Apr 27, 2021 • 6M

Couchfish: Write me at Poste Restante

Old tech lasts

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Technology is all about making life easier right? I must confess today has not been a day made easier by technology. Fact. It started at 2 am with an email (thank you dear sender!) and my day has been careening downhill ever since.

It is days like this though, that have me harking back to the lesser–tech days of travel. Pre internet. Pre social media. Where, as soon as you hit a new town you’d be staying at for a while, your first port of call would be the post office. Why?

Even Charles Sobraj stepped into these. Screenshot: Stuart McDonald, The Serpent, Netflix.

Poste restante. Poste what? Poste restante, known as General Delivery in the USA, it was I guess, a kind of a precursor to email. It allowed the sender to send a letter, postcard, parcel, or whatever, to any post office in the world. All they’d need do is write the recipient’s name, along with the GPO for the city. As long as the recipient showed up to collect it, it worked.

If you’ve been watching The Serpent on Netflix, Poste restante features prominently early on!

Through much of my early travels, this was my lifeline to friends and family back home, along with people along the way. Post offices would hold a delivery for a month or so, and you needed some photo ID (normally a passport) to pick it up. It worked (and still does) amazingly well. As an added bonus, some post offices—hello Saigon and Phnom Penh—are gorgeous and attractions in their own right.

Within Ho Chi Minh City’s GPO. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I was an avid letter writer, and I’d tell friends and family my rough itinerary then would check the GPO in each town to see what had arrived. Save expensive international calls, it was the easiest way to keep in touch.

On the topic of international calls, again pointing to when the world seemed smaller... When I first arrived in the US in early 92, my companion and I each bought a phone card. It allowed us to call Australia at less prohibitive rates, to tell our families we were still alive. I’m not sure what the technology was behind it, but we had to call a number and talk to a woman who would put us through to Australia. It was always the same woman! As we worked our way across the States, we got to know her in a sense, and she’d ask, where are you boys now?!

Smaller world indeed.

If you’d like to Poste restante Travelfish with a complaint, Luang Nam Tha in Laos is your best bet. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

With Poste restante it was simple. Having told the family where I’d roughly be in a few months, I’d show up and see what was there. I got every letter my parents sent save one. That one missed letter was at Bangalore in India. I arrived a week after the month holding period (very, very ... very long story) and the GPO had returned it to sender. It was upsetting!

Months later, I arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal. There were a few letters waiting for me. One, from my family, included the front page of a Sydney tabloid paper, declaring “We Won!”. Related to Sydney winning the rights to the Olympics, the news was a month or so old. When I opened the envelope and saw it, it was the first I’d heard of it. I showed it to a curmudgeon Australian I was hanging out with and he blurted out “Oh bad deal, it will bankrupt the city.”

He still grabbed the cutting off me once I was done, and read it.

Bangkok’s GPO is less welcoming than Ho Chi Minh City’s. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It is funny thinking about this sort of correspondence now, with near–free international calling and social media delivering real–time updates. Back then it seemed normal to be totally out of touch for months on end. It feels on one hand stone–age, but on the other, refreshing.

A few years ago, Poste restante long out of my head, I was in a post office in Sanur, Bali. I was mailing out some packages (not to Poste restante!) and looked to my left. There was an open–top shoebox, envelopes crammed into it. On the front of the box, it read Poste restante. Amazed it was still working, I asked the staff who used it. Lots of bule (foreigners), they said. Great to see old style travel still works.

Smudges are from the humidity—not tears. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

In today’s world of ever–connected travel, the idea of sitting down and handwriting a proper letter to someone seems archaic. There’s nothing wrong with newsy emails of course, but there’s something meditative about taking the time and putting pen to paper.

When I sat down to write this piece, I reached for my keepsakes shoebox, and pulled two letters from someone very close to me at the time. I still remember picking up the two letters from the GPO in Bangkok in 1997. It was late afternoon and hot as hades. The postal worker checked my passport then handed the two letters to me. I shuffled back to a wooden bench within the GPO to read them immediately. I pored over every word, reading each of the two letters over and over.

I have no saved emails from 1997.