“Poste restante (French: post remaining) or general delivery is a service where the post office holds mail until the recipient calls for it. It is a common destination for mail for people who are visiting a particular location and have no need, or no way, of having mail delivered directly to their place of residence at that time.”
The traveler’s road can be a lonely one at times, yet one of the most romantic and interesting memories I have about staying connected is “Poste Restante.” Before the age of Internet and the technological birth of cyber cafes that now can be found in the most obscure places in the world, letters fluttered their way around the world. I love finding old journals with pages I wrote to my parents, filled with drawings and chicken scratches and stains from coffee shops or sand from attempting to write from a wind blown beach. Pressed flowers, and worn folds speaking of another untold tale.
In so many countries I have wandered to the nearest post office to collect a handful of gifts in those small packets of worn pages. Love and stories sent from family and friends that were written and mailed all over the world.
My most profound poste restante memory was from the isolated islands of “Les îles Marquises” in the South Pacific. I had embarked on yet another random journey, this one with a charismatic one armed captain, sailing from San Diego to French Polynesia. We had been at sea for twenty-four days, following the trade winds on one of the most classic crossings of the greatest seafarers in the world.
After weeks of living by the rhythms of the ocean, I remember beginning to see an increase of birds. Not just long distance flying albatross but great frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. When along the wind came the smell of soil, rich and pungent, salt and pepper smells of the tropics.
There is nothing quite comparable to the excitement of a sailor that has been to sea for weeks on end, quivering with the anticipation of setting eyes and feet on a new land.
Dark blue depths gave way to turquoise shoals, as the island of Fatu Hiva rose out of the horizon like the back of a giant sea turtle. Binoculars were pulled out, charts consulted and anticipation grew as we passed by Tahuata, to enter the main anchorage of Hiva Oa. With a surreal feeling enveloping our minds and giant grins upon our faces we pulled into a new port that harbored a rag tag congregation of seafarers. We maneuvered through the bay to eventually drop anchor with greetings and waves from other nut brown and wind blown souls.
From shore paddled smiling islanders with boats filled with exotic fruit, vying for a new sale, or the potential to trade goods with the newly arrived.
Our crew cleaned ourselves up, smiling with the novelty of putting on actual cloths and shoes to travel to shore, wobbly legs staggering upon the shore. After restocking our supplies, refueling, and water as well as the search for parts to complete repairs needed after a long crossing, we finally made the walk into the heart of town, and to the post office.
It was a small building of brick painted white and green, with simple windows and a carved wooden door. Inside at each booth were bundles of the most fragrant and tropical cluster I have ever smelled. It turned out to be a regular hair dressing of local Marquesian woman. A core of a pineapple rolled in sandalwood, and speared with small thin sticks were exotic local flowers of Tiare and Frangipani and pods of vanilla. The combined scent was like nothing I have ever smelled in my life.
In a daze I walked up to the smiling woman behind the counter, giving my name and requesting in rusty French for any letters addressed to me. To my utter amazement I was passed 3 worn letters. Two were from Canada and one from Australia. It blew my mind that these small pieces of paper had made their way so far, to such a remote spot for me to collect. It was like receiving a prize of jewels, the gift of communication from loved ones so far away.
When I think today of email, cell phones, and internet cafes, I am conflicted with feelings. The loss of a romantic age of communication, and the simplistic joy of a handwritten note, and the opposite sense of instant connection and ease of staying in touch. It inspires me to sit down and write a few letters to friends of old, scattered around the far reaches of the globe.