Navigate the post office – International travel tip

Next time you want to mail a postcard, skip the hotel concierge and mail it off the same way the locals do: at the post office.

Travelers to international countries stick to their comfort zones more than they realize, and having to perform a routine task in a foreign land is a great way to shake things up. How much is a stamp? Which line do you stand in? How can you convey to the clerk what you need?

The post office presents a unique yet universal challenge — and a great chance for people-watching!

[Photo: Flickr | infomatique]

Postcard fans trade four million cards

Who says snail mail is dying?

Postcrossing is an organization where strangers from different countries can trade postcards. Once you get a free membership, you can request to send a card and another member’s address is sent to you, along with a unique country-coded number. You pick a card, write a message along with the code, and mail it. Once the recipient gets the card and registers it on the site, you’re next in line to get a card from a different stranger.

With almost 170,000 members from 209 countries, it’s a fast-growing club of postcard fans. So fast growing, in fact, that today they reached the landmark of trading four million cards. They only reached two million cards barely a year ago, so this idea is really catching on.

We’ve posted about Postcrossing in more detail here, and revealed the names of some Gadling bloggers past and present who are members. As one of them I can say it’s a lot of fun and a great way to teach your kids about the world. So if you like getting and sending postcards, give it a try and help Postcrossing get to five million cards sometime before the end of 2010.

Postcards have been around since the late 1800s. The card included here dates from 1919 and shows a place in Richmond, Virginia where three rail lines crossed one another. Personally I love the look of vintage cards, and many fellow Postcrossing members have received them from me.

A Canadian in Beijing: Going Postal at Exam Time

I have been studying constantly since the weekend. Who knew that studying could take up so much time?! Well, I suppose the really good students in this program know, but I have been enjoying my life here and riding the smooth ride of a course that doesn’t quiz or test regularly. This week, however, we have our three big “kaoshi” (tests) and I am suddenly looking down the long road at about eighteen chapters and over 1500 new vocabulary words to memorize (which includes five levels of memorization: the translated meaning, the Chinese pronunciation, the tones, the character recognition, and how to draw it.)

I’m sunk.

And so, I’ve been distracted. I finally put together a care package for my friend yesterday after gathering several cool “Chinese” items together during an extended study break and quick walk to the campus store. (It’s amazing the things we can find time to do when we don’t want to be doing something else!)

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love this language and I love the learning… but I’m finding that using it in life is much more effective for my memory than staring at a page is. That’s why I haven’t been studying regularly throughout the term and that’s why this process of actually “studying” is such an insurmountable task now.

So, while I was at the store for some beverages and some study “energy,” I found lots of things to send my friend and I packaged it all up in a small box with notes on all the items for their use (and/or translation) along with a nice letter.

Later on, for another “study break,” I walked the five minutes to the campus post office to send this package and found myself in the little space alongside of perhaps six to ten people all trying to get their packages sorted out as well. This campus post office is small; we were all cramped in there together in the muggy air of mid-June Beijing.

One group was a father and son team from Iceland who were trying to send about ten large boxes overseas of what appeared to be the son’s belongings. Each box was being rigidly searched and then sealed by the postal attendant. In the end, they spent over 5,000 RMB to send these boxes, which is about $700 Canadian. It was quite a process.

My turn eventually came and I placed my box on the scale only to be barked at about its contents. I explained that it was all “chide dongxi” or “food stuffs” and she immediately broke the seal on my expertly packed box and started taking out the items, one by one. The crunched up newspapers and other stuffing that I’d placed around some of the glass items was spilling over the counter and onto the floor. My letter also fell out but I caught it before it hit the dirty ground.

It didn’t take long for her to get to a drink that is good for when you feel a cold coming on and she said “bu keyi!” in a loud voice, explaining with exasperation that I could not send anything that was liquid. At about that same moment, she also found the Chinese wine and the soup and I became a combination of a foreign idiot (in her eyes and tone of voice) and a potential terrorist preparing to send explosives overseas or something. She nearly threw me out of there, balled up newspapers trailing behind me, having been pitched at my backside.

Of course, that’s not what happened, but she did throw up her hands and forcibly thrust the box back into my chest with flat-out, official rejection. I knew, at least, that it was time for me to go.

I said “okay, okay, I heard you” in my attempt at exasperated Chinese and left the crowded space both defensive and humiliated. I came back to my study zone no closer to comprehensive learning and no closer to having sent my friend a care package. I dropped the package on the floor and decided to deal with it the next day (today) and resumed my boring studying.

So, today came. I looked at the sad box that had been completely rearranged and I removed all the items and lined up all of those that had any liquid in them, quickly realizing that this made up more than half of my care package. So, I resigned to taking another study break (!) and headed to the Lotus Center, a multi-purpose store here in Wudaokou, to buy some other care package items.

When I got back with my bag full of great stuff, I re-labelled and revised the letter (slightly) and put it all back in the box remembering not to seal it this time since I knew that she would once again want to search through everything.

I arrived to an equally crowded room and two equally grouchy attendants. When I saw space on the scale, I placed my box there and waited to be served. She looked at the box and then at me and I said “no liquids!” before she could bark at me again. She said “Oh, you came back!” in a bored and irritated voice and I nodded. She then lifted a few items from my box and seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to harm humankind with my friendly package of care.

Then she wordlessly disappeared into a side room and emerged with a box that was she was simultaneously assembling as she walked. She pointed at my box and said “Ni bu keyi yong zheige hezi” (You can’t use this box). I said “why?” and I didn’t understand her mumbled answer. All I knew was that I had no choice but to transfer my items over to this official post box, which was just about an inch smaller and forced to me to leave some items behind (the larger one was too large). Oh well, I think my friend will get the best things, anyhow. I had to move to one side to get this re-packing job done and then I returned and jumped the queue to get it sent – finally.

They seemed satisfied with my box, at long last, and then my address form was attached, they sealed the box with their official tape and then noisily dropped it to the floor and kicked it so that it slid into the corner with all the other boxes. Earlier, I had watched one of these attendants placing these boxes in large cloth bags and dragging them to the front stoop.

My money was taken and my change was given without a word. My automatic “xie xie” (thank you) at receiving my change was not responded to.

Well, of course it wasn’t.

This is a language that doesn’t use “thank you” in this kind of situation. My Canadian-ism (i.e. hyper politeness and over-use of the word “thank you”) catches me on it every time. After all, that change is rightfully mine and I don’t need to thank them for giving it to me. At least, that’s the Chinese perspective. When I say it in these situations, the polite response is often “bu yong xie” (or, no need for thank you). Not today, of course.

I was clearly dealing with two people who had failed their “customer service” exam at post office school.

I guess they didn’t study very hard.


Back to the books.

Underwater Post Offices and Mailboxes Around the World

With the proliferation of WiFi and cell phones, does anybody mail postcards anymore? I haven’t gotten one in years, so I assume the answer is “no.” If, however, on your next trip you decide that you not only want to send a postcard, but you want to do something unique, why not send a card from an underwater mailbox? Though not common, there are five underwater mailboxes for you to visit:

  1. Vanuatu Post created the world’s first underwater post office. Situated within a marine sanctuary off Hideaway Island, this post office, staffed by a postal employee, can receive mail if you are a visiting diver or snorkeler. The best part? The lines are always short.
  2. On Japan’s southeastern coast, there’s a mailbox 33 feet beneath the surface of the water — the deepest mailbox on record. Each day, the contents are collected from the box, which reportedly contains as many as 200 pieces of mail. Conveniently, the group who developed this post office also invented Surumail: edible, squid-flavored postcards.
  3. Malaysia’s Reef Dive Resort has set up what it believes to be that country’s first underwater mailbox. Any mail sent through this mailbox is sealed inside a plastic bag and postmarked with a special stamp.
  4. St. Thomas, USVI, has an underwater post office inside its Underwater Observatory, which means you can get the “underwater stamp” without getting “underwater wet.”
  5. Paradise Island, in the Bahamas, boasts an underwater mailbox adjacent to a spiraling 100-foot tower.

I’d love to get a postcard sent from an underwater mailbox. The first person to send me one gets an Amazon gift certificate worth 10 times the amount of the postage.