If you really want to go off the beaten touristic path while travelling you should visit a post office and try sending parcels from abroad. Here are our highlights: Bolivia, Ethiopia and Russia.
The Russian post office: While living in Russia, going to the post office was torture we tried to postpone till the last moment or avoid by all means. The post workers, frustrated by their low wages and depressed by their run-down offices, often tried to take revenge for these misfortunes on their customers. Entering a post office in a Russian town you are likely to see queues waiting at several counters and have no idea what line you should take. People may go to the post office for different reasons – do a bank transfer, pay the bills, buy a stamp or receive a parcel. The chances that you will decide on the wrong line are quite high and after having spent half an hour in one queue you may have to switch to another.
Though once I was the reason for my cousin’s trouble at the Russian post office. I sent her a toy for her newborn baby. Trying to be funny, I wrote the name of her newborn son on a parcel, thinking that it is only the family name that matters. However, the post office workers denied my cousin the right to get the parcel from the post office, claiming that the receiver should present his passport to the post office clerk in order to be able to pick up the parcel. The fact that the newborn didn't have any resulted in the following conclusion: when he gets a passport, he will finally be able to get his teddy bear.
The Ethiopian Post Office: But Russian post offices may seem to be an example of high proficiency if you compare it to the Ethiopian ones. While in Ethiopia, we were on a mission to deliver a laptop we brought from Berlin. It belonged to somebody we met online and then once in person in Germany. He asked if we could send it either to his Ethiopian family or his office, now I forgot the details. Being nice, we agreed and suggested that as we wanted to go trekking we should better post it once we are in Ethiopia – the behemoth of a laptop weighted 4 kilos at least.
In Ethiopia, at the post office of the small town Dodola we wanted to start our trek from, they said they couldn't send parcels from their post office but only from the next bigger town of Sharsharmane. We had no other choice but to trek with an old heavy laptop. But fortunately for us and unfortunately for the laptop, it was packed onto a “luggage horse” during a week-long trek – we just hoped it would survive the vibration and, most important of all, the dust.
The next attempt to send it was done in Hawassa, a bigger town. On the first day, we found the local post office closed during the day. On the second day, it was open, but something strange was going on inside. People waiting by the counters were standing not in queues, but in half circles. We joined one of the half circles. New people kept joining our group and having done so, they immediately started chatting with the others. I was not sure if they all belonged together or just talked to each other while waiting.
Having joined one “half-circle” queue, you had to put forth some effort and strength in order to move towards the counter. But that was the observation I made after some time had passed and I was still on the outside of the half circle and away from the counter. Exclaiming “Sir, I believe I was in front of you” I started squeezing my shoulder between the guys who appeared to try to cut in in front of me. No need to mention, that the business was not going swiftly on the other side of the counter - considering our Russian experience, we were not even sure if we were waiting in the right line.
Desperate, Balti tried another tactic – he went to the staff entry to the counter. For some reason it worked out – one of the post staff took the parcel and gestured for us to wait. After another 15 min, he made signal us to approach again. We filled all the “from” and “to” fields on the blank and everything was going smoothly until we reached the “phone number of the receiver” line. It turned out they couldn't take the parcel without this information provided. I couldn't believe it was obligatory given the fact that large areas in Ethiopia don't have mobile phone coverage. We wrote our German number that didn't even have roaming in Ethiopia and hoped for the best.
The Bolivian Post Office However, even that is nothing compared to the difficulties our friend encountered in September in Bolivia: the Bolivian post just ceased to exist! Apparently, it was closed by the Bolivian president for its debts. Still, the difference between a closed and working Bolivian post may not be that obvious for its customers.
Before the dismissal of the Bolivian post, it was normal to wait for some 5 months for the things you ordered on Amazon. The Bolivian post didn't employ any postmen – but private couriers. There were no post boxes on the houses – the letters were just thrown into the yards exposed to all the weather conditions. Most notably, there were no postal zip codes in Bolivia. People who sent the letters didn't make it easier for the couriers writing directions such as “…Street, the house in front of the bakery” – actually the way it used to be in Europe before the introduction of the postal codes.
But even the American post can have some funny issues. Two postcards we sent to Belarus - a country in Eastern Europe - were delivered with a 2-month delay with the notice that it was originally misguided either to Central American Belize or the Bahamas.