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Posted at: Mar 25, 2018, 1:08 AM; last updated: Mar 25, 2018, 1:08 AM (IST)

Why I still buy travel postcards

A traveller on how memories shared via a piece of paper, and not an Instagram account, are still more personal

Sudha Pillai

Recently, I came across a fellow traveller who was sending a travel postcard to her friend back home. Surely an anomaly in this age of social media. “It’s been a ritual for many years now,” she said. 

My journeys are incomplete if I don’t buy a travel-postcard. However, I don’t post it to anyone but to myself.

I fell in love with travel postcards when my father went to work in the Middle East. I was 10 years old. It was the first time we were apart. I missed him. But I missed our dinner table conversations more. Over rice and fish curry, my father would regale me with tales from faraway lands. Few, he had visited; many, he wished he had.  His stories about kings and queens, forts and secret tunnels, pirates and piranhas, Siberian landscapes and tall pyramids, ancient rituals and exotic women were always riveting.

My mother who mistook my pining for these stories ticked off my father. “Do something to wipe away your daughter’s pain or come back,” she told him. My father who knew me well, instead, began sending me travel postcards. Thus, began my dalliance with these palm-sized picture cards. Once in 10 or 12 days, I would receive a card from my father along with a hand-written note; he called them ‘travel tales’.

After four decades, I still have many of those cards tucked away in a box. One of my favourites is a 3D postcard — ‘Made in Japan’ but sent from Arabia. It has a picture of horses galloping over dunes against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. A few horses, in the foreground, are running in one direction and the rest in another.

My father wrote: “In the desert run the legendary Arabian horses. A long time ago, after a lengthy journey, Prophet Mohammed spotted an oasis and let his thirsty horses race towards the water. But to test their loyalty, the Prophet called out for the horses to return when they were a few yards away from the much-needed drink. Only five horses returned. And he named these ‘loyal’ five Al Khamsa. The famous Arabian horses are said to be the descendants of the Al Khamsa. The sturdy breed became the mainstay and protectors of the Bedouins in the desert.”

I cannot vouch for the veracity of the story as my father was a great spinner of tales, but it captivated me. From that day on, I dreamt of walking with the Bedouins and caressing the Al Khamsa progeny. 

The postcards not only connected me to my father who was far away, but it also enabled me to travel, vicariously, to places that I might never visit. The postcards gave me ‘travel goals’ in life. The cards also encouraged a sort of community bonding. The postman too began travelling by proxy as we would spend a few minutes exchanging “travel stories” and discussing dad’s postcard. The box of postcards would often come out during family gatherings and house parties. They made for good conversation starters and fillers.

Postcards have been in existence since 1840. The first card was published in Austria. However, the commercial journey of the postcard began in 1861 via Lipman’s Postal Card in the US. These cards were plain cards with borders. Soon pictures began to appear on postcards. British seaside towns, scenes of indigenous people and their culture, especially India and Africa and famous landmarks, were a few of the favoured themes. Though there were postcards of different kinds and for every occasion, it was the travel postcard that became the most sought after by travellers. Until the fridge magnets came in. Today, social media has given travel postcards ‘endangered’ status.

For a traveller, both social media (especially Instagram) and travel postcards serve the same purpose — sharing a slice of one’s journeys with others. Strangely, on Instagram, the very act seems impersonal, pretentious and “flaunting”, while it becomes an intimate and thoughtful gesture on a postcard. The latter seems to say: ‘I was here and I was thinking of you’. Or ‘I wish you were here to share this marvellous experience with me’.

Travel postcards speak the language of intimacy eloquently than social media. Therein lies the reason why some of us still can’t abandon the postcard.

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