Thursday 18 July 2019

Travel, then and now

Yesterday I was asked for a contribution to a newspaper feature about travel scams and, happily, had nothing to offer - apart from the story behind this photo, which pre-dates by decades the very word 'scam'. I wrote about it a couple of years ago here so I won't bore you with the details again, regular 😃 reader.

Looking it up though in the 1977 travel diary I wrote religiously and amazingly copiously at the time, I got sucked into reading a large section of it and, amongst many other amazements that include how innocent I was, how emotional and open - try scaling those walls today, reader, and brace yourself for the boiling oil - it was the sheer old-fashionedness of travel then that astonishes me now.

Yes, yes, the letter thing is an obvious one - such a slow and antiquated way to keep in touch (also, so time-consuming, writing those things out by hand). But, given the abysmal state of the postal service today, it was actually remarkably efficient. I kept anal account of all my letters written and received - using POSTE RESTANTE, people! - and noted that one of them, from NZ to Singapore, took only two days to arrive. Phenomenal. Plus the Poste Restante people would forward mail to the next address when you moved on.

As a counter-balance, though, telephone calls had to be booked at the PO or International Telephone Exchange, and cost money as soon as someone picked up the (landline) receiver at the other end, even if it wasn't the person you wanted to speak to. And when I changed my travel plans and sent a telegram ahead to my aunt in England, twenty words (I would be more succinct today) cost me over $20! That is Singapore dollars, though - US$8.50. But still plenty for me then, when I could buy myself dinner for S$2.60.
There's a lot in the diary about money. How expensive things were (and also how cheap), how I was always running out of cash - it wasn't always easy to find someone to cash a traveller's cheque even then - and lots of dithering about presents. Choosing, buying, wrapping and posting them took so much time and money, totally out of proportion I'm sure to the pleasure they gave to the bemused recipients back home. That's a weakness I haven't succumbed to for a long time - when I first started travel writing, I soon trained even my kids not to expect pressies when I came back, for exactly those reasons. I know. Harsh.

I had downtime in Perth, when I thought I'd try to catch up on news from home. I had to go to the State Research Library and request the latest newspaper they had, at the desk - and was given a copy of the Auckland Herald that was ten days old.

There are a couple of sad comments about seeing things I would have liked to photograph, but had run out of film; and a wondering comment about buying a couple of 36-exposure films from an in-town duty free store, and being given them in a sealed plastic bag to take away with me. That was the opposite of sending a postcard at the GPO in Jakarta, where I watched the stamp stuck on with glue at the counter and then was directed to carry it through into the cavernous back region to witness it being franked, so it wouldn't be literally ripped off - before being thrown into a huge and overflowing sack. I still have no idea if that one arrived.

Buses, trains and planes were polluted by smokers - even with pipes! - and you had to pay to access headphones to watch the movie that was shown on a big screen at the front of the cabin. On the other hand, when I bought a 20cm long sharp bronze paper knife during a stop-over in Bangkok, I was able to carry it back onto the plane...

But one thing hasn't changed. I still lose track of the days.

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