Poste restante. Anyone remember that? You spend three months traveling on local busses with no springs and seats full of false teeth. You stay in guest houses with roaches the size of shitzus and dine in restaurants with food that appears to have been cooked in self-defense. Then, at last, you arrive in a city with a post office. You haven’t heard from home. You have no idea whether anyone’s been receiving your colourful picture postcards of topless Borneo’n native girls with big hips or gap-toothed, probably stoned Singaporean cyclo peddlers. So you queue up at the poste restante booth in Kuala Lumpur and pray to whatever god has staved off dysentery for half a year that you have mail. The swarthy, unsmiling Indian clerk checks your dog eared passport, flips through the envelopes in her shoebox file, and, to your chagrin, comes upon only a birthday card from Auntie Gladys with your name on it. Oh, well. There’s always Hong Kong in October. There might be something waiting for you there. More prehistoric busses, overcrowded, soon-to-capsize, ferries, and trains that appear to cough whenever they run into buffalo. Days become weeks as you clamber from one country to the next.
In August last year I had a meal, watched a movie, went to sleep, and woke up in London. We had passed over Burmese suppressing one another, Indians at call centers arguing with confused customers in Hull, and Afghans cultivating poppies just to annoy the CIA. But all I could tell you about that trip from Bangkok was that there appear to be a lot more vampires in the secondary school system than there were when I was a lad. What had taken Alexander the Great thirteen years had taken me nineteen hours. The magic of travel had been replaced by the convenience of cutting out all the middle men and women around the world.
In an internet café in Earls Court, Spanish and Japanese youth are emailing their mothers and boasting about things they haven’t really seen because they’ve spent most of their time in internet cafés surfing. In the street, a Pole buys a new Simcard and phones his fiancé. A South African Skypes Cape Town. The parents of the Californian I met on the flight had given her a GPS tracking device as a going-away present. They were probably following her progress on a large screen in their romper room. Backpacking is no longer synonymous with being geographically and culturally lost. It’s all too easy now, and (I’m breaking into Auntie Gladys mode here) the young people don’t really appreciate just how difficult life is supposed to be. Why actually walk to the corner shop with coins jingling annoyingly in your pocket to buy a newspaper when you can get much better news on-line? Why negotiate traffic when you can soar over it on a Skytrain? Why wash diapers when you can just drop them in the bin and let someone else deal with your…well, with your diapers?
And here’s the writing connection you’ve both been eagerly awaiting. Why spend weeks and months at a typewriter with a six-pack of liquid paper and band-aids on your two typing fingers? Why cut and paste with actual scissors and glue and go to the photocopy shop to make ten heavy copies of a clunky manuscript? Why write the names of publishers on a big thick envelope and insert a stamped-self-addressed envelope and use considerable amounts of money to actually send the things? And, why wait months, your damp nose against the window watching the postman slither past on the icy pavement? And why, despite all the effort, does that neatly typed response from Shoe-in and Shaister still have the audacity to tell you that your book is crap? Don’t they know how much love has gone into it?
No. Why do all that when you could merely click ‘send’ and dispatch any old crap you’ve managed to pump out after a couple of sessions with Absolut vodka and grapefruit juice to any old agent and let them sort out your inabilities for you? Click a few more times and you could have a thousand people working for you. People who have better things to do but won’t know that till they’re three paragraphs into your sci-fi vampire porn. And you just sit back and watch your illegally downloaded Dexter, Season four, and wait to see whether anything got tangled up in your fine-meshed trawling net. Bugger the environment.
Why not? For the same reason that not being lost for three months and not queuing up at the poste restante booth isn’t really traveling. An online travel itinerary does look the same as actually going, but it leaves you as empty as diarrhea in Mexico City. Getting lucky with email carpet bombing isn’t the same as persistence and patience. It’s the difference between cooking a meal and heating up a TV dinner. You can tell people you’ve eaten, and it might be true, but whatever that is in your gut, it sure isn’t food.