Last time I was at my mum’s house, we got talking about all the places I had been.
“Well, I’ve kept all your postcards.”
“Yes, they’re upstairs in a brown envelope.”
I ran upstairs to get this envelope and tossed them all on the carpet at random for closer examination.
I’d completely forgotten some of the locations, their variety; how I had really been to all these exotic places and while there, had taken the trouble to remember someone in the UK -enough to write a postcard as memento of that experience. This stands for more than just a photo; it is a verbal snapshot. Each one triggered a memory like a Proustian Madeline. To re read the comments brought back some resonance of that place. I still revel in the magic of all the names: Muscat, Oman; Tel Aviv, Israel; Bagan, Myanmar; Victoria, the Seychelles; Mombassa, Kenya; Khatmandhu, Nepal; Oaxaca, Mexico; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Oonawatoona, Sri Lanka; Penang, Malaysia. I had once created a tabulated list of where, when and with whom I had been, but I’ve almost lost count now. As Sontag quipped once ‘I’ve haven’t been everywhere yet, but it’s on my list’.
There is a reason they are called ‘post’ cards, as these memories cause me to peer backwards into time; and craning one’s neck back can be a strain. Post cards are meant to be read ‘after’ the event. That I suppose is the reason we do not send ‘pre’ cards. They are not previews, but reviews, tempters and tasters of that ‘other’ place, far away from not where the recipient lives. Writer, Chuck Palahniuk has a theory that mischief comes from having more leisure time, so he entitled the conference on his work ‘Postcards from the Future’. But I’d be wary of getting one from him when it might be addressed to Tyler Durden as joke to freak me out. But the idea is not unusual. There can be postcards from the future to our current selves as the artists Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones have shown in their envisaging London as Venice. Even Tracey Emin is behind a campaign to save the smutty British seaside postcard, steeped in not so subtle inuendo. Some, i.e. Mintel, say that postcards are dying out in favour of the multi-media email or selfie with a landmark tagged in as a backdrop. But like a lot of things that are falsely played off against each other, it is probably more ‘and/and’ not ‘either/or.’ I am still going to send post cards.
But it is true that postcards have become to appear as the slowest of snail mail rather than bang up to date. Cards I sent from Cuba took over two months to arrive in the UK, a reminder of how time has apparently speeded up everywhere but there. You don’t just travel in space, but in time too, as progress and efficiency took a revolutionary detour on that Caribbean island. Burma is another place- suspended in time. The tradition of writing postcards is undergoing electronification, yet this envelope of postcards at my mother’s is that rare artefact, the documented proof of a life dedicated to travel in general and postcards in particular.
The style of the message is also significant. I didn’t just ever say the mimimum. I took time to recreate a telling idiosynractic detail or two about the people I’d met, or the food, or an event that had just happened, or plans to go somewhere else the very next day. I savoured the unsual sound of the names of the towns and would write them out in full: Trincomale, Oaxaca, Hampi or Trivananadrum. Certainly no ‘wish you were here’ type of cliche, not that that wish cannot sometimes be true but the image on the front of the card had to speak for itself. All of these messages were elegantly handwritten while sitting idly in a cafe with a drink, or on a balcony with a seductive view, or in a hotel lobby, or even better, on a train while watching the landscape zip by. The writing needed careful thought that I was happy to give, which is not a skill the modern teenager seems familiar with any more. Postcards have become dinosaurs from a previous age when long letters prevailed over short emails.
Postcards are totem reminders of travel, alongside photographs. Photos are attempts to support memory. In his documentary on Travel, Alain de Botton encourages a group of Japanese tourists to put down their cameras and take up a pencil to draw a church spire, on the advice of John Ruskin. Ruskin’s idea was that people look but do not notice. Drawing trains your mind to notice what the photo invites you to forget. It is the act of slowing down and becoming more aware. Yet de Botton does not even mention the function of post cards as the talisman of travel. They are to travel what the knee reflex is to a doctor, a sign that your nervous system is healithy bouncing back with an after-the-event echo for your friends.
Travel is essential to me, but others prefer to stay at home. It is not enough for me to go A to B in a caravan or to examine what’s on my doorstep. I have already done that. I have to take to the airto feel I have really been away. There’s nothing like the feeling of being a hawk looking down as the plane takes off and pondering how vulnerable we are being subject to so many external forces. Far is better but I can be an armchair traveller too. Emerson in his 1841 essay on Self Reliance is famous for saying that “travel is overrated and a wise man stays at home.” He had clearly never experienced Ryan Air or Easy Jet.
Then there is the clever satire of de Maistre’s Voyage around my Bedroom (1794) which extols the virtues of not going beyond your front door. Travel is equated with restlessness and the real Zen is to stay put and remain still. Yet we desire escape from drudgery, and daily chores, or from bad weather. My travel bug catpulted me to countries close to the equator; the hotter, the better. The direction I took was anywhere towards and even south of the tropic of Cancer, never the other way, to more northern climes. But that doesn’t mean I won’t go north. I grew up in the dismal, cold rain-sodden winters of central Lancashire. My bones need vitamin D. But I’ll go when I’m ready.
Aircraft do not fly in a straight line across a map, but arc elegantly across the curved surface of the globe. They go with their trade winds up their behind. So you arrive wherever it is and you are still you. being on a circle where we are always where we are meant to be because each point on it is equidistant to the centre. If you are the centre of your mind, then as Kabatt Zin said in Wherever You Go, There it Is (2004). We are still the centre of it all, our pereception tunnel/bubble rolls into a different town and sees what it sees, because that is what it expects to see.
This is the flip side of travel that Botton does not fully explain. This is the question of consciousness; that quite apart from the problem that wherever we go, however good or bad, we are still there slap bang at the centre of it all. We are the perceivers, and if we are not already relatively contented, travel fails to guarantee anything by way of the ecstatic. On the other hand, we can travel inside, beyond the physical room to the miles and miles of interior geography. We can also travel in dreams- you must have been to more places in the dreamstate than any other- which may be sufficiently exhausting for some. But it costs less, and you don’t even have to get out of bed. People are often so externally directed they fail to appreciate the real issue right under their noses, which is how they relate to themselves.
We don’t travel to other places from a home default place. We are the default. The problem when you get there is that you can’t escape ‘you’. You bring ruins to ruins if you are a ruined person looking at a deserted temple. It can be a synchronistic match for your state of mind. There is a longing to take ‘me’ away from me – and people search long and hard to feel that. Sometimes in orgasm we reach it, and although, it seems never to last, peak experiences build on more peak experiences.
But there is a reason we go- to include it as part of us. The place we wish to travel to calls us first on the mental/emotional domain, so we are already there in spirit, then all that remains is for the physical body to be taken there in the meat sack of our bodies so to speak. The 3D reality provides a wealth of visual/spatial and sensory detail. Shifting the physical to the mental hasn’t yet been devised as molecule transport, so unfortunately, the ordinary method is the one we still use. You go by airline; you have to book a hotel, perhaps buy a guide book, learn a few phrases. The worse bit is being trapped for hours next to the passengers from hell. This is the price you pay for rich experience. But one final consolation is that you can always turn these people into an anecdote by writing about them on a postcard. This adds one more card to that great collection – the life dedicated to travel, of whatever kind.
© Kieron Devlin, April, 2016
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