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Post Office Idiosyncrasies


Post offices are enthralling places for me: the thought of the letters and packages hidden away behind little locked metal cubbyhole doors, mail ready to be shipped to every different part of the world, the beautiful stamps to choose from, the feeling of a job well done after sending a neatly packaged parcel to someone I love. Sometimes the workers aren’t so friendly, but what a joy when you meet a smiling, helpful face behind that counter! I found the postal workers near our college outside of Minneapolis to be the friendliest I’ve come across in my adult life. As I’d conduct my business, I’d hold Aria with one arm on the counter and she would usually be cooed over by some charming older lady who had grandbabies of her own.
envelopeThe post office experience in India is a little different. When I go there I even feel a nervousness that the person behind the counter doesn’t really have a clue of how to get my package or letter from here to its destination. The following story happened to us last week.

Because of luggage restrictions and such, John and I were trying to find out how much it would cost to send a large package of around ten kilograms from here to Scotland. John went to India’s postal website and found the tool that he needed, but it wasn’t working. Not only was it not working, but there were no contact numbers on the entire website. The next day he got the telephone number for the local post office from his co-workers and set out to get an answer. The first person didn’t understand English so after being put on hold, a woman picked up who he could communicate with. She told him that he could only send up to two kilograms by air mail and that sending a ten kilogram package by surface mail would cost about $35. He wanted to ask how long it would take but was cut off by the woman saying that she couldn’t answer any more questions. Apparently it’s against their policy to answer questions on the phone. They must not want to tie up the lines for “chit-chat”—ridiculous!
I had a small package I wanted to mail that day anyway, so Aria and I set out for the nearest post office, a fifteen minute walk away. It happened to be one of those clammy hot days with the relentless sun beating down, so I hurried as quickly as I could along the busy road. I arrived at the post office tucked away on a quiet side street, walked in, and ignoring the other people in the room, parked myself right at the unoccupied part of the counter. Having been in this post office a few times before, I have discovered that any semblance of a line is merely a mockery to my Western mind. Lines simply don’t exist here and if I try to calmly wait for my turn, inevitably three people will nonchalantly walk past me without even a glance and take care of their business while I stand there dumbfounded. So, I stand at the desk and wait for the postman’s attention to be directed to me.
Not too much time passed before I was given that attention and I stated that I wanted to send my little package to the States via AIRMAIL. The package was taken from me, books were consulted, it was weighed, and the price stated–$12. I was shocked as it usually wasn’t so much to send such a little package. I dug through my purse to discover that I was about forty rupees (just under a dollar) short. I said that I didn’t have enough and was told, “No problem. Bring the rest in the evening.”
It was then that I discovered that they were sending the package speed post rather than airmail. After arguing with them for a few minutes over the fact that I hadn’t ASKED for speed post, but for airmail, they finally agreed to change it and I happily paid less than half of what had originally been stated.
However, I was in for a wait. My package sat by the postman’s elbow as he turned to other people crowding at the counter on either side of me. I tried to catch the attention of the second man to ask my questions. Finally, I caught his eye and asked, “How much would it cost to send a ten kilogram package to the UK by airmail?”
“I don’t know. We’ll need the package to weigh it.”
“Can’t you find out without the package here?”
He seems to then ignore me, but after a couple of minutes and a consultation of an ancient looking notebook, he states that I can’t send more than two kilograms by airmail.
“How much to send it by surface mail then?”
Both men look at me strangely and say something about “six months” and “not safe”.
“So it’s not safe to send a package by surface mail?” I ask.
My answer is the Indian head bob, looking to me like a “yes” and a “no” at the same time.
Then I lose their attention and am left with unanswered questions and a package still sitting at the first man’s elbow.
I noticed the second man at the back of a room pulling a book out of what looks like a safe. He brings over a long stream of twenty rupee stamps, consults the first man, and then says to me that it will cost two hundred and twenty rupees to send my package.
“I know. I already paid,” I stated, ready to argue the point if need be.
The stamps needed for the package were torn off and given to me, eleven in total.
I was then handed my package and told to put the stamps on it. I must explain that the surface of the package was no larger than a regular card-sized envelope.
“Where do I put them all?” I asked incredulously.
The second man indicated all the blank spaces on the front of the package. Unbelievable.
“Don’t you have any stamps of higher value than twenty rupees?” I asked.
Apparently not. The stamps in India are way behind the times. If you’re very lucky, you may get the kind you can lick, but usually you have to use their incredibly inefficient glue and try to get the stamps to stick on the paper. It’s a frustrating task in itself, but here I had eleven stamps to glue and Aria, sitting on the counter, was getting restless so I had to keep one arm around her. As I was finally getting the last of the stamps glued on, a random man from the back room came over and held his hands out to Aria. Unfortunately, my social baby went to him and, as is typical here, the man simply took her without even a glance at me and before I could protest, carried her to the sorting room to show her off. I handed my stamp-infested package to one of the men and he said, “Two hundred and twenty rupees.”
“I already paid,” I said exasperated. Perhaps he was merely confirming the amount I’d stuck all over it. He then proceeded to fiercely pound his official stamp several times on the package’s surface so that each stamp had some of the ink somewhere on it. He then tossed it behind him with hardly a glance. During these doings, I kept straining my body over the counter, trying to keep my eye on Aria. Finally the man brought her back and I took her with an air of annoyance, I’m sure.
I continued to wait with the rest of my questions on the tip of my tongue, begging to be asked. I’d been in the post office for over half an hour by now and sweat was trickling down my body in the hot room. I finally got someone’s attention again and determined to get my answers.
“So how much would it cost to send a ten kilogram package by surface mail?”
After consulting his computer, I was told by the first man the cost of sending a TWO kilogram package.
“How about ten kilograms?” I persisted.
“You can only send up to two kilograms,” I was told.
“Only two kilograms by surface mail?” I ask incredulously.
The two men consulted with one another and then as they spoke the word “package” a light seemed to come on.
“It will cost three thousand and five rupees to send a ten kilogram package by surface mail.”
Okay, that was about seventy dollars: expensive, but not entirely unreasonable.
“And it takes three months?” I asked.
Something was mumbled that I didn’t understand.
“Longer?” I asked.
He did his head bob and I had no clue if that was “yea” or “nay”.
“Four months?” I asked.
Another head bob.
“Five months?” I ask, alarm lacing my voice.
A man to my right who spoke perfect English came to the rescue. “He said it will take between thirty and ninety days.”
“Thank you.” I said with relief in my voice.
I left the post office with a thankful sigh. At home I realized the price I was quoted for the ten kilogram package was twice the amount that had been told to John. Sigh. No wonder I have trouble believing that the postal system here is competent.

3 Responses to “Post Office Idiosyncrasies”

  1. Jessica
    September 21st, 2006 07:00

    oh, how i dread postal service in countries where it just isn’t very reliable. i hope you work something out… we’re praying for you. thanks so much for you letter/card… i just got it… and i can see by the picture above that it was the one in the photo! very cool. love you.

  2. Rachel
    September 22nd, 2006 22:23

    Glad you liked it! I love to send letters by snail mail. They are so much more personal than the easier and quicker emails.

  3. nona
    October 5th, 2006 11:07

    Rachel, after that post I will be surprised if anything makes it through the India mail system.

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