On my first big overland trip to India, I went to the general post office in Istanbul, stepped up to the counter for general delivery mail, presented my identity card and was rewarded with a letter sporting myriad blue airmail stickers. My reaction: a sense of elation. I pocketed it and headed across the bazaar to the pudding shop opposite the Blue Mosque, eagerly anticipating the contents. It was only after a chai or two that I began to read my news from home. Weeks later, I did the same in Tehran. General post office, airmail, coffeehouse. I repeated the procedure in Islamabad, New Delhi and Kolkata on this journey, and on my next, and all subsequent trips.
Like a string of pearls, my airmail messages stretched from home to distant places until times changed, bringing first the fax machine, then the Internet. What’s so special about an airmail letter as opposed to an email? The preciousness of the moment. I could only lay my hands on the blue-stamped letters every few weeks, while emails arrive many times a day, an hour, a half-hour, constantly – wherever there’s WiFi, so everywhere really. This makes communicating with home a very ordinary – sometimes even bothersome – activity. Social media and live chats via WhatsApp and Skype make it even more humdrum, as though you weren’t away at all, hadn’t left home.
It’s not that I’m a big fan of the “good old days,” by the way. However romantic a historical film or novel may be, I never forget how a visit to the dentist used to be. But making my way to a general post office, waiting with bated breath at the counter and then reading my airmail on a park bench, on a coffeehouse chair or on a bed beneath a mosquito net, that is something I sometimes sorely miss.
Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.