Travelling in the 70’s and 80’s – “Phone home” memory lane

If you have no interest in how it was “back then” (and I remember quietly rolling my eyes when my grandfather might start on “when I was a lad...." stories) then I don’t intend to bore you, so please just skip this blog. But, I have met many 20-something year olds in backpackers that are genuinely interested to hear – so these few memory lane posts are for them - enjoy!

Communication these days with ones friends and family back home is as easy as picking up your phone or your ipad and making the call or skype. You simply don’t see people without their communication devices –  including myself!

In the 70’s and 80’s this concept was simply not even a concept. If you wanted to see your family or friends there was just one way to do it – get on a plane or boat and go home. If you wanted to communicate you wrote a real letter or postcard and sent it snail mail. I have to say my mum and dad were lucky if they got a letter or postcard every month or two from me!! No I don’t feel bad – it was simply how it was, and given I was often in the mountains hiking or the like, once a month was pretty good back then!

On the other hand, if your parents wanted to communicate with you, they had to leave it somewhat in the lap of the gods. They could write to you care of Poste Restante and just hope you got it. The address would be something like this:

John Smith
Co Poste Restante
Bangkok Central Post Office

Thailand

If you happened to get to Bangkok, and if the letter happened to arrive there before you, and if you actually went to poste restante to check for mail, and if the letter had actually got there – then you got your letter! 
 

How would they know where to send it – well if you had some vague itinerary, then you would tell you parents where you were most likely to go at some point over the next six months. Or you could send a postcard from the road telling them where you might be about a  month or so from now.

That was it! The only other option was to make a phone call.

Now that sounds easy, but remember this was a while ago and mobile phones were yet to be invented.

To phone home was not something you undertook lightly. You had only minimal money and the cost of a call was something you might consider on birthdays or Christmas – if there was a phone available. To make a call you would have to find a public phone booth somewhere on the streets of a city, put in a LOT of money and hope the parents were at home at the time and answered the call.

There was one final alternative. However it would be used in dire circumstances only!

You could make a reverse charge call otherwise known as a ‘collect’ call. In this case what happened was:

You find a public phone booth
You dial the number for the operator
A real live person would answer
You would say “Can I make a reverse charge call to (for example) 678889 New Zealand please?”
The operator would say something like “hold the call please”

The operator would then dial the number you gave them
Your mother or father would (you hope) answer the phone
The operator would say “I have 'John Smith' on the line in Tokyo, will you accept the charge for this call”
Your mother or father would answer yes simply because they would immediately panic and assume you were either

  • In hospital with a serious or deadly injury or illness (the small stuff wouldn’t cut it)

Or

  • Kidnapped (although they would quickly realize it probably wouldn’t be reverse charges in this case)

The operator would say “Connecting you now”
Your parents would say “Are you alright?” or “What’s wrong?”

Outside of the reasons above, making a reverse charge call was simply not an option - unless you had the express request or permission from your parents ahead of time. Not even for jail most times!

You may think this sounds a bit far-fetched but this was fairly standard thinking - reverse charge calls, or any calls, were quite simply luxury spending.

It really never occurred to me to make a call to my parents reverse charge – never in my first three years away in my early twenties, never later either! Yes I would have called if I had been in hospital and it had been a big issue – but I don’t think I ever told them when I once did end up in hospital, and if I did, it would have been well after the fact. I wasn’t dead and I could still walk so there was no need. This wasn’t just my attitude – but the attitude of near anyone else I met on the road.

Back then travelling was not a standard thing that everyone did. The term ‘gap year’ had not been invented and travelling was the exception not the norm. Travelers were in a very different world than travelers now - there were no phones, no internet, no backpackers, no credit cards, and girls did hitchhike – alone!
But more on all that in another 70's and 80's Memory Lane article.


Old phone!

Old phone!

Notes:
This was written from the perspective of a kiwi at the time – parents in the USA or even in the UK and Europe may have been more accepting of calls, although  in my experience, not a lot different!

I didn’t get to travel in the 70s but am basing this on checking in with a few friends that did!