Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
I sat speechless, looking at an album of letters that I had written to my parents during a year of international travel some 30 years ago. My mom had presented them to me on my birthday. I had no idea she had kept them all.
Seeing that handwritten correspondence, in an age where letters are rare, really struck a chord. I immediately lost myself in time travel. While the content was revealing from a travel perspective, what really hit me was social change, and how technology has shifted my own parenting role.
Statements such as, "I've taken some amazing photos, can't wait to get them developed and send to you soon," are so out of place now. For the most part, the visual record of travel was saved until my return. Until I got back, vivid written descriptions had to do. Both the writer and the reader shared in creating the experience in their mind.
Have we lost that in the age of instant photo sharing?
The letter reminded me of some questionable decisions. I can only imagine the worry I evoked at the casual notation about hitchhiking, the mountain repelling, a visit to a hospital emergency, or how we had spent the afternoon with a couple guys we had just met who took us to the beach. Had I been able to instantly post those events and drawn immediate reaction from my parents, would I have had those experiences?
Correspondence at times had gaps of six weeks or more. The written word was the only method of contact, and the chain of poste restante addresses allowed for the planned receipt of mail from home. I remember vividly savouring the thought of a letter waiting at the next destination. That anticipation, with no immediate gratification, is lost in today's instant communication world.
I found it interesting to reflect on the stories that weren't told. The most chilling was what occurred after my last letter home listing flights and dates. About a week after it was posted I missed my bus connection, which was pivotal in linking the balance of planned flights. Foolishly I had accepted a ride from a trucker, which could have ended badly. The pack of lies I told him about a friend expecting me in Sydney, and my dad being chief of police in crime investigation back home, I'm sure led to my eventual safe arrival. Those lies and figuring out how I would jump from a moving truck if need be, still haunt me. But I learned to adapt on the fly, and assess all future situations more critically.
What really resonated with me was the freedom and maturity gained by not having regular contact with home. I returned a different person, able to move into adult responsibilities with grace and ease. Rereading these letters, I understood the utter trust my mom and dad had in me. Now, as a parent of teenagers myself, I found it touching. They couldn't guide my day-to-day moves, and although they worried, they knew my experiences and their guidance as I grew up, would fare me well. I can also now appreciate the tone of our letters, the trust reflected, the shared joy, yet reserved sadness as my parents came to understand we had both moved on to a new phase of adulthood.
How then to frame the learning in today's hyperconnected society, bent on oversharing and being constantly plugged in, when it comes time to bid our offspring adieu to conquer the world? Are the devices that help them research their destination, build friendships along the way, and keep us connected, in fact doing them a disservice? These devices can keep them tethered, a safety blanket wrapped in electronics. They might just prevent young people from gaining the independence they so desperately need, and prevent parents from letting go.
The permanence of my letters was different than Facebook updates. Do you think we will really have a record of Facebook conversations 30 years from now?
Instant connection is undeniably satisfying, but the independence gained by the child and the trust learned by the parent in those long gaps between communications had real value.
My only regret is having not saved my mom's letters I received abroad, except for one that I recently discovered stuffed in my travel journal.
If you're about to lose your child to travel, ask them to send you a handwritten letter once a month. And keep the letters. It will be a true gift.
Send in your story from the road to firstname.lastname@example.org.