With the proliferation of the internet and WiFi, I have found myself sending a lot less postcards then on former trips. But when you’re on a ‘round the world’ tour like me, you will inevitably have to send some packages home from various countries. I’ve been fortunate to have a few friends visit me while I travel and not only is it great to see them, but I also benefit by being able to shove some crap into their bag that I no longer need—like some memorabilia I’ve collected or the hiking boots I haven’t worn since the rainforests of South America or the magic walking stick from New Zealand or the conical Asian hat I got in Vietnam. This way they can cart it home for me and I save a ton on postage. Plus, I’m saved from the stress I would suffer by worrying if my precious package would ever make it safely to the shores of ‘Amerika.’ When I could not pawn things off to friends, every few months I’d put a little care package together to send home. I’ve learned that the post offices around the world are as varied as the toilets. And some are just as stinky.
This was a tiny post office up in the cloud forest with one window and one man. No muss no fuss. Signed, sealed, delivered.
In the middle of an empty beach on an island only inhabited by animals three hours from mainland Ecuador is a ‘post office.’ Well, it’s actually just a wood barrel with a door cut out, but it may actually work better than some real postal systems that I have come across. Here’s the deal: You write a postcard to someone you know (or perhaps a stranger if you are feeling friendly) who lives anywhere in the world. You address it and sign it, but you DON’T put a stamp on it. You leave it there in the barrel. Then you look through the other postcards that have been left in there and take one that is supposed to be ‘sent’ to your country… or a country where you are headed. Once you get to that country you can either hand deliver it if you are near the address or just buy local postage and just send it off. It’s a postal system by the people, for the people. Sounds perfect, but, by the way, has anyone ever received my postcards from here??
Fairly similar to going to the post office in the US: fill out some forms, pay way too much money, stamp it with some official looking seals and away it goes—all the way around the world and up into another hemisphere. Too efficiently boring to give me anything interesting to write about.
Here I remember playing ‘musical windows;’ the first window guy said to go to another window across the room. At the second window, they weighed my package and addressed it. Then I had to return to the first window with some kind of receipt which I gave window guy #1. Here I had to pay and he stamped it. Then I returned the finished package to the second guy. Got it?
I think I could have sat in this tiny post office (similar to a small bar with some round stools at the windows) all day and never have been served. They certainly didn’t ask me if I needed help and when someone local came in she would literally just shove in front of me at the window and be helped before I was even acknowledged. Before I ‘went postal,’ I finally pushed my way in and was handed, I kid you not, about five different convoluted forms to fill out—each one just about the same as the last. My current address, the recipients address, the address of my second cousin once removed, several lists of what the contents of the box were, the value of each item in Vietnamese Dong, the total weight, etc. I was given two different total costs by two different people. I was not feeling confident about this one and thought I would never see my Vietnamese trinkets and souvenirs ever again… but thankfully it arrived weeks later intact and unharmed.
One of the prettiest post offices, it was in a grand old building and kind of looked like an old fashioned train terminal. I had been told ahead of time by fellow travelers that I did not need to scavenge for a box prior to my arrival here. The young man that helped me here was great—he found me a box behind the counter, we put everything in it exactly how I wanted it and he spent the next ten minutes taping it up so good—that the whole box was covered in blue tape and you could not see one speck of brown from the original box color.
I filled out one form and paid in cash (only). I noticed that the ‘form process’ was much simpler than in Hanoi—kind of strange considering it is the same country, no? In the end, I made a possibly detrimental decision and chose to save money by sending it ‘sea mail’ as opposed to the modern method of ‘air mail.’ I pictured my sad little package all wet and moldy with crabs and seaweed clinging to it on the decks of some old pirate ship. Four months later it arrived in the US and apparently had no sea creatures in it. Amazing.
This was a doozey. There were only five windows at this post office and yet none of them wanted my package. They actually ushered me through the ‘employees only’ door and behind the glass partition that usually separates postal worker and postal user. I had brought my package unsealed to show its contents. Not only did they not care one iota of what was inside, they did not have me fill out one form at all. No, actually there was one form—it was practically the size of a postage stamp and had three lines on it—one for the sender’s name, one for the recipient’s name, and on the final line they scribbled the word ‘Amerika.’ Doesn’t seem like enough info for an important international parcel, does it? I already did not have a very confident feeling.
After finding out my package was going to ‘Amerika’ the postman told me, like nearly every other foreigner I’ve met, ‘America? George Bush bad man.’ I agree, but it gets tiring after a while being a spokesperson for our entire nation and carrying the weight of the American government’s often bad decisions on my shoulders. Plus, at this point, I just wanted to mail my package, not be a diplomat. I actually forced the two Turkish postal workers that were helping me to just take a gander at what was inside my box, just out of habit. Then they haphazardly taped the box shut, took it away, and told me the price as if we were finished.
“What about the address??” I exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, address, address.” The two men said in unison. Then they proceeded to slap on some plain white stickers onto the top of the box where I was to write in the address.
No official stickers. No official cards. The postage meter machine apparently had a maximum of nine lire per sticker so now he had to slap about five different meter stickers all over the top of my box wherever they would fit. Lastly he licked an ‘airmail’ stamp and a “Turkey” sticker and slapped them on as well. By the end of this unofficial process I just about decided I would certainly never see this package or any of its contents again. When the nervous security-crazed U.S. Customs Department sees this crazy looking, hand scrawled box coming from 99% Muslim Turkey… they will probably just blow it up on sight.
In actuality, all of my packages traveled half way around the world and have arrived safely. BUT ironically, the postcards I sent out from the most efficient, anal city in the world, Singapore, never made it. Makes you wonder. Maybe Turkey is on to something.
Here are some general tips for you if you decide to send packages from abroad:
- Bring your passport.
- Bring cash and lots of it. Many post offices in other parts of the world do not accept credit cards.
- Bring your package unsealed. Oftentimes for Customs purposes, they will need to look inside (excluding Istanbul) to see what kind of contraband you are actually sending, so be prepared to explain your ‘apocalypse now’ shot glass from Vietnam or the ‘opium pipe’ you picked up for decorative purposes in Phnom Penh. Also be aware that many post offices can provide you with a box and tape it up for you.
- Bring your patience, sense of humor, and comfortable shoes.
- Before you go, make a list of what you are sending. This will make it easier to fill out all the forms and keep them all consistent rather than you repeatedly shuffling around the contents of your package (like most guys I know tend to do).
- Of course, wrap everything breakable very carefully. And then you will inevitably unwrap it and wrap it again after you show it to the postal worker.
- Don’t mail anything from Singapore.