08 January 2021

Journal of a Journey

Written by Published in Lifestyle
Photo by Joshua Ness Photo by Joshua Ness

The oldest travel memoir is over three thousand years old. Its author was self-important, arrogant, and a little too willing to turn his hand to crime. Could Wenamon be the prototype of the stereotypical tourist from Hell? What could he teach us about travelling well?

About the year 1100 BC the priest Wenamon, ‘Eldest of the Hall of the Temple of Amon,’ was sent by the High Priest of Amon-Ra from Thebes in Egypt to the Phoenician city of Byblos (in what is now Lebanon). His mission was to buy wood to build a ceremonial barge for a religious festival. Woefully underfunded, without proper support, and lacking the most basic security or protection, he set out on a journey that deteriorated into a comedy of tragedies. His superior manner did nothing to win him friends along the way. At his first stop in Lower Egypt he was able to secure passage on a boat to Byblos. In his haste to depart, he left his travel documents with the authorities.

The ship stopped for supplies at Dor, a city of the Tjeker people, popularly described as pirates. Here, he was robbed of all his gold and silver. He blamed the local ruler and demanded reimbursement. Shortly afterwards he was thrown out of the city, having overstayed his welcome. At Byblos, he discovered a group of Tjeker merchants, and decided that he would rob them to make up for his losses. The king of Byblos sent him a message to go home. After almost a month he was able to secure an audience with the king, and after much bombastic posturing they agreed terms. Wenamon had to send to Egypt for more gold, but eventually he was able to conclude his business.

As he was about to depart, he discovered a fleet of Tjeker ships coming to arrest him. He cunningly evaded his enemies by bravely running away. Then his ship was caught in a storm, and grounded at Cyprus, where the locals tried to kill him. He survived by appealing for mercy from the princess Heteb, who happened to be nearby—and by ‘appeal’ I mean he threatened her and her people with ten-fold retribution if any harm were to come to him. Here the papyrus ends, the story incomplete, but Wenamon apparently returned to Egypt to write a memoir of his travels. While the historicity of Wenamon’s account is debated by Egyptologists, if authentic it would be the oldest surviving personal travel memoir. It is also an object lesson in how not to win friends and influence people—especially when abroad.

People have been talking and writing about their travels since the time of Wenamon, and probably did so long before then. The desire to travel, whether to explore or to escape, out of curiosity or the need to survive, lies at the heart of most if not all. Surely the most sedentary of armchair travellers must have taken voyages of fancy in their minds, at the very least.

The earliest travel accounts were more cartographic and geographic; they served as aids to navigation and trade. Ancient eastern accounts made room for art and poetry, while western accounts tended to adopt a more scientific approach, giving the facts about the places visited and people encountered. In terms of writing, travel journals (written while travelling), and travel memoirs (written afterwards) remain a popular genre of literature.

2020 was not a great year for travel, and I think we’re all mostly undecided about 2021. Too many known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns that have yet to mutate and emerge. But 2021 could be the prefect opportunity to plan your next vacation, even if it’s just to draw up your travel bucket list. What could your next travel journal look like?


Some guidelines for travel and journaling:
Travel intelligently. Once you decide which country or region to visit, do your homework. Pour over guidebooks and history books in order to narrow down your itinerary to specific sites, sights, and experiences. Don’t wait until you are standing in front of the Parthenon/Machu Picchu/Angkor Wat to open your guidebook and try to figure out where you are. Instead, stand and marvel. Think about when it was built, ponder how it was built. Imagine you are the wealthy king or merciless tyrant who commissioned it, or the brilliant architect who designed it, or the skilled stonemason or carpenter who laboured over the hidden details to created what you see before you. What moves you?

Travel creatively. You might decide not to take your usual notebook with you, but to keep a special journal for your travels. It may be a good idea to use something like an art book, with large plain pages.

If you have an artistic flair, why not keep the camera in your pocket and do sketching instead? A plain notebook or artbook can be used for drawing, painting, even collage. Take a range of pencils with you, or a set of watercolours.

Travel sensually. Engage all your senses. Don’t just write about where you go, and what you do. What do you see—truly see? How is it new, or different? What does it remind you of? What can you hear, or not hear?—plenty of cicadas, and no police sirens. What can you touch? Where are you walking?—bedrock, rough and unhewn, or marble polished smooth by centuries of visitors’ feet? What can you smell?—the stench of hot tarmac and exhaust fumes at the airport, or the soothing aroma of pine trees in the mountains? Is it hot? cold? sunny? windy? What can you taste?—food you’ve never tried before, local delicacies, national dishes—or dust and sand in your mouth?

Travel humbly. Leave your prejudices and opinions at home. Learn about the worldview and culture of the people you are visiting. Show respect. Be prepared to be amazed, and while wary and cautious and taking sensible precautions, also be prepared to find kindness, generosity, even the possibility of new friends. Try new things. Learn to say Please and Thank You in the local language (and Yes and No). Smile a lot and make eye contact, if culturally appropriate. Obey the law, and don’t try to rob anyone, even if they are pirates.

Travel slowly. You cannot see everything in a day. Pace yourself physically, and take your time. Allow yourself to slow down. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to write down all these things as they happen—breathe deeply and drink in your surroundings. Build memories, and the words will follow. Still, try to put pen to paper every day, as the memories will quickly fade.

Above all, write about how you feel. Are you inspired? Amazed? Confused? Angry? How are you changed? For what are you grateful? By what are you disappointed? What do you miss from home? What surprises you? What shocks you? What (if anything) makes you want to stay there and never come back, or never move on?

Revisiting an old journey
Instead of planning for a future journey, why not revisit an old one? Have you got an old journal? Have you got photographs and videos? Sit down and look at them, and write down afresh what you remember, and what comes to mind. Speak to the people you travelled with, if possible. What do they remember about that trip? How do you feel when you remember?

Go on a virtual journey
While the prospects for real world travel in 2021 have yet to be determined, we can all travel in our minds. Today, we have travel books, travel magazines, travel shows on television, and travel websites. Many travellers have posted their photos and videos on the Internet, for anyone to see. With the help of geographic, photographic and videographic resources, you can comfortably travel almost anywhere without leaving the range of your home wifi. Your mind can travel further than your body can go.


Take an inner journey.
Instead of travelling to a geographical location, plan a journey to an inner destination. For example:

  • The place of wholeness.
  • The place of forgiveness.
  • The place of restoration.
  • The place of vindication.

What does that place look like? Who, or what is there? Who, or what, is absent from the place? Imagine yourself looking back on the journey that brought you to this place. What were the milestones on the way? Who helped you to get there? Who or what did you have to avoid, or remove from your path? How do you feel?

Take time to ponder these things, and if you can, put them down on paper. If you find it too daunting, ask a trusted friend to ‘journey’ with you. Seek professional help if you need to.

Saint Augustine said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” and Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost…” As we set out on a new year of uncertainty and ambiguity, perhaps we will find ourselves to be travelling companions on the road to a better future, wandering and wondering with hope. You may find your journal becomes your close confidant and a treasured relic of that journey.

Read more of Alistair Sanders’s articles in SublimeMagazine, Photos by Hannah Olinger and Aaron Burden

About the author

AlistairPicAlistair Sanders has been writing a journal for over thirty years. He also leads workshops and seminars on journaling.




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