From aerogrammes to emails: Elisabeth Easther felt like Alexander Graham Bell when her email was sent and replies started coming in
These days, travelling without instant communication - text messaging, WhatsApp or social media - seems as far-fetched and impractical as travelling without your credit card but, once upon a time, that's what we did and somehow we got by.
We mainly relied on the postal service - although, in some countries, when you sent a postcard, even if you were away for months on end, you still might beat that postcard home. It was all part of the fun.
Then email was invented.
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Rewind to 1997 and I'm backpacking through Central America, cruising around for four months. I'm parked up in Antigua, in Guatemala, ostensibly to learn Spanish.
Antigua es genial para eso.
Before I departed, my friend Simon said he'd take a holiday while I was away, that he'd pop over and hang out for a few weeks. He booked his flights before I left so I knew exactly where to find him. The plan was for him to fly into San Salvador – seemed as good a place as any - at a specific time on a specific date and I would be there to greet him.
Two months later, I had Central America sussed and my new-found knowledge taught me that Guatemala City was a much better place to meet. San Salvador turned out to be a bit scary, the civil war had only ended five years prior, and it still felt very raw. People told me the road that led to McDonald's had quite recently been lined with the heads of dissidents on spikes.
I didn't spend long there before I bustled back to cosy Guatemala. But how could I tell Simon a change of plan was in order? Phoning his landline didn't occur to me, perhaps it was too expensive with my modest budget? Just as I thought I'd have to return to El Salvador, as luck would have it, an internet cafe opened near my pension. But I didn't have an email address, hardly anyone did, and even if I did have one, how would I write to Simon?
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I consulted with the guys in the email cafe and together we located my brother's address. Richard was teaching at Brown University and academics were quite easy to find on the newfangled interweb. I wrote to him in America and asked him to email Simon's sister, who worked at The Guardian in London. Handily, they were friends. Could a message please be passed to Simon asking him to change his flights? I also asked Richard to tell Mum and Dad I was in Antigua, learning Spanish and having fun but not too much fun.
Imagine this moment. The sound of the computer being fired up, the machines talking that quirky dial-up dialect. The magical email wooshed through space from Guatemala, to Rhode Island, to London then Auckland, and every day after, I'd stop in at the internet cafe to see if my message had found its mark.
When the replies started coming back, I felt like Alexander Graham Bell. Simon had been given my instructions, he had changed his flight and I knew exactly when to meet him at the airport in Guatemala City. It all seems so archaic now, but back then it was thrilling and I was e-lated about e-mail.
Soon after I obtained my own email address. I started with topliz@hotmail because ha-ha, it sounded like topless. And I don't even like being called Liz. Later I went by imabroad@femail, a server that didn't last very long. I've also been with AOL and Paradise (RIP) and finally, today, I have an email address that'll probably see me out and I can't imagine life without it.
Elisabeth Easther's wonderful world will return in a fortnight. Next week, Anna King Shahab: The Hungry Traveller