Wednesday, 22 May 2013



Today’s travelers don’t know how lucky they are. Back in the days of yore (the 1970’s and thereabouts) the long-distance traveler didn’t have it so easy.

Take money, for instance. Namely, your travel funds. In those days the only option was to take it with you. Credit cards and ATMs were yet to be invented. So you were left toting either cash or travelers checks. The checks were the more sensible option; they couldn’t be cashed in by any thief who managed to lift them from you. (In theory at least. In India, it was rumored that if you had a handful of someone else’s travelers checks you could cash them in with certain money changers for 75% of their face value.)  So you secreted a wodge of travelers checks in your money belt, where they soaked up the sweat from your body, and when the time came, you went through the laborious, time-consuming task of cashing some of them in at a bank. And when the travelers checks were all gone, you wrote a letter to Dad (by snail mail, of course; e-mail was yet to be invented) asking for a transfer to a bank in Poona, Phnom Penh, Padang or wherever. And then you spent the next two weeks calling at the bank to be told that, sorry, your money hasn’t arrived yet.

Travelers checks did have one advantage over ATMs though. In those days, you were often required by border officials to prove that you had enough money on you to support yourself for the duration of your stay. Not enough money? Sorry, we can only give you a three-day visa. Now, with travelers checks, there was one easy way of doubling your money. (Of course I never did it; I just heard about it on the travelers’ grapevine. Honest.) When your supply of checks was running low, you went into an American Express or Visa office and declared your travelers checks lost or stolen. Twenty-four hours later you had in your hand a new wodge of checks. Simple, as long as you remembered not to cash any of your ‘lost’ checks.

Next, mail. The only way to get mail from home was to have it addressed to the Poste Restante section of a post office in a city of your choice. (“Don’t forget Mom, I’ll be in Manila for Christmas, then in Hong Kong around mid-January….”) All you had to do was turn up at the Poste Restante counter, show them your passport, and collect your mail. Straight forward, simple, and damn slow. But, before the advent of e-mail, it was the only way you could receive word that Freda has passed her exam, Johnny’s written his car off, and the tax department is demanding you pay $273 in overdue tax.

Of course, if urgent matters were to be discussed, you didn’t have to resort to the excruciatingly slow mail system. You could always phone home. On your cell phone. No, hang on, cell phones were yet to be invented. So, you went along to a post office and used one of their overseas phone booths. Now in those days, overseas calls weren’t the instant affairs they are today. There was the queuing, the temperamental nature of the international phone system (pre-satellite telecommunications), and the difficulty in getting overseas operators to understand what you wanted (“So, that’s person-to-person to Mrs Flo Butter, Oakland, right?” “No, it’s person-to-person to Mr Joe Butler, Auckland!”) If your luck is in, you may just be talking to the loved ones back home within an hour. Then there’s the matter of poor lines, or conversations between you, Dad, and some other unnamed, uninvited third party who’s moaning about his back-ache. “Say that again Dad. Johnny’s written what?” “Oh, I didn’t sleep a wink last night.” “His car.” “He’s written his car?” “I’ve gotta look for a doctor today.”  “Off. Off. Written off.” “Oh the damn pain is killing me….”
A heart-felt thank you, Mr Cell Phone Inventor. You did a good a good thing back there.

Nowadays, undergoing a long-distance journey is an easier and more trouble-free prospect than ever before. But not all the changes have been for the better. My biggest regret about the changing face of travel is the closure of the hippie trail – overland from Amsterdam to Katmandu on $2.50 a day (or less if you were prepared to rough it). Thousands of travelers traversed the hippy trail and found peace, enlightenment, and nirvana along the way. For them it was a life-changing experience. For others, the trail turned out to be a succession of bouts of diarrhea, bed-bugs and boredom. But now the vagaries of politics have rendered the hippie trail impassable. Ayotollah Khomeini nixed passage through Iran in 1979. In the same year, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Soon after, Lebanon became embroiled in a civil war. This spelt the end of the road for the hippie trail, and it became just a distant, wistful dream. Sad.

Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. Here’s a customer review: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

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