The Tools of My Trade


notebook.jpgAs a professional travel writer, people often ask me about the tools of my trade. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about my notebook.

“Your notebook?” you might ask. “What the hell for? Isn’t one piece of paper as good as the next?”

Au contraire, mon ami. Ask a craftsman who works with wood if one hammer or chisel is as good as another. Ask an accountant about calculators. Ask a serious cocktail drinker about peripherals like bitters and grenadine.

pen.jpgQuality matters, and it’s even more important when you’re using these tools every day. You need tools you can rely on. Tools that work so well you don’t even think about them.

 I don’t travel with a laptop because there aren’t any power outlets on my sort of trips (please don’t plug it into the back of a camel — that isn’t a USB port…). Sand tends to clog up the keys, and it’d likely get stolen anyway. When I’m on the road, I’m strictly a pen and notebook kinda guy.

It always amazes me how difficult it is to get good pens. My handwriting is small, and so I need a fine point: the finest possible, something that won’t clog up, won’t smudge, and won’t burst or leak every time I travel by plane. It’s gotta flow smoothly across the page to capture those thoughts that come out so quickly I don’t even know what it’ll say until I see it written out.

starfish.jpgI’ve never managed to find a single serviceable pen at Staples or at any of those business supply chains. I import all my pens from Japan. I discovered a little stationary store in Tachikawa while I was living there back in 2000, and I’ve never found their equal anywhere else. These days my pen of choice is a Uni Jetstream 0.7, made by the Mitsubishi Pencil Co, Ltd.

 My other essential piece of travel equipment is my notebook. I’m currently using a black Moleskine made by Modo & Modo of Italy.

Yes, I know. Every wannabe travel writer carries one of these, chiefly because of the erroneous marketing campaign that associates them with Bruce Chatwin. The moleskin Chatwin wrote about was entirely different and is no longer extant — this company is playing off his name and his aura.

That pretender quality bothers me and I hate the marketing, but I was given this notebook as a gift. I’ve found it to be a good one. The narrow line spacing suits my small handwriting. I like the large number of pages, and the built in elastic that keeps it closed. The cardboard pocket inside the back cover is an especially helpful feature.

The back pocket of mine is stuffed with: a photo of my dad who died 5 years ago next month; a photo of my cat; two photos of my girlfriend; a copy of the liner notes of Starfish by The Church; some old business cards from press trips; and the following poems:


Ithaka by Constantine P. Cavafy  [to remind me of the purpose of travel]

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find the things like that on your way
as long as you keep thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony.
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


And this little untitled poem by Steve Kilbey [because I love the atmosphere he creates]

i am already in another world
with you
we meet on the shore
the sun is so weak
the sky is so close
what did you bring with you
i ask
you smile
you point to the birds
i say
anything else
you smile again
you open your tiny white hand
you are holding a little box
open it
you say
inside its empty
the box was my life
you say
the emptiness is love

something huge moves in the sea
when i look back
youre gone




About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

1 Comment

  • Great article. I agree about the pens. Sooo difficult to find a good one. I have a Moleskin too but I filled it and need another. I do think they are the ideal notebook. Great poetry. Thanks for sharing.


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