It’s 45 degrees outside but in my hotel room it’s cool and sanitised. I sit, perched on the end of the two-seater couch, talking into the landline phone, to a voice half a world away. A familiar voice beaming into my other, alternate world of #travel and hotel rooms, taxis and airplanes, and places that you see once and may never see again. We talk of coming days in #winter, of what to bring to potluck dinners where I’ll wrap up warmly and dash quickly in from the car to avoid the rain. But, as I look out to a vista of sand and high rise buildings, the damp cool brown and green of the #new zealand winter seems a long way away. Dubai, a place I had previously only imagined, now it surrounds me. The people I think of and communicate with can only imagine where I sit as I write or what I describe. In all my messages home I try to create the stories that sum up this temporary other world I am in.
I like telling stories – stories of things that have happened to me, people I know or things I’ve seen. I started to write here because my ‘FreyaStories’ were being repeated and repeated over emails to dear friends. The stories we tell, particularly those we star in, becoming part of how we show ourselves to the world. Meeting new people and getting to know them is an exercise in sharing stories. Before the shared experiences you have together, you exchange tales of your separate pasts; of adventures, of places, of travels and misadventure. A new person initially is a patchwork of tales they’ve told you, and observations you’ve made about them. The stories they choose to share light up moments of their past, little iridescent anecdotes, while leaving darkness over other aspects.
So from the desert I typed home, I spoke and I sent texts. It was a stream of consciousness – at times minute by minute. Much of it was mundane. I told of the heat, of the endless versions of chicken mayonnaise sandwiches I had eaten. I electronically informed New Zealand on things that were happening that day at work, whether I had slept well, what I had for dinner. I spoke of the fast cars and high rise buildings and being asked, and asked, if I was married with children. I described huge shopping malls and beautiful bars.
In New Zealand, phones beeped with ‘I’m going out for an after work drink…’ as day dawned on another wintry May morn. I tried to convey experiences through bombarding all forms of media available to me (text, email, Facebook emails, Skype, photos).
It worked to an extent. But the stories, the real stories I enjoyed telling, took longer to formulate and were more fun to write. They were told through email, written and rewritten as the laptop and its 8min battery life allowed for. They were stories of observations of culture, mingled with things that had happened or I had felt. They were stories of being proposed to by a stranger in a small, semi air conditioned construction site office, or of seeing beautifully made-up Arab women shopping up a storm in the Western clothing shops. I wrote of ‘dune bashing’ in the desert. I noted that it was in the sandy desert planes near Oman that I heard the Cockney and the Geordie accents of the British kids of the gap years.
I sent my stories home and in returned received mail back, electronically. Like every good letter, they acknowledge the stories I had told in the last communication, and told stories of what was going at home. ‘The weather has been awful lately. So rainy that it’s uncomfortable to drive in.’ ‘We’re going to visit Hawkes Bay soon.’ Snippets of normal life, received and read in the mornings in my hotel room, before the hotel breakfast of either boiled eggs and olives or over sugared cereal and fluorescent pink yoghurt. My letters to and from home travelled quickly of course – instantly. It was only a two week trip so any ‘real’ mail would have been pointless, but I did think of my grandparents and the stories I have heard of their letter #writing. A story teller by profession, my grandmother’s stories were almost all of her young adulthood. She told of her courtship with my grandfather, at first in person but then over letters. Of the letters she later received back when he went on a surveying mission to Antarctica, and sent home a picture of himself and the crew – his bare hands front and centre of the image, wedding ring visible, while the others kept their hands warm in gloves and jackets. She told of letters he wrote to his employers, who had requested he travel to the Middle East for a job. He replied – or at least in Nana’s story he replied – ‘no wife, no work.’ Letters and their stories, that became part of how their relationship was conveyed to the world.
People talk about how modern communication means we won’t have letters to look back on, for our grandchildren and great grandchildren to read. That’s probably true. A handwritten letter that has physically been held by both the writer and the receiver is a tangible piece of the past. Printed out emails are not the same – although the words still convey the stories, the longing to be at home or together, that the written letter does. But letter or email is merely a carrier for the stories – and it is these stories which we tell of our experiences, and send home lovingly, which become a part of our experience of travel and our being away from those we miss.