Penman No. 392: Viber on Wheels

 

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Penman for Monday, July 20, 2020

 

BEING A certified pack rat, I was rummaging through some boxes last week when I turned up a bunch of papers from 30 to 40 years ago, including a few things that might as well be ancient relics to our children and grandchildren today—among them an airline ticket (not the one you spit out of your printer, but the one with several red-inked coupons), a rainbow Apple sticker (long before that rainbow meant something else), receipts for beer at an Ermita bar at P2.50 a bottle (so that must have been a pretty posh place in 1978), and two RCPI telegrams.

It was the telegram that made me smile, because it took me back to those pre-Viber, pre-Messenger, pre-SMS days when your messages came to you on two bicycle wheels, tucked in plastic envelopes that were just thin enough for you to rip apart. And that’s what you did with telegrams, because no one ever sent you one to say a casual “hi” or “wassup” or “It rained again today so I couldn’t take the dogs out and just watched CLOY again—which episode are you on?”

Telegrams meant only one of two things: good news or bad news. Their arrival filled you with either breathless anticipation or heart-thumping dread, in the very least with a tingling curiosity that would not be satisfied until you tore the envelope open to read your fate. That’s what they were: those flimsy telegrams and their deliverers were bearers of fate, heralds of your future.

This particular telegram I was looking at was of the kind that most writers of my generation would have been over the moon to receive, and I was. Dated August 25, 1983, it said, in all caps: “Congratulations your entry in the 1983 Palanca Awards Oldtimer adjudged first prize winner ceremonies September 1 7 pm at Manila Garden Hotel Makati confirm attendance with La Tondeña or Philprom please keep confidential formal announcement will be made September 1 Nemie Bermejo Project Coordinator.”

I don’t know how “confidential” I remained after reading that, but I must have screamed; we were still living up in the hills of San Mateo and no one would have minded. And then I fell quiet and felt guilty for my joyful outburst, because I remembered that it was no time to be happy; this was August 1983, and just four days before I received that telegram, Ninoy Aquino had been shot dead on the airport tarmac, and the nation was in tumultuous mourning. Suddenly my prize seemed a paltry thing. No wonder, a few days later, I received a second telegram, informing me that the awards ceremonies were going to be postponed indefinitely, and that I could just go to the La Tondeña office for my prize and certificate. Ninoy’s funeral was set for the 31st, and no one knew what the country was going to be like the day after, so the Palancas did the prudent thing and called the party off.

Recalling that period, you can imagine the flurry of messages, all laden with strong emotion, that would have filled up Viber and Facebook, had they existed then—the rumors, the conspiracy theories, the memes, the calls to action. As it was, without even cellphones to use and with “party lines” still prone to eavesdrop on our conversations, we had nothing but our housemates, our neighbors, and our imaginations to bounce our fears and conjectures off.

But I was talking about the telegram, which was as private as you could get, and even code if you liked, or even get cutesy with (I once sent this to my wife Beng in Manila, when I was stranded in Romblon: “Missus I miss us honey send money”)—you just had to be prepared to wait a day for the receiver to get it and at least another day for a response—if it came at all. If it did, it would be hand-carried by the same laconic, slow-pedaling delivery man who probably couldn’t have cared less if your telegram said you’d won the Nobel Prize.

No, the telegram was not the best medium to spark a revolution or even just a mass suicide with, in the way that the Orange Man can now use Twitter to drive thousands of his lemmings over the cliff when he tweets some idiotic prescription and they take it as God’s truth. It was slow, it was just for you, and it really didn’t say much, because people were saving centavos by the word. It had no visual attachments, no emoticons, not even enough punctuation marks to more precisely express emotion. It was flat, blunt, and adamantly mechanical.

Sometimes it made or recorded history (see “The ten most memorable telegrams ever sent” here. Most of the time, like a passing stranger, it knocked on your door, said a few words, then vanished into oblivion. These two telegrams of mine stepped into a box and popped up only now after almost 40 years, as if to remind me to think of every word before I sent it out into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

Penman for Monday, August 5, 2013

FROM INDIA, last week, came the news that the company that handles that subcontinent’s telegram service had sent out its last telegram, ending a facility that had been available to Indians since 1850. It was also from India that, two years ago, we received word of the demise of the last operating manufacturer of typewriters in the world, a company called Godrej and Boyce, which was still making up to 12,000 typewriters a year until 2009.

It might seem then that the horizon of obsolete technologies lies somewhere between Srinagar and Chennai, but of course we Pinoys know differently. For even in this age of Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and FaceTime, many Filipinos—the oldest and the poorest of us, that is—still have one foot firmly planted in the 20th century, and it will be a while before we’ll learn to let go, at least in our minds, of the things that made our life easier back in 1963.

A surprisingly comprehensive history of the Philippine telecommunications industry, written and published online by Federico and Rafael Oquindo, says that the Spanish began laying out a telegraphic service in the Philippines in 1867.

I’m not sure if we can actually still send paper telegrams to one another, since the old telegraphic companies have either died out or been taken over by telecoms giants more interested in moving money than messages. Your relatives would surely be more interested in receiving a MoneyGram from you, anyway, than your telegraphic best wishes. If you’re feeling wacky, you could also send them a singing telegram, which—for around P2,000—will include a box of chocolates to go with the guitarist and singer, and your favorite song.

But where has the old-fashioned, STOP-punctuated slip of paper gone? Gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the steam engine and the carrier pigeon, it would seem, replaced by faster, sexier, and maybe even cheaper ways of getting a message from A to B. In the US, Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

To be perfectly dry-eyed about it, few 21st-century citizens will miss and mourn the telegram. To send one, you had to go to an office and scrawl your message on a pad of paper—a message that, depending on your agent’s sharpness of eye and adequacy of mind, could come out garbled on the other end. The cost of the telegram was computed by the word, and how fast it traveled depended on how much of a premium you were willing to pay; I remember that “NLT”, or night letter, was the cheapest option, because you had to wait for some night clerk to attend to your message after everything else went out for the day. And then your telegram, encased in a flimsy plastic envelope, had to ride along with a bagful of others in the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to cross rivers and mountains to get to its recipient, two or three days after pushed your message across the counter.

It all seems too cumbersome and too quaint now, but there was a reason for the telegram’s popularity in its day. Very often, it went out to people and places without telephones (yes, there was such a country and such a time), and it was much faster than a regular letter, albeit more tight-lipped. Arguably, the telegram was unique in the power it conveyed and the significance it implied, for only the most important—both the saddest and the happiest—of messages merited a telegram.

Unlike SMS, or even the pager (remember EasyCall?) that preceded the cellular phone, the telegram was too slow for casual banter, too terse for courtship or argument. It worked best at bringing you the good news and the bad news: prizes won, loved ones lost, congratulations, condolences, reminders, pleadings.

I have a soft spot for the telegram, because it figured prominently in my literary career, starting with one I received in May 1969, informing me that I—then a high school senior—had won a national essay competition. Over the next two decades, at around this time of year, I would scan the horizon for the RCPI messenger, the bearer of the only telegram that mattered to me and hundreds of other aspiring Filipino writers: one sent by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Foundation, telling us that we had won and inviting us to the September 1st awarding ceremony. (Our exuberant imagination supplied the rest of the unspoken message, which understandably would have cost the Palancas too much to tack on to their congratulations: “You’re a wizard of words, a literary lion, a paladin of prose whose works will sell a million copies, attract hordes of screaming fans, foment revolutions, and uplift human life and civilization!”) I did receive a number of those telegrams, a few of which I still keep as souvenirs, reminders of the Jobsian admonition to “stay hungry.”

There was one telegram I remember sending, sometime in the mid-1970s, from my small hometown in Romblon where I had gone on a short visit with my father and had quickly run out of cash, not having had much to bring in the first place. In desperation, I cabled my new bride Beng, whom I had to leave behind in Manila: “MISSUS I MISS US HONEY SEND MONEY.” And so she did.

And that’s all the old telegram companies do these days—send money to presumably happy recipients. Let text and Twitter take care of the bad stuff. If it’s the physical telegram itself you really want to send or to get, just so you can relive the good old days when people got inky fingers from writing long letters with fountain pens and licked postage stamps and waited for weeks to get something back in the mail, there’s hope for you. A company will still deliver a telegram to a Philippine address (and to over 200 other countries), for $24.95 plus 88 cents per word (no NLT option here); you’ll just need to go online at www.itelegram.com to avail yourself of this charming if pricey service.

SPEAKING OF other countries, it’s always good to read positive things about the Philippines when you’re abroad, even if they happen to be advertisements. In Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I beamed when I turned to the travel pages of a local newspaper and saw how many ads featured our national tourism tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” The ads offered special packages for Manila (read: the new Solaire casino) and other parts of the country (read: Boracay) via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Now, I’m one of those guys who—no matter how strongly I might criticize our foibles and follies back home—like to wave the Philippine flag when they’re on the road. Any chance I get, I invite my foreign friends to come and visit, allaying their usual fears by pointing out that they could get mugged in New York or robbed in Prague, anyway—they might as well enjoy our sunshine! Lord knows we need all the plugging we can get, with neighbors like Thailand roping in some 22 million tourists a year versus our 4 million.

I’m wondering now if it was schadenfreude—that wicked burst of pleasure you get when something nasty happens to your neighbor but not to you—that coursed through my veins when I came across an article in The Standard noted that traveling to Thailand was fraught with danger “from jet-ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion.” Hah! I thought—that’s what I’d been trying to tell my Hong Kong friends—it’s more fun in the Philippines!

Then I read on, turning the page: “Britain said Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance, behind the Philippines.” Ooops! Sounds like we need to do a little more work in the Philippines.

(Image from philippinephilatest.net)