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

Keeping in contact with home 1980's style

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:

poste restante staying in touch on the road

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, cycling England, 1952

Peggy Fellows, England, 1952

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.

S.S. Mataroa docked at Curacao 1952

S.S. Mataroa docked at Curacao 1952

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?

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17 Responses to “Staying In Contact on the Road – 1950’s, 1980’s, Today”

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  1. Philip says:

    Great post. I have yet to make a stateside phone call after six weeks in New Zealand. Guess Im old school too!
    Philip recently posted..RUGBY!

  2. Vi says:

    Actually I would love to spend 6 weeks on the ship 🙂
    Vi recently posted..5 Reasons to Choose P&O Cruises

  3. Glenn Dixon says:

    On our RV jaunt around the U.S. last year I sent my Mom several post cards, mainly because she doesn’t get online. It would be nice to see them. I should have my Dad scan them in!

    I often think of preserving my writings online. I have originals and backups, but I want to have a trust fund that preserves things online. I’ll figure out how to set that up some day…
    Glenn Dixon recently posted..Day Trip! Tlaquepaque/Guadalajara

    • Elisabeth says:

      You should – at least make sure she doesn’t throw them away! Yeah the whole online archive thing – is a whole other issue!

      • Vi from Travel Tips says:

        But it was much easier with paper archive – you have everything in box and that’s it. Now you don’t know what will happen with all electronic world in ten years. It was floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, flash memory cards, you can store it online, but how somebody can find it if you have locked it somewhere for safe storage online?

        • Elisabeth says:

          It will be lost basically. Who has a 31/2″ floppy drive anymore? or a 5 1/4″ or a 9″ – yet I’ve used all those inside the last 25 years!

  4. Itinerant Chemist says:

    Hey there, found your blog while doing some research into Myanmar (I’m plotting a trip there at the start of December, probably for about 2 weeks), and have been browsing your other posts as well. 🙂

    This post resonated for me, not because I travelled before the advent of the internet and the smartphone, but because a member of my family did. My uncle did a RTW trip back in ’88 and I’m currently travelling through a number of the countries he trekked through 24 years ago (right now I’m in Phnom Penh). It made me think how much many of these places must have changed in that time and it gives me new respect for those who travelled before technology ruled everywhere. When I get back home, I also want to see if I can get him to dig out any photos he has of his trip and have a bit of a reminisce. 🙂

    I admit that I’m a bit of an geek at heart and I do like my shiny tech, though I don’t currently own a smart phone! I do have a laptop with me because I’m do freelance editorial work as I go, to help fund my trip. Things like Skype and the dreaded FB are great in some ways (my mum is a terrific worrier, known to have panic attacks if I don’t check in after a flight from Germany to the UK…), but I definitely see what you mean about getting away from the always-online existence. Something I’m looking forward to if I sort out Myanmar is declaring myself officially offline for all intents and purposes. It’ll be refreshing! 😀 I’m also really looking forward to sending people postcards from there – I love sending cards from really unusual places. 🙂

    • Elisabeth says:

      Hi Chemist! If your uncle to to Phnom Penth in 88 I’m very impressed! I was in Saigon in 89 and tried to get a bus with that destination on the side – but we were escorted off – Cambodia was still off-limits for foreigners at the time 🙂 We leave tomorrow for Myanmar so I am super-excited – yes somethings never change.

      BTW I’ve heard that hardly anything posted in Myanmar actually makes in home – but yes I was going to try as well.

      • Itinerant Chemist says:

        He might not have been to Cambodia, actually, but he’s been to Burma and recommended it very highly, so I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time there! 🙂 Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to who’s visited it has given it rave reviews.

        RE things getting home: Well, that can happen elsewhere too! I sent some postcards from Krakow in Poland at the start of my trip, waaaaaay back in May, and to my knowledge they still haven’t arrived! XD


  1. […] It looks like everything should be ok, but… It is not in my case. I have a little paranoia about storing my personal information on internet. Thought it is against facebook rules, but I never provide my full personal details for such sites especially because they tend to change privacy rules quite often and you never know what will be available for public tomorrow.  Even in this case, because I didn’t provide my full name I can’t access my account and it means I have no access to any data I entered. I didn’t lose a lot because of my paranoia there are no personal data there. I can create another account and find all my friends again. It will take time, but it is not a big lost, as my primary communication is email and I can be totally offline during my travels as I commented on Lis’s travel blog. […]

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