Staying In Contact on the Road – 1950’s, 1980’s, Today
I am so glad I learned to travel before the cell phone or Internet. The one thing that can kill travel dead for me is the feeling of being too connected to home.
Its a long time since I’ve had to manage my mother’s reaction to my travelling – but we certainly had robust discussions about it! Backpacker Bek’s post on how to manage parental expectations – she had some sensible advice about setting expectations about how often she would be in contact. The point that stuck with me was she pointed out “When it comes to mobile phones make sure they realise that there may be countries where it won’t work” In other words – she assumes that you’d travel with mobile.
Really, has it come to that? I guess so, because shortly afterwards I read this somewhat controversial article on Myanmar Travel – which was amusing in that a) the author thought that waiting ONE hour for a truck to fill up was LONG (really, an hour wouldn’t have rated a mention in my diary, probably still doesn’t), and b) she couldn’t, shock, horror, text news of her safe arrival from the arrivals hall in Yangoon (international restrictions mean that international cell phones don’t work in Myanmar).
I have never really got the thing about letting people know that you arrived safely. Frankly if the plane crashes, they will probably hear about it via the media, otherwise just assumed I arrived OK?
Staying in Touch the 1980’s
In 1988 I was starting out on my first long overland trip. I was 25, and had already worked in Australia and Papua New Guinea, so my mother was used to my travelling. But this was different – no mailing address, no fixed itinerary. This was the early “update” I sent her on that trip which started in Vancouver and then went south to the US and Mexico
UK date style – sent 4 February, well probably mailed a day later, received (she was a good secretary) 11 March, in New Zealand. Yeah over a month – which was pretty bad even for then. I’d hoped it would take about 10 days, now that I have most of those letters (she kept them, of course I didn’t keep the ones she sent back), I can see that it was more like 3 weeks. Given that I was on the road and using Poste Restantes (Lista de Correos in Spanish) as the only way to get information from home:
Checking my diary- I never made it to Mazatlan, I got a lift straight through to Guadalajara from the ferry crossing from Baja California. Hopefully, I didn’t miss too much mail , probably I didn’t because, by the time my mother got this letter it would have been too late to mail to Mazatlan. I did pick up 3 letters in Cancun – recorded in my diary!
That’s how we did it. It never occurred to me to call. Later I’d try to regularly call three times a year, my birthday, her birthday, Christmas. This wasn’t a lifetime ago it was 1988! In 1992 when I travelled South America and mum got ill, I spent many hours queueing and , from memory about US$5/minute, trying to call her from Bolivia. And yes I used fax and phone when things got serious, but that’s the point, unless it was life and death you didn’t call, it was just too expensive.
And she didn’t expect it either. Why? Well because she’d gone backpacking long before the term was coined…
Keeping in Touch in the 1950’s
Peggy Fellows, aged 28, resigned from a good job as a shorthand secretary, packed her cabin bag and sea chest and set sail to Southampton, UK from Wellington, NZ in 1952. As far as I can find out the she sailed on the Mataroa which made exactly 2 stops enroute: Panama and Curacao. It was a 6-week trip. And we complain about being out of touch for a 22 hour flight to the UK! The ship which only 5 years earlier was ferrying displaced persons and holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel, wasn’t a luxury cruise. You couldn’t call home.
She met 2 other girls on the trip and they cycled England together, to spend about 6 months there, she slept on the streets of London to see the Queen crowned.
I have a few black and white photos and a hand-written diary which includes details of her earnings picking hops in Kent. She cycled and stayed in Youth Hostels. Did she call home – no. She wrote letters, letters would have been exchanged but unfortunately I don’t have any of them. If they’d have been an emergency – she would have sent or received a telegram.
I know she had the habit of writing to her mother once a week, I suspect she started that habit on that long sea voyage. Though she could probably only get to mail them from Curacao,
I know she regularly wrote to me all the years I was overseas. I think its funny that its fashionable to decry the trivia that we share on social networking sites these days – but what do you think letters consisted of?
The curious thing is that – now we have more and more communication – we have facebook updates, tweets, blog posts, digital photos.
I wonder if I could write the equivalent article in another 24 years using original documentation? Will Facebook and Twitter still give me access to my archives anymore? What about after I’m gone, would anyone know how to access any of that information? Would my photos all be lost because the hard-drive disintegrated? Would any hardware still be able to read them if I forgot about them for 10 or 15 years and then went looking for them one day? My experience with technology tells me no.
Keeping in Touch Today
I think my point is that – I have good records of my early trips because my mother kept the many letters and postcards I sent home and I have boxes full of hard copy photos. And I wrote a diary, whose format is still compatible today (paper). I have some records of my mother’s travels 30 years earlier. If you are planning on starting travelling today – if you take a mobile phone and keep in contact via Skype – what records of this trip will you or your kids have?
So this is how I stay in touch. I write postcards. Not as many as I used to – but I still write them. Its more difficult to find where to mail them these days, it used to be the first piece of information for each town the Lonely Planet listed, now its an after thought. Of course I doubt that anyone actually uses Poste Restante any more – it may not even exist. But the mail still works – and their novelty value is sky high! Of course you feel like you are talking to yourself – but you’re not people love getting postcards. Ask them to save them. If you also write a journal you will see the amusing dissonance between the public story and the private one!
I’ll write the odd email or Facebook update to let people I’m alive – but I dont set them up to expect me to update daily or even weekly. It will probably be weekly – but hell if it costs too much, or is too far from the beach I may not bother. And I don’t want them calling in the searchers just because the power cut happened the one time that week I was anywhere near an Internet cafe!
The whole point of travelling, particularly long-term, is to disconnect. How can you do that while you are still initmately involved in your life back home.
Log-off, really, it works.
Take the phone, if you have to, but keep it mainly turned off, check it maybe one a week, collect the messages, make a call. But anymore is too much. For me, anyways.
The world is smaller these days, and I for one am happy not to have to spend 6 weeks on a ship to get 1/2 way around it, but in some ways we have too much “noise” in our ability to communicate day and night with anyone anywhere, means its actually getting harder to really travel, because we always have an ongoing, two-way communication with home.
Yes I stayed in touch, and yes I got news, but there was quite a disconnect. I couldn’t read New Zealand newspapers anywhere but in NZ House, London. By the time I did that I’d been gone years, and the politicians’ names had all changed! I had to write to my mum for a political update!
The upside? I was really experiencing the countries that I was living and travelling in.
Maybe you should try it?