspiration for off the beaten track, destinations.

> If you like stuff, then subscribe to my podcast, Jade Talks Stuff which features diverse conversations about anything and everything including death, clouds, and sharks!

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