Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Adventures with Post Offices

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Adventures with Post Offices

Article excerpt

Cardboard and postage stamps: mementos from my trip around the world.

Four Septembers ago, my husband and I were bundled up in a yurt in the Gobi Desert at the end of a trip around the world. Our journey had included 21 countries, both one- and two-humped camels, swims in the Nile and the Euphrates, and an escape from a herd of wild elephants. It had also included at least a dozen visits to the post offices of the world.

In Ukraine, my husband and I brought a pile of clothes not suited to our current climate to one of those welcoming old Soviet government buildings. The attendant at the postal window was a gray- haired square of a woman who was not, apparently, happy to see us. She examined a wool coat from our pile with the special displeasure of a career bureaucrat, then she reached into the pocket, took out a gum wrapper and glared at me. I apologized, though I did not know my crime. She put the gum wrapper back in the pocket, and I was pretty sure the whole package was headed for the Dumpster rather than the mail truck. "Nyet," the woman kept saying as she boxed. "Nyet, nyet."

In southern India we climbed into the seat of a bicycle taxi. On my lap I held two handsome gold-threaded turbans, a stash of tea and a bag of cardamom we had gathered ourselves from beneath a fragrant tree. We were dropped not at the post office but next door, at the "Parcel Walla." We entered a tiny, dark shack full of boxes where a little old man sporting the popular high-waist polyester pants and mustache combination took my items and wrapped them in a piece of old cardboard. Then he unfurled a sheet of white muslin and proceeded to sew the bundle closed by hand. India is a spectacular country: temples and elephants, palaces, sacred rivers. The food, the glorious food. But none of that made me so happy as when this man pressed red sealing wax across a freshly stitched seam.

Back in California, stumbling through our first jet-lagged morning, we dragged out the boxes we had mailed to ourselves. A huge one, sent months ago by sea from a colonial-era post office in Egypt, had taken almost as long as we had to get home. Inside: a brass lamp, a set of tea glasses and a large pile of dirt. Perhaps the dirt had been inside the lamp. Perhaps it was acquired at sea, the box stacked below who knows what on a ship that went the opposite direction we had: Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific.

Opening a box posted from Nairobi, I marveled at how a girl can fall in love with a swath of fabric in Kenya, take it to a particular building and essentially say, "This is too heavy, would you bring it home to me? I live some 10,000 miles and two oceans away, in a brown house with shingles." And for a few hundred shillings, off it goes.

Here is how the process actually works: You buy the correct amount of postage in local currency and an organization called the Universal Postal Union ensures that everyone in each country that handles the package along the way gets a fair share. …

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