Forget the wonders of modern communication. It is the old-fashioned postal service that deserves our awe and admiration.
Seriously. You can put a stamp (purchased in local currency) on a letter in Anytown, USA and pop it in a little blue box, and you can be reasonably confident that it will turn up exactly where it was supposed to, in whatever corner of the world, intact and unopened. And it’s not a matter of American efficiency; the letter is passed from the US postal service to those run by any number of other governments – or vice versa – before finally being delivered to its destination.
Of course, it doesn’t always work this way. I was the recipient of a package, shipped to myself from Durban, South Africa, that arrived in Marlborough, NH in one piece – and still sealed – but mysteriously void of all valuable items. In the place of books and African crafts were rocks, hair products, and hair extensions.
And yet often, remarkably often, it does. Wanna send a postcard home from Timbuktu, Mali? No problem, it will get to Grandma in Three Forks, Montana. Wanna post a love letter to a heartthrob backpacking through Asia? Don't worry, he can pick it up in a village post office in Bangladesh. Wanna resign from your job in New York while sitting on the beach in Tahiti? Go ahead.
Sometimes this is a feat of logistical and political coordination. Doesn’t matter if the trip requires trucks, planes, boats, or donkeys; doesn’t matter how many oceans or mountains or borders it must cross; doesn’t matter how many thousands of miles… Hell, it doesn’t even matter if the two countries’ governments are on speaking terms. More often that you would imagine, the mail will get through.
One of my favorite “packages” was a coconut, still in the pod, shipped by my Aunt Faye from Hawaii to New Hampshire. She didn’t bother with a box or any sort of packaging – she just wrote our address in big black marker on the outside, stuck on some stamps, and sent it off with the good old USPS. We were so charmed, we didn’t have the heart to break it open.
Unfortunately, in this – as in so many other things – Sierra Leone is a bit behind the curve.
I just received a notice this week for a Registered Letter waiting for me at the Freetown Postal Service. I was delighted, and began imagining all the long-lost letters from my brother in Malawi and friends in the US.
So I found a few minutes to venture into the post office – just a few blocks down Siaka Stevens Street from my office – and made my way past the magazine sellers and fruit vendors and down into the dark, cavernous interior. I waited 20 minutes for the woman at the “Registered Letters” window to finish her conversation with her coworkers, dutifully provided my identification, and signed the registered letter form. She took out an enormous sack of letters, sorted through a couple of stacks tied with string, and finally pulled out a manila envelope sealed with packing tape.
Excited, I turned it over.
An application for a spot on my research team.
Sent October 20, 2006. More than three months ago.
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