Missives from another land are also from another age, writes Thomas Bywater.

You're more likely to be struck by lightning than receive a postcard. Well, it can sometimes feel like that.

Though the statistics are woolly, it's a rare occurrence to receive a postcard. Even as it arrives the information is secondhand — 12 Instagram posts, several roaming-allowance text messages and a lengthy Skype call old. In all probability, the sender will have already returned, long before a postcard emerges from the NZ Post sorting office.

Sending a postcard is a pure act of nostalgia. This piece of cheap cardboard is pact between you and the sender to pretend you still live in a gilded age of travel. Back when "going abroad" had an implied meaning of adventure. Something dangerous, even. When the carte postale was the only method by which to assuage worried relatives that you hadn't been eaten by a tiger or succumbed to some exotic strain of food poisoning. Back when the world was big.


Nowadays the trend for travel is less focused on the destination and more on what you are leaving behind. Whole brochures are dedicated to "getting away from it all". Your colleagues and family — broadly everyone left behind in the big "it" you are escaping — may struggle to muster the same enthusiasm for the next carefully composed smartphone image of yellowing sand and crystalline waters. In fact, they may even despise you for it.

This is not out of jealousy. Just as the stream of digital photos filed on Facebook and Instagram are designed to provoke FOMO (fear of missing out), most of the great paper missives were written with this aim.

But the resentment comes from what it represents. It's a reminder of that generally held axiom that there are no more blank squares on the map.

You will eat the same food at the same chain of restaurants you could at home. Any souvenir can be picked up at the local shops or ordered online and delivered to your home at the click of a button.

We are living in the age of the jet engine and fibre-optic cable. The phrase "wish you were here" has gone out of fashion for the very real danger that the person you're contacting may just turn up.

Snail mail may be outpaced and outmoded but it delivers a powerful message. It laughs in the face of progress and these assumptions. It is a reminder that we are living at a point when the planet is now more diverse than at any time in history. And just as difficult to get around.

Unreliable, prone to delays and the physical jeopardy of the journey home, the postcard is a testament to the long way round. Things you miss out on, blinkered by the magic portals of smartphones.

It may be delayed by snow, migrating bull elephants, public holidays you never knew existed — held up by the oddities and nuances of the boundaries where postal systems meet.

Eventually arriving — weeks maybe months later — as a herald of foreign stamps and postmarks, stains and smells. It is a reminder of quite how much there is still to see and the very real distance between them.

Now that's worth writing home about.