Dec 16

Keeping a Travel Journal

As a traveler I aspire to keep a handwritten journal/sketch pad. It’s great fun to pull out my old journals and read all the goofy and sometimes awesome stuff I did on my adventures. It’s a place where I can write, scribble and store stuff in real time. I have pressed flowers, train tickets, attraction passes, coffee stains and all sorts of other goodies tucked into the nooks and crannies of my journals. It is a physical memento of life experience that will survive and outlive the trendy social media of the day. Remember Livejournal and Myspace?

My Pen and Journal. Fes, Morocco. 2015

My Pen and Journal. Fes, Morocco. 2015

Start with a quality notebook or sketchpad. There are lots at your local bookstore, the most common being Moleskine. Moleskine are easily available and come in a variety of sizes and configurations, each with a handy pocket inside the back cover. On the down side, their paper is thin and prone to feathering and bleed through. If you like the Moleskine form factor, a significant step up in quality can be found in the products of Rhodia and Quo Vadis.

The Rhodia Webnotebook comes with a black or classic orange cover and with either lined, blank or dot Rhodia paper. The dot paper is an interesting variation on traditional graph paper with dots where the vertical and horizontal lines would intersect, but the lines themselves have been removed. Rhodia writing paper is outstanding and among the finest in the world.

Quo Vadis Habana notebooks come in lots of colors although I prefer basic black and can be found in both blank and lined varieties. These are softer than other hardcover notebooks and feel really great in the hand. They are the only journal/notebooks of the Moleskine style to feature Clairefontaine paper, which in my opinion is the finest smooth writing paper in the world. I own several of these.

How about something a little different? Try the Midori Traveler’s Notebook. These great Japanese notebooks are beautiful, clever and absolutely ooze quality. They come in a few basic colors but have so many accessories that you’ll never run out of fun and interesting ways to configure and utilize them. The paper is superb and I believe it is Japanese Mulberry, one of the oldest, most durable and archival types of paper in the world.

Lots of people love basic marbled composition notebooks and the bamboo or sugarcane paper in these is pretty good. A lot of companies make fancy covers for composition books and they are a great option.

Something to be mindful of are all the leather bound travel journals  populating the internet and bookstores. The paper can be of poor quality, it is often rough bulk paper or really cheap paper, bleeding ink and feathering worse than an eiderdown goose.

The travel notebooks and journals I use are made by Innovative Journaling. I’ve been using them for several years and I love the quality, materials and craftsmanship.

What to write? Everything! I like to make notes about trip planning, why l chose to go to certain places and not others. I write about the people I’m traveling with, who I meet, where I’m staying and what I had for breakfast. I write about my expectations and if they were fulfilled. I write about how my experiences changed me and my perspective on life and the world.

So there you have it. Get a good journal and a good pen, take them with you everywhere and write.

I plan on writing a more detailed article on journals, inks, paper and travel in the near future.

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Apr 16

Travel Tales, Over the High Atlas Mountains

“Travel Tales with Curious Lizard and Adventure Squirrel.” Ep. 1

I really dislike riding backwards and as much as I wanted too, I couldn’t complain. Our ride was a twin propeller airplane and our flight path took us straight over the high Atlas Mountains. Gaining altitude as we flew a pattern of slow circles, Mustafa pointed east, “that’s Algeria” he said, “and the base we took off from was used by the French Foreign Legion during the occupation.” My mind reflexively flashed through images of Beau Geste.

Study in Sand. Sahara Desert, Morocco. 2015

Study in Sand. Sahara Desert, Morocco. 2015

From above, brown earth and dusty Sahara air revealed traces of green sinews winding here and there, river valleys bringing life giving water to small farms, fruit and olive trees. We flew higher and the High Atlas Mountains loomed closer. On we went. Waves of fog broke over the summits, boiling air turbulence tossed our little plane, Slam! I reached up to prevent my head form smashing into the fuselage. In spite of myself, I felt a little panic creeping up my spine. Slam! Jokingly, Christy began to invoke the name of a Moroccan demon, both Mustafa and myself blurted out “don’t do that!” She stopped.

The worst of it lasted about fifteen minutes. I looked over to Mustafa and he was praying passionately, this was when I realized we would make it. The rest of the two hour ride was less harrowing and ended with us landing safely in the breezy coastal town of Essaouira. Feet firmly planted on the ground I turned to Mustafa and said “that was the most terrifying experience of my life,” he smiled and replied “really? I was’t scared at all.”

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Aug 12

Crossing Kyrgyzstan, Closer to China

We arrived in Kyrgyzstan yesterday and it was a remarkable change from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Gone is the sweltering heat of the black and red sand deserts. Gone too are the soaring domes and spires of lapis and turquoise. Mountains surround the city of Bishkek and the streets are full of cars and commerce. Statues of Lenin, Marx and Engles stand proudly near the teetering carcasses of Soviet apartment blocks and the faces of the people tell us that we are much closer to China. We stop at a small neighborhood shop and the woman behind the counter uses an abacus to calculate the correct ammount. Small bits of cloth tied to pine boughs flutter in the wind for good fortune.

I came to Central Asia to trace what I could of the Silk Road and to try to understand this part of the world better. At first it felt like an alien land but I think I understand it a little better now. Central Asia is a land at a crossroads with a history of invasion after invasion, conquest after conquest. Hellenes, Romans, Parthians, Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane and even the Chinese have all left their indelible marks and blood in the sand. Pagans, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Moslems have all called it home. This is a place where desert sands, winter snows and the wind have always shifted and will continue to do so.

Today we begin our three day overland journey across the Pamir Mountains to Kashgar. I don’t know when I’ll be able to post again, it may be several days. In the meantime please enjoy the narrative, photos and video. Until next time.

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Aug 12

Samarkand Paper Mill

We visited the historic Samarkand Paper mill as part of our Silk Road expedition. It lies on the outskirts of modern Samarkand, beyond the opulent Registan Square of Timur. It can be found among the long stretches of old mounded earth, all that remains of the storied mud brick Samarkand leveled by Ghengis Khan.

The site was idyllic with clear running streams turning small water wheels and buoying a pair of lovely white geese. Yellow and golden flowers accented the manicured lawn, and pottery, artfully arranged, gushed water from an unseen source. In this very location, paper burst forth into the western world, a secret learned from the Chinese by Arabs in the 8th century AD.

The materials and methods used today remain the same as those used in that time and I was told that due to the unique qualities of mulberry bark, Samarkand paper will last 2000 years. I was fortunate enough to handle the pages of a 400 year old book written in Arabic on Samarkand paper and the pages felt as crisp and fresh as those that had just been pressed. The ink used in these beautiful books was lampblack, a carbon black ink created from the soot of the oil lamps burned in mosques.


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Aug 12


Gentle Reader,

We have arrived in Samarkand at last! Our journey overland from Bukhara covered 460 kilometers over roads that were rough but not nearly so much or so dusty as those in East Africa. Christy and myself began the day early and I enjoyed a breakfast of black coffee and a small omelette. On the way out of town we looked at an antique carpet from the Caucuses region made from the neck hair of a camel which is supposed to be the finest wool possible, but I thought the carpet looked old and tired, more like an old camel itself and advised against a purchase. Our wonderful and always affable guide took me around to a 19th century Caravanserai to explain how the merchants sold and stored their wares.

Once we had left the city of Bukhara, the landscape appeared to become more arid and I wondered if we were entering another desert but as it turned out we were entering the Central Asian Steppe. The photographs I had seen of this area showed a somewhat grassier if barren landscape so I decided to be patient and let the day unfold. After our experience in the Russian restaurant two days ago we have both become much more cautious about our food since the last thing we wanted on this long hot ride was another round of food poisoning, therefore lunch was two rounds of the fabulous local bread we had first eaten near Mary in the Karakum Desert. The ruined palace of Timur in Shahrisabz was one of the most stunning buildings I have ever seen. It continually breaks my heart so see so many broken walls and shattered cities as I have seen in Central Asia.

The scenery didn’t change much until we neared the region of Samarkand. As we gained altitude, a soft thin velvet of green lightly covered the ground. I learned this area often enjoyed a sprinkling of rain in the mornings. Rolling pastures replaced irrigated cotton fields and mulberry trees. Weathered shepherds on donkeys replaced minibuses and motorbikes. Women worked in the fields creating towers of dung pies for fuel. Mud brick houses dotted the hills and rugged mountains towered in the distance. Too soon it seemed, the buildings and tall trees of Samarkand broke the spell and rushed forward to greet us, but here too was magic. Finally, I thought, we have arrived.


C. L.

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Feb 12

Cursive and Cultural Continuity

As a fan and advocate of all things related to travel and history, it was wonderful to recently be able to sort through a collection of antique postcards in San Francisco. Many were of photographs from the time immediately surrounding the 1906 earthquake and fire. However it was the writing on the backs of the cards that I found most interesting. This included descriptions of the date and location of the photograph and a mixture of carefully scripted and hastily scrawled greetings to friends and loved ones. Each was a precious time capsule and part of the fabric that makes up our cultural legacy.

Looking at these postcards I thought about the debate over the teaching of reading and writing cursive script in our schools. Based on what I’ve read, the ability to read cursive is being lost. Without the ability to read cursive these postcards would be trash. It’s important for our personal and family histories to be able to read what has been written, and not just letters and journals penned by our great grandparents, but also the beautiful scripts written by our cultural ancestors. When I visited the National Archives in Washington DC, I was able to look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution mere inches away. The aging parchment and pen strokes told me far more about the time and place they were written than a digital text copy ever could.

I think this familial and cultural continuity is something that is being lost in the debate. So, whatever else you do today, postcard, letter or journal, pick up a pen and write.

Curious Lizard

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