Monday, April 21, 2008

It's Hard To Mail A Postcard From This Trip

Written from the French island of Reunion, Indian Ocean--

The Internet is not only adversely affecting the newspaper business, it's also causing a retrenchment in post office services, and making it harder and harder to send postcards back home.

I confess I'm a big postcard addict. I send them out to many relatives and friends, and try to provide a plethora of African stamps from my cruise circumventing the continent, to my grandchildren.

But this is not easy at many places. I've just had a typically difficult experience on the French island of Reunion. It's a prosperous island, an overseas department of France, 6,500 miles from the mother country. The population is 770,000. It looks French and has been French since 1638. The Tricolor seems as much at home here as it is in Paris. Today, we saw a volcanic crater 8,500 feet high which last erupted just two years ago. It's a scenic island, with some of the highest rainfall totals in the world.

I was able to buy postcards at a store at the lip of the crater, but failed in repeated tries to buy stamps to send them home. First, they said, the post offices on the island were not open Mondays. Then, there were supposed to be stamps at the tourist office. But all they had were envelopes. Besides, three different guides and clerks gave me varying figures for how many Euros it would cost to mail a card home.

Finally, I gave the guide on our bus a large tip and he assured me he would mail the cards. This worked, I've had confirmation, in Morocco and Senegal, and a friend e-mailed me that he had received my card sent from a hotel in Ghana.

But with all the e-mail and digital photography these days, it seems many people no longer send postcards. The market for them has clearly diminished, and post offices have, as I said, retrenched. Just another sign of modern life.

I notice even the New York Times lost money in the first quarter.

As to how I'm liking my long cruise (now in its 40th day, with 33 more to follow), I'm enjoying it. I'm not big into such activities as nightclub-style shows, bingo, bridge playing, sunbathing on deck, and some of the other ways many passengers pass their time.

But I do enjoy the long days at sea (39 of the 73 days are spent entirely at sea). And the improvement in international communications means that I now am able to get an electronic copy of the International Herald Tribune delivered to my stateroom six days a week, plus a short digest of the New York Times every day. We've only been out of range of CNN four days in the middle of the Atlantic. And E-mail has been available every day of the voyage, at my usual Yahoo E-mail address. All this is quite different from my last major cruise to Antarctica. I thought I would hardly write this blog at all during the voyage, but I've been writing it every couple of days. And I sent a classnote back to the Dartmouth Alumni magazine from the ship in Cape Town.

Many of my fellow-passengers are, frankly, rich people who go on long cruises every year. I've been so far to 96 countries or dependencies, but many of them have been to more. Their curiousity about the places we have visited has been limited, and their disdain for struggling African countries we have seen is palpable. But I have met some thoughtful people aboard, and a few just as interested in the American presidential race as I am.

It's true this cruise, on the Holland America liner Prinsendam, with about 600 passengers aboard, has skipped many unstable or even dangerous countries. We passed by Mauritania, the Guineas, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, the Congo, Angola and Mozambique, and are going to give Somalia a wide berth, sailing from Mombasa all the way east to Oman and then relying on the protection of a Dutch Navy vessel to get us safely through the Gulf of Aden, which was the scene a couple of weeks ago, of the seizure by pirates from Somalia of a French yacht. (The French sent special forces to Djibouti. After a ransom was paid for liberation of the ship's crew, the French Navy attacked the pirates in a Somalian port, retaking the ship, recovering much of the ransom money and capturing six pirates who were flown back to France for a well-deserved trial. It's interesting to see the U.S. is not by any means the only country who feels constrained to fight fundamentalist or free-booting Muslims).

Tomorrow, we visit Mauritius, a country 120 miles east of Reunion, that remains closely aligned with Great Britain. It's good to see the British and French have not disappeared from this part of the world.

We are now 12,500 miles out of Fort Lauderdale, where we started March 11. By the time we end up in Lisbon, this is going to be close to a 20,000-mile voyage. I'm happy I'm taking it.

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