Memories from the Road

Lisa and a baby panda exchange high fives in Wolong Panda Reserve.

My wife and I travel extensively as consultants and trainers. We are in Japan as I write this and just left Korea after giving presentations at two forest symposiums. As we travel internationally, I faithfully keep a daily diary, a journal, of every place we go, every person we meet and all that we do. I also take an extraordinary number of photographs, but the journal has become the most essential tool for backing up my memory.

At home it never occurs to me to write down what happens, though I think that would be useful to any writer. Daily demands of our regular routine make it seem challenging to keep a journal at home, but empty hours on a plane, train, bus or waiting for the next event to begin are perfect for sitting down with my laptop to catch up on my travel journal.

Getting close to a silverback gorilla in the Virunga Volcanoes was amazing.

When you write books, blog articles and technical papers, you realize just how fallible your memory can be. Try recalling an incredible experience you had ten years ago and want to use in a novel or article. Your memory of the details may be so vague that those details become blurred. You may recall events based partly on what you did but also be influenced by stories from others and TV accounts of the place you have seen. We integrate new information with what we already know and our personal memory is often a mix of personal experiences and learned information.

Reading old journal articles and looking through photos from a specific journey bring it alive again. Sometimes I reread the journals to find people’s names so I can contact them again or just use the correct name when I see them. In technical articles I may need to quote the dates and happenings to be accurate.

Three weeks ago we were in Rwanda, tracking chimpanzees in Nyungwe National Park and mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. As amazing as those experiences were, some of the details have already faded. Ten years ago we first worked with giant pandas in Wolong Valley in Sichuan Province of China. I have great detailed notes in my journal from the trip and that’s a good thing because time has dulled some of the memories of specific events there. Neuroscience research tells us that experiences are necessary to create context for memories to reside in our brains but it also tells us that every time we remember something, we run the risk of changing that memory just a bit. It’s kind of like taking a book out of the library – every time it changes hands, it gets a little more tired-looking as different pages get dog-eared and bindings start to fail. You can put it back in the library, but it’s been changed, just a bit.

I’ll never forget July 7, 1968, when I ran in the “incierro” in front of the bulls in Pamplona.

In 1968, I ran in front of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It was my first journey abroad and I kept no record of any kind. I would love to look back at a journal and refresh my memory but it does not exist. My photos from that era are Kodachrome slides stored in a box in the garage so they don’t work well as reminders. I have one scanned photo from that experience that makes me wonder what was going through my mind that interesting day. I know I ate churros and drank a liter of milk before running and that the bulls were big and scary. It would be great to read a more detailed account in my own words.

This week in Japan we attended the Fall Festival in Fujinomiya, a city at the foot of Mount Fuji. This festival has been around more than 100 years and takes place in front of the Sengen Shrine, a Shinto shrine to Mount Fuji. The twenty local communities in the city have built beautiful wood carved dashis, floats, that hold drummers, flute players and cymbal clangers to do “battles of the bands” with neighboring communities in the streets from 4 to 9 PM each evening on November 3rd, 4th and 5th each year. In between the sparring the competitive teams gather in the street to drink copious amounts of sake and share in “bon” dancing. These beautiful dances involve elaborate hand and foot motions that unite the dancers in spirit and movement.

This elder on a dashi team invited me to join the “bon” dancing and I took part.

I really enjoyed updating my journal about the festival. Facebook has become an easy way to share photos with my family and friends. The journal goes into digital storage and some day when I need to recall exactly what happened on this trip, it will be there waiting. Ten years of journals from 22 nations have great value as a writing tool. Perhaps my family will also find some value in them as a reminder of me someday.

– Tim Merriman


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