Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Kabul: To Mail a Letter

For my annual Christmas card distribution, I always try to use the local post, if possible, instead of the U.S. post to which I also have access.  Not only does it show confidence in the institutions of developing countries, I think it’s also pretty cool to get a card with colorful foreign postage and mysterious markings on it.

From Oslo to Port Moresby, going to the post office is always an interesting experience.  Often times it’s fun, and frequently, it’s frustrating.  In Afghanistan, the process for mailing a letter is further complicated by the security restrictions under which we operate.

Unable to go to the post office myself in Kabul, I turned to the Embassy’s concierge service.  Manned by Afghan employees, the concierge service runs errands for the compound-restricted American staff, for a fee.

I contacted the concierge and discussed my errand.  I wanted enough Afghan stamps to mail my cards to various destinations around the world.  I told the concierge the weight of each letter (18 grams) and provided a list of countries to which I would be mailing them.

“We don’t sell stamps,” the concierge manager told me.  “You can buy them at the KEEA store.”

The KEEA store on compound sells U.S. postage only, which is not what I wanted.

I explained again that I was interested in local stamps, not U.S., and that I was willing to pay the service charge.

The concierge had successfully gotten Afghan stamps for me the year before, so I knew it could be done.  The manager had changed since then, but I mentioned to the current manager that her predecessor had helped me out before.

“I’m on it!” she told me with much enthusiasm.

After four days of dead air, I received a call.

“Sir,” she told me, “I’m having too much trouble with your request.”

“I checked the whole city, and I cannot find the Pakistan post office, the Sweden post office, the Israel post office, or any of the rest on your list.”

Doh!  This was a touch annoying to be sure, but I had to laugh.  Then I went on to explain how international mail works.  Afghanistan is a member of all the major postal unions and a party to the relevant international agreements, so any local post office should be able to consult a chart and tell a customer how much postage is required to ship a letter weighing 18 grams to any country in the world.  I explained that mailing a letter to Sweden did not require one to find a Swedish post office; the Afghan post office should be able to handle it.  I also reiterated once more that the concierge had handled this for me last year.  The manager had changed, as I mentioned, but the previous one was still on compound working in a different job.  I encouraged the current one to consult him if she continued to struggle with the request.

“I think I’ve got it,” she told me.

Three days later, I received a call from one of the guys from the concierge office.  He was at the post office.

“Sir,” he asked me, “do you want the kind of stamps with little pictures?”  “That’s the only kind they have.”

The next day, I met the man, and he produced an envelope.  He sheepishly smiled as he let the contents slide out into his palm.

“Is this the right one?” he asked.

A stamp honoring buzkashi, the local horse sport.

Sure enough, he had a handful of assorted postage stamps.

One of them caught my eye.  It seemed to be for 14000 afghanis (US$210).

“A lot of zeros on this one,” I remarked.

“That’s just how we write 14,” he answered.

“OK,” I replied, “these look good.”

“I thought so,” he told me.  “I’m the one who got them last year.”

“Did you check the rates?” I asked.

“Yes,” he continued, “114 afghanis per letter.”

At about US$1.70, this was much higher than the year before.

“For which countries?” I asked.

“All of them,” he replied.  “Each country is 114.”

The year before, the rate had varied by country, and logically so.  Why would the rate for Pakistan, one hour away, be the same as Canada on the other side of the world?

The man insisted the pricing structure had changed since last year to the current flat-rate scheme (or at least that’s what the postman had told him).  I had my doubts, but with no way to verify, and having already wasted a week getting to this point, I accepted the price the man quoted.

By the time I finally had the full order of stamps in hand, nearly two weeks had passed since I had placed my order.

Each envelope required two or three stamps, and applying them was tedious.  I finished a modest stack each day and brought them to the Embassy mail room for submission to the local postman.  When I brought the first stack, there was confusion.  The clerk in the mail room was about to put the letters in the outgoing U.S. mailbag before I intercepted.

“These are for the Afghan post,” I pointed out.

This really sparked some interest, and seven other clerks gathered around.

Afghans don’t generally use postage stamps, and most have never handled one.  To mail a letter or a package, most Afghans go to the post office and present their parcel.  The postman inspects and meters it, and the customer pays.  After that, the customer leaves, and the postman prepares the parcel with appropriate postage stamps or a printed sticker showing postage paid or perhaps an ink stamp.  Apparently, no one keeps postage stamps at home like people do in the U.S.

The mail-room guys were fascinated with my letters, and they passed them around and admired the stamps.  Among other things, the stamps featured prominent Afghans, fighter jets, and polio eradication.

“I can’t believe you paid 14000 afghanis for this one,” one of the guys commented.

“That’s apparently how you write 14 here,” I replied.

The famous 14000 afghani stamp.

Another guy was doing some calculations as we chatted.

“Even if you count it as 14,” he told me, “that means you put 114 on each letter.”  “That’s way too much!”

“Well, that’s what I was told to put,” I answered.  “I guess it’s better to have too much rather than too little.”

The guys agreed, and I left as they continued reading aloud exotic destinations like Silver Spring, Ethiopia, and Ambunti.

The next morning, I got a call from one of the mail clerks.

“I’m at the post office,” he advised, “and they want to open your letters.”  “What should I do?”

“If that’s the procedure,” I answered, “it’s fine with me.”

The next day, I brought another stack of letters, and the clerk came to see me, clearly disappointed.

“They prefer for you to leave them open,” he told me.  “Now they have to cut each one open to inspect it and then tape it closed.”  “It’s making a lot of extra work for them.”

I didn’t feel much sympathy, though.  Perhaps if they were a little less intrusive they wouldn’t have so much extra work to do.  In any case, all of the letters had been sealed at this point, so there was no way to ease their burden.

After a few days like this, the postmen eventually stopped slicing into every letter and opted instead to open two or three randomly selected letters from the stack.

And despite the delays, the annoyances, and the laughs, Afghan Post came through a second year in a row with the first letters reaching their final destinations in a mere three weeks.

This stamp had apparently been sitting around for 34 years!


Anonymous said...

Hey Chris,

Living here in AF. I can absolutely, totally understand and believe your story. They seem to major on minors over here.

As always great read and very cool story!



P.S. Put all your stories into a book...I'll buy it.

Eleanor White said...

Interesting--as always! Love from Boston.

Anonymous said...

Nice story, as usual!!

Wallyworld said...

Still waiting for your Christmas card in Australia or have we been expunged from your list :-)

Juan said...

Always cool to read your stories, and looking forward to more...thanks for sharing and best from Panama.

Anonymous said...

Nice story and as usual. I enjoyed reading.

LeeAnn said...

The Childers received your awesome card! We love the stamps! Thank you for thinking of us!

Ollie and Floyd said...

The arrival of your card has become a tradition we look foward to every year. It's especially fun now that our first son is old enough to enjoy your humor -- and we all still talk about the hyena card. It was fun to read the story of how the card made it all the way to our little mailbox. Thanks for the effort and expense!