Thursday, May 6, 2010

Travel Before the Internet: An Ode to Post Restante


A little over ten years ago, before nearly everyone in the world was connected by Internet and cell phones, people traveled across continents, to remote islands or even just to a resort in Florida for a week without touching bases with their friends and family beyond an occasional phone call. On long journeys travelers wrote letters and postcards home and could receive mail at any post office in the world via Poste Restante. You can still get mail this way: anyone can address a letter to you at Poste Restante, your local post office.

Getting Poste Restante letters in random places around the world was magic. One of my best memories is ruffling through boxes and boxes of mail in Kathmandu and miraculously finding three letters, filed wrong, from my boyfriend who was living on a remote island in French Polynesia. The letters were months old, but without the daily bombardment of communication we get today, the words were golden. These letters were tucked inside my travel pack and read over and over.

But what I loved most about only being reachable by Poste Restante was the sense of freedom it gave me. Today when I'm on the road I have to let everyone know where I am every day or so or someone will get worried. Knowing I was off in the wilds of some foreign country relying only on my own wits was a rush. But like riding in the back of a pickup truck or biking without a helmet this little freedom is now denied to us - what everyone seems to think is most important is that we are safe.

I'm imagining an adventure travel book of the future: Around The World Without Internet. Can he/she manage the world's dangers without being connected? Will our hero get swept away in a tsunami or political chaos that they didn't read about online? Can someone survive day to day with only human interactions? And imagine the trials of booking all those transportation tickets in person!

I'm honestly tired of being so safe and of seeing my daily interactions with people slip more and more away from the real world and into the cyber zone. The irony of course is that I'm writing this on my blog. To keep up and to keep working I have to be online but I'd much rather be on a Himalayan mountain top reading a hand written letter for the tenth time over a cup of yak butter tea.

Has the Internet taken away some of travel's romance? I think it has but that's certainly not going to stop me looking for other adventures. Through email, Facebook and Twitter I can share my experiences with others more than I ever have. But like taking too many pictures, sometimes the best way to savor what travel has to offer is to set aside the social lens and enjoy the experience wholly, personally and in the moment.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for "posting" this! I really miss going to the Bangkok post office, piling through letters from home (also misfiled under my middle initial sometimes) and then taking them down the street to the German-Thai cafe near the water taxi dock to read them while downing banana-almond milkshakes. When I was backpacking around Asia for a year, poste restante was my only way of connecting with friends and family back home -- I remember changing my travel plans sometimes, just to make sure I didn't miss the next mail pick-up in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, etc.

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  2. Sara you were my inspiration on this one! Yes, think of how many great poste restante memories those of us over 30 must have. And foreign post offices are cool. Letters are cool. Handwriting is cool. I'm gonna go shamelessly retro one of these days :-)

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