What I learned about writing from travelling in Mexico

4 July, 2007 Posted by Joanna As Reflections

“It may, I think, be justly observed, that few books disappoint their readers more than the narrations of travellers.”

So wrote Samuel Johnson back in 1760… and yet his his own travel writing, based on his Journey (with Boswell) around the Western Islands of Scotland is one of the most famous travel journals in history.  The bookshops today remain full of shelves of travel writing.  Readers love it.  And I’d have to say that there’s nothing quite like travelling to get a writer’s creative juices flowing.

I got the full blast of this when I spent three months in the state of Oaxaca (Mexico) last autumn.  Oaxaca is a city and a state that assails your senses - the heat (for those of us arriving from northern climes anyway), the sounds (whether the wild chorus of city streets or the stillness of a remote village in the country), the sights both beautiful and colourful (market stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, the colour of women’s dresses, the ribbons in their hair), or harsh and challenging (political graffiti on every wall, every building, every street corner, pavements dug up to make roadblocks, police tanks rolling in to restore ‘order’)… and so it goes on.

From the first morning in Oaxaca I knew I had to capture the experience.  For myself, for my friends, family and colleagues, for someone, somewhere who might have been reading - I knew I had to write it down.

Wherever I went, words formed in my mind.  I had to take a pen and paper with me everywhere I travelled.  Phrases bubbled up in my head as I watched the landscape flash pass me on the bus.  Prose poems took shape as I walked down a dusty road.

Long e-mails home turned into my first experiment with a blog.  Stories demanded to be written, experiences to be told.  The blog format, for me, was perfect.  Each post providing a frame for an experience, a conversation, a feeling, a moment, the chance to capture it, freeze it, hold it for ever like taking a photo (again and again) to recreate the totality of what you see, and hear, and feel.  The significance of the moment.

Writing made my travel more complete.  It helped me to understand, to process, to enjoy, to immerse myself in the wonders of Oaxaca while I was there, and to refind it, fresh, sweet, when I look back at what I have written.

Here’s a short extract from one of my posts, inspired, I see now, by the Oaxacan spirit of hospitality that we might also call ho’okipo.

After two hours we have a feast of vegetable-corn-chickpea soup (a kind of broth) with tortillas, and toasted corn cobs. We are lightheaded from cold beers and home made mescal, and our health is toasted once more. Our host stands up, wishes us well, thanks us for coming to Chichihualtepec, apologises for the poverty of our surroundings, looks around the dry, arid maize fields, looks back at us and says: we give you this with an open heart

And I am sorry Chichihualtepec because I cannot remember right now how to translate your name place from the Mixtec original, although I know it refers to the hills all around you that you hold so dear, the landscape that shapes your community. But I do know and will always remember what hospitality means here, and what you mean by welcome.

No writing tips tonight on what I learned about travel writing.  “Writing with all your senses.”  “Being specific.”

No, this is something more essential, more important than that.  When you travel, when you go somewhere important - to you, to the people that you meet: the only way to capture your experience is by writing from the heart.

This piece was written as a contribution to another group writing project being run by Robert Hruzek at Middle Zone Musings.  Many thanks Robert for your efforts to organise these - they’re a great prompt to get writing.  If you’d like to take part just post about what you’ve learned from… travel by Sunday 8th July (not forgetting to let Robert - the organiser and editor - know!)

Categories : Reflections

Robert HruzekNo Gravatar July 5, 2007

Joanna, what a poignant memory! Thanks for sharing it with us!

It’s funny, but I had a similar experience back when I spent three months in Taiwan. My long emails back home were unwittingly good practice for blogging. Wish I’d known about it back then… but then again, my internet bill would have been a killer!

But you’re right - the fact that I captured so much on paper back then means I can still tell a complete story today about the many wonderful things I saw and experienced back then.

Thanks for participating in this month’s project!

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar July 5, 2007

Hi Robert, thanks for stopping by. Hope the group writing project is coming along nicely.

I think you’re right - that writing the stuff down helps us to capture the moment. Perhaps it doesn’t work for everyone (for some people photography is the thing) but I’d certainly encourage everyone to try.


Robert HruzekNo Gravatar July 5, 2007

One of the things I did while in Taiwan was write a series of ‘journal-like’ things on different subjects, such as driving, food, architecture, etc. As I go back now and read them, I see what I think might make a pretty interesting book! That’s sortof become a ‘midnight oil’ project now.

The thing that surprises me (and this is going to sound REALLY self-indulgent here) is that I find that I thoroughly enjoy reading what I wrote back then (7 years ago). Hopefully others will think so too, and make it a good book one day.

Laura July 5, 2007

Oh, intended to leave the comment here. You can delete the earlier one if you want. Anyway, this is a good entry. I enjoyed reading it.

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar July 5, 2007

Hi Laura, that’s funny. Your comment made perfect sense in relation to the discussion of playlists too:)

And now I’m looking forward to what you’ll come with!

As well as your entry on the group writing project, of course.


Joanna YoungNo Gravatar July 5, 2007

Hi Robert

I don’t think it’s self-indulgent at all. Good writing is always worth reading.


Yvonne Russell July 9, 2007

Great entry Joanna. This is what travel and travel writing are all about. I find long emails are a good way for me to capture the essence of a place when I’m “in the moment”, and a good way to relive memories as well as keeping a record.

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar July 9, 2007

Thanks Yvonne. For me too it is all about capturing the essence of the place.


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