Saturday, October 02, 2010

Postcard from America – the Snailr Project

Having upped sticks and moved to San Francisco from the south of England, Anna and Bobbie have been documenting their experiences and induction into US culture in their own version of “inform, educate and entertain”.

Some readers may remember Anna’s witty and wacky live blogging of shows like Big Brother and Spooks in the Media Guardian. While Bobby was a frequent guest on the Tech Guardian podcast and became the paper’s west coast technology correspondent.

With changing work circumstances, it’ll soon be time to head home. But Anna decided on one last adventure – the Snailr project – to explore and document the vast country they’d barely begun to understand: a 14 day rail trip on which she’d write postcards about what they saw and send them to blog readers around the world.

Back of Snailr postcard

In her own words ...

Basic Premise:

So much of the early evolution of travel writing was in the form of collected letters home to family or loved ones. We now communicate in shorter, punchier ways, and the idea of the travelogue or documenting a journey is affected by that. I like the idea of taking the idea of describing what you’re seeing directly to one other person, and combining it with the idea of social media - of firing missives and messages and status updates out around the globe to random strangers and whoever elects to receive them.

The plan

So the trip is 15 days in duration - 14 days on the actual road - and I announced on my blog that if people want a postcard, they should let me know, and send their postal address to me by email - I won’t do anything with it apart from one postcard, I’ll then shred all the addresses. Obviously I can only afford so many stamps, so I’ll cap it at about 10/15 a day. I’ve printed enough customisable postcards for just over that.

Stock of postcards to writeI’ll use the postcards to capture a single vignette, overheard snatch of conversation, observation or thing that I’ve noted along the way. And then I’ll post them off to people as I go along. I’ll keep a photograph of the card, and a typed transcript of whatever I wrote on it.

The idea is that, when pieced together, the messages would form an overall picture of the journey, and have some kind of travel narrative - in actuality, they’d just be spread across the globe. Short pieces of a longer journey - updates and glimpses like you would get from twitter, but personal, and tangible, an individually just a snatched moment out of context.

I’m certainly not claiming to be more interesting than anyone else: we all dip into and out of each others lives this way all the time. I’m just offering to send you a postcard.

The journey wasn’t without incident. Their Amtrak train sliced through an 18 wheel grain truck parked across a railway crossing. Seventeen of the 96 people on board the train were taken to hospital, though there were “no life-threatening injuries”. No postcards were hurt in the accident.

My postcard arrived in Lisburn last week.

It’s not really a tourist attraction per se, but it’s very interesting being a person used to living in San Francisco, visiting other places in the US, where the politics is not so unusually liberal, and finding shops packed with things that, when I lived in the UK, I would have looked on as available for novelty or ironic purchase only. In New Orleans, I find a shop where you can find an oil painting of past and dead Republican presidents playing pool together and laughing like old college room-mates. Reagan, Nixon, both George Bushes, Lincoln. It’s literally horrific.

There’s a snap of said painting (a cropped postcard of it stuck to the front of the Snailr postcard) to illustrate what she’s talking about.

Front of Snailr postcard

The vignette is naturally limited, but when they’re all pulled together, the postcards should provide a contemporary window onto US culture and economy, as well as an object lesson on the difficulty of keeping electronic devices powered up and connected to the internet when you’re speeding across the country in a metal box on rails. (Check out the Snailr blog to see other postcards that have safely arrived.)

And lastly, the postcards will keep graphologists in business for years to come analysing Anna’s handwriting … which was a unique ability to alternate between lower and upper case As in the same word. Like my degenerative scribblings, she’s spent too long over the last few years in front of a keyboard!

(Photos from Anna Pickard and Bobbie Johnston via blogs and Flickr)

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