10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Find Grounding in Overwhelming Foreign-ness)

It happens sooner or later — as a traveller, you find yourself overwhelmed by simply how “different” and “foreign” the place where you are is. The diversity and complexity of our world is something to cherish and appreciate, but it’s hard to process, much less distill into something relatable and comprehensible in your writing. Here’s a list of ten travel writing prompts to help yourself find grounding in the most foreign-feeling of places, and to help you write through the curtain of “foreign-ness.”

  1. Select a food that you don’t really like, that you don’t really connect with, and write about the moment you’d crave it. Whether it’s a soup that would be perfect on a cold, rainy day, or a sweet pastry that is absolutely what you’d want for a brunch with friends, or a street food that is the absolute must-eat for that panoramic view, describe the food in its most perfect context.
  2. Walk around for a while, and describe people. Give a sentence or two to each person. See them as people. Include yourself, as just another person on the street, being described in a sentence or two. Make yourself one of the crowd, in third person. Find the parts of yourself that aren’t so foreign, and just mention those. Continue writing about the people you see. Let yourself just melt in.
  3. Write about your process of going home, whether to an apartment, a guesthouse, or to an overnight bus. Describe how you “closed up” for the night. Did you pay the bill and walk home? Did you zip up a backpack and head for the bus station? Describe your sense of closure and routine, regardless of whether you have either. Write about the evening as a conclusion, and welcome the evening as a homecoming. Greet the moon.
  4. Write about experiencing a familiar smell, amongst absolutely unfamiliar sights, sounds, and feelings. Situate that familiarity within the unknown, allowing for the simultaneous combination of both. Allow yourself to find comfort in the speck of familiar. Breathe deep, and write about how you carry that smell with you, through unfamiliar streets.
  5. Seek out an interaction, however substantial or insubstantial. Write about the interaction with great appreciation. Do not comment or critique, neither the other person nor yourself. Just describe it, in as much detail as possible. Describe it in overwhelming detail, yet focus on the ordinary. Do not concern yourself with exotic dress or foreign flavours — focus on their fingernails, the wrinkles near their eyes, the depth of their voice. Write about the crinkles in the currency, the texture of the receipt, what the paper plate looked like. Did the neon flicker? Did you tap your toe? Become lost in the mundane details. Don’t frame the interaction as “foreign.”
  6. Describe what parts of the place you’re in give you energy. What feeds you; what opens your eyes wide and makes you smile like a child? Describe whatever gives you a pep in your step, the little café you keep returning to, the “secret” spot you’ve come to love for sunset, that crazy thing you’ve noticed here that always makes you smile. When you woke up this morning, what were you excited to experience again?
  7. Write about how overwhelmed you are! Admit what you don’t know. Instead of focusing on the place, frame the foreignness as a gap in your own understanding of the place. List your questions, identify your misunderstandings, and enumerate your curiosities. Write your to-do list, your to-understand list, your to-learn list. Embrace the excitement of everything being new. Concretise the overwhelming nature of the whole experience. 
  8. Select a boring errand, and describe how it works where you are. Buy toothpaste, do your laundry, find a public restroom. Write about the process, the ordinary routine of fulfilling your needs in a foreign place. Write about the people you encounter along the way, the places you end up along your mission. Celebrate your minor accomplishment.
  9. Describe the parallels between here and home. Focus on the little things which feel familiar, no matter how random or small. Smile at the window frames which feel like home, high-five the street signs, and notice that the voice announcing incoming trains sounds just like the one in your hometown.
  10. What have you figured out? What challenges of this place have you overcome? Surely, there are things you didn’t know how to do yesterday that you are capable of today. What has this place taught you? What growth has it sparked? Write about the things you can do now, after being in this foreign place, that you weren’t previously sure you’d be able to do.

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

Want more travel writing prompts? Check out my list of 10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Smile During Travel Delays).