For the love of postcards
By Rainer Ebert
Before Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp, there was the postcard. The younger ones among us may never have sent one to anyone. Communication today is mostly instant, and mail is derogatorily called “snail mail” by the digital crowd. Since the world’s first picture postcard was sent to London-based writer Theodore Hook in 1840, the postcard has enjoyed much popularity as a means to share images and thoughts across regions and cultures. In recent times, that popularity has rapidly declined, mostly due to the rise of mobile phones and social media. Sending postcards takes more time and effort than sending an email, or a message on social media, which makes postcards even more meaningful than they were when there was no instant alternative.
Writing a postcard requires you to slow down and give your full attention, and receiving one feels far more personal than receiving a message on an electronic device. A postcard is a tangible token of acknowledgement, and there is something magical about knowing that the piece of paper you hold in your hands has traveled a long distance and passed through the hands of many people to deliver to you the thoughts of another person. While “likes” are often given without much thought and hardly rise to the level of meaningful engagement, writing a postcard to someone is an exercise in patience and mindfulness and shows that you really care – enough to buy a postcard, write on it, and go to the post office to buy stamps and send it.
In 2005, the love for postcards of then-university student Paulo Magalhães from Portugal led him to create the Postcrossing project. Postcrossing is an online platform that transcends geographic and political boundaries and connects people from across the globe. The idea is simple: for each postcard you send, you will receive a postcard. Anybody can join, regardless of age, gender, race, or belief. To join and become a Postcrosser, all you need to do is to go to www.postcrossing.com and create an account. Once you have an account, you can request to send a postcard. The website will provide you with the address of a random stranger as well as a unique postcard ID. You then send a postcard to that address. As long as you keep it friendly and polite, you may write whatever you like. You can share a curious fact about where you live, an anecdote from your life, or a poem you wrote. Be creative! Importantly, though, you must include the postcard ID. The recipient of your postcard will use that ID to register the postcard on the website once he or she has received it. You will then be notified that your postcard has reached, and yet another Postcrosser will be tasked with sending a postcard to you. It can be a challenge to find postcards in Bangladesh, but there are places where you can buy them, such as the Bangladesh National Museum, the gift shops at the Lalbagh Fort, the Ahsan Manzil, and other historic sites, Bengal Boi in Lalmatia, and Aranya in Dhanmondi.
Currently, the global Postcrossing community consists of close to 800,000 postcard enthusiasts. They have to date exchanged more than 55 million postcards, which have traveled a combined 279,651,132,324 kilometers. As the website notes, that is “6,978,194 laps around the earth or 363,747 return trips to the moon or 934 return trips to the sun!” At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of postcards are traveling. So far, most postcards have been sent from Germany, more than eight million, followed by Russia and the United States. The 53 Postcrossers from Bangladesh have sent about 2,500 postcards, placing Bangladesh at rank 93 out of 209 participating countries and territories.
I have spoken to Bangladesh’s three most active Postcrossers, Ishaque from Rajshahi, Amin from Dhaka, and Ratul from Uttara. Ishaque first heard about Postcrossing from a fellow stamp collector, a teacher at Rajshahi University, and decided to join. “I thought it could be a good platform through which we can let people know about our culture, tradition, history, and all the positive sides of the country.” To date, he has sent 421 postcards, more than any other Postcrosser in Bangladesh, and can proudly call himself an ambassador of his native land.
Amin has been an avid stamp collector from childhood and wrote his first letter to his grandfather in the United Kingdom, to ask him for stamps. He was in 6th grade at the time, and in the 47 years since has not stopped writing letters and postcards. He was introduced to Postcrossing by his college friend Nasimul Islam, a well-known figure in philatelic circles in Bangladesh and executive member of the Bangladesh Philatelic Federation, and has in turn himself inspired many others to join. Amin retired from the Bangladesh Army in 2009, and now enjoys his time traveling, both through postcards, and by plane, especially to Africa. The first place he visits whenever he goes to a new country is its main post office. It is no wonder his wife often says, “stamps are his second wife.” Amin uses Postcrossing partly to expand his stamp collection, but also to get to know people from different countries, and once met a Postcrosser from Russia when she came to visit Bangladesh.
Ratul, who is currently pursuing a law degree, found out about Postcrossing through a post on a blog and joined in 2013. He still remembers the first two postcards he received. They arrived on the very same day, and were sent from the Netherlands and Belarus. His parents and friends initially thought his new hobby was a waste of money, but now support his passion for old-fashioned mail. He has received postcards from places as far away as Antarctica, Cuba, Fiji, Greenland, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and Vanuatu, and even from war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Among the postcards he has received so far, the one he treasures most, however, came from Germany, and had a small piece of the Berlin Wall attached to it. Like Amin, Ratul has infected others with the Postcrossing virus, and likes to connect with the Postcrossing community not only at, but also away from the writing desk. He met Postcrossers in Kolkata and Penang, and at a Postcrossing meet-up in Bengaluru, some of whom, he says, “have become like my family members.”
Postcrossing brings people from different backgrounds together, promoting intercultural understanding and friendship, and bringing smiles to all corners of the world. The simple joy of finding a postcard in one’s mailbox is as pure and precious as little else, which makes it so very special.
Dr. Rainer Ebert is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He lives in Texas and can be reached at www.rainerebert.com