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Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores
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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The endangered hobby of stamp collecting

Aeroflot has one of the most generous air miles program and even though I have never flown on it, I have accumulated thousands of miles just by registering and being alive till date. And last week, when they sent me the miles statement in a letter marked with Russian stamps, it took me back many years on a nostalgic trip when stamp collecting was a popular hobby with students. This was of course before cable TV came to India and Wonder Years and Doogie Howser MD humbled us demonstrating that more interesting hobbies were possible.

Most of my schoolmates would have hard bound notebooks filled with stamps, occasionally from never-before-heard countries. The most beautiful stamps would be from poor or insignificant territories such as Laos, Cambodia, Chad, Turks and Caicos, St Lucia, etc. Only later would I realize that these stamps were another source of revenue for these territories who would therefore issue a lot more stamps than required by their postal systems. On the other hand, stamps from Great Britain and the USA would be rather dull. In those days when wikipedia was not around, it took some effort to know what was meant by words like Magyar Posta or Helvetia. And in contrast to their total lack of importance in the global scheme of things, the emirates of UAE like the Ajman States, Umm al Qwain, Rasal Khaima, etc. would have disproportionate representation in our stamp-books.

In our simple lives, we would not compete on how rare our stamps were or how many commemorative or first day issues we had. Our unhealthy competition would only be about the absolute number of stamps we had or the number of countries in our collection. Of course, Indian stamps would be ignored from these calculations. We would scorn against those who bought collections from bookshops as that went against the spirit of our competition. But soon we realized that it would be extremely difficult to build our collection the organic way, since few people in our small town had contacts abroad. So like everything, this also became a question of how much money our parents had that they could spend on such hobbies. Eventually, most stamp books were lost and forgotten at some corner of the house.

These days, we receive a lot more letters, courtesy all the bills, marketing flyers and account statement; however, they invariably come in envelopes marked by postage seals rather than the perforated stamps. In Singapore, the vending machines churn out postage stickers without any character. And I would be surprised to know if anyone collects the text-filled slips that come along with letters mailed using private courier services. But stamps are still popular in some countries and they are typical souvenir items in many communist countries such as Laos and Vietnam.

And even now, scanning through an old stamp-book provides some sort of a connection, not just with my youth, but also with those countries that seemed so remote during childhood days and don’t exist anymore: Czechoslovakia, East Germany, or the USSR.


A said...

Absolutely!!! You said it all...USSR...noyta cccp :) It confused me for so long! And then words like of course Helvetia and Magyar Posta, and Sverige and Eire, and Hellas!!! So w/o knowing these countries, I would just look out for similarity in the letters printed and put the similar looking ones together! BTW, China and Germany and some of these carribean countries have such beautiful stamps...and Poland! So many Animals on their stamps!

Shivaji said...

Indeed a; and the stamps of Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea as well would be rather dazzling