Indian Parcel Post

I have been negligent in making updates to my blog for the past month or so, but I thought better late than never.  I was in Pondicherry and Auroville from Saturday March 12, 2011 to Sunday March 20, 2011.  The entries for Pondicherry, Quiet Healing Center, and Auroville are from that time.  

Last week I received an e-mail from my parents saying that they went to the post office to pick up a package.  At first I didn’t understand why they were telling me about going to the post office and then I realized that they meant they were picking up the package I sent from India.  I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  How could that be?  It’s only been a few weeks!  So little time has passed that in fact, I haven’t even had a chance to write about it.  My experience of sending that package, in my opinion, was so quintessentially “Indian” that I’d like to jot down what happened and remember it.

India is a shopper’s paradise.  Anything you fancy, whether it’s textiles, artwork, jewelry, spices, clothing, etc, you can find it here.  But since I’m traveling for so long (and I no longer have a home to decorate and live in), I’ve done my best not buy anything along the way.  But my determined resolve crumbled away during a recent visit to a grocery store in Pondicherry.  My purchases increased my load so much that I had to make a trip to the post office to ship some of my things back to the States.  Well, let me not exaggerate too much here.  I bought some chutneys, jams, and teas, but I also wanted to ship back some ayurvedic medicine and supplements, and some of the bulkier winter/fall clothes I was still carrying.

When I was in Chennai a friend went to the parcel post office to ship a box of books (by the way, books in India are cheap.  One can easily find books for 50, 100, 200 rupees ~ $1, $2, $4 USD).  She said she was one of just two customers at the post office but the whole process took 2 hours to complete.  Knowing this, I was mentally prepared for what awaited me at the local post office in Pondicherry.  I went ahead the day before to find out what time they opened (9:30AM) and with my friends’ good wishes for a speedy and efficient transaction, I walked over to the post office.

I arrived slightly before 9:30AM to find the parcel post office completely deserted.  That just put a smile on my face because I confirmed my expectation of it not being open on time.  Luckily the front awning cast a small shadow for me to take shelter from the blazing sun and wait.  Before I left the guesthouse with my things I briefly thought about taking my Kindle with me just in case I had to wait and would need something to read.  I decided against it.  Oh well.  Nothing to do but to just stand there and make eye contact with anyone who remotely resembles a postal worker…  10 minutes passed by and finally an Indian lady came up and gestured for me to follow her.  Dutifully I followed but soon it was clear that she was just leading me to the main post office.  She smiled and pointed to a plastic chair.  Ah, how nice.  She wants me to sit and wait.  I nodded to her to say thank you and I sat.  I sat and waited.  A small ceiling fan in the corner was working full time and this post office was filled with people and activity.  What about the parcel post office?

“I have all morning,” I thought to myself.  “I’m going to be Indian about this,” I promised to myself.  After all, everywhere you go in India people are waiting; waiting is a natural part of life in India.  Just then I saw a thin guy walking by with a set of keys.  Keys!  And this guy was walking towards the parcel post building.  I jumped up and bounced down the steps after him.  I think he turned his head and chuckled at me.  He took his time with the keys and the locks, and once he opened the door to the dusty room he pointed at a plastic chair.  Ah.  He wants me to sit and wait.  He turned on all the fans and walked out, leaving me alone in the office.  So I sat and waited.

As I waited I began to see some other people reporting to work.  A lady came in with a short broom; she turned off all the fans and bent down deeply to sweep the floor.  With her hands she picked up the crumpled reminders of the previous day and swept everything else straight out the front door.  Another lady in a red sari came in and sat behind the counter.  She didn’t look at me at all but she seemed to be the one in charge.  A few other workers came in but they all appeared quite busy already.  They were chatting with each other, opening drawers, and leafing through notebooks.  No one said a word to me.  I thought eventually someone would notice a foreigner sitting in the corner with a plastic bag full of stuff…

Then the original guy with the keys came back and this time he waved at me towards the counter.  Happily I walked over and showed him what I had.  He took a quick glance at the bag and without any words started rummaging through different corners and shelves of the office.  While I was waiting I looked around to see if there were any suitable boxes that will be useful for my purpose, and I thought there was something on one of the shelves, so I tapped his arm to get his attention and pointed to the box.  He shook his head no, then he squatted down on the floor.  At this point I really have no idea what he was going to do.

What he had in mind was to build me a box.  Yes, a customized box just for my things.  He started with a box that was clearly too small for my things but he left what would have been the lid of the box standing up, and started to tape away.  What should have been the top of the box became new walls, adding extra height to the original shape.  Once he was satisfied he reached into my bag and started to stuff everything tightly into the newly created box.  Since what should have been the lid of the box was now the four sides of the box, he had to make a new lid.  That he did by cutting to size a big piece of cardboard.  His first attempt was a bit too big so he shave some here and cut some off there.  His second attempt yielded a lid that was so clearly smaller and uneven that I thought he would start over again.  I was wrong.  He put that piece of cardboard on top of my things and he made it work as a lid by squeezing the gaps close and taping them up.

My package!

Here I am squatting next to some Indian guy who just made a misshapen box out of some cardboard and tape, in disbelief and laughing that this is how my things will travel across the globe to get to my parents’ house in America.  I should have had more faith because he wasn’t finished.

Wrapping and sewing...

He opened a drawer and took out some muslin.  What was he going to do with this?  He wrapped the box with it, of course.  Not only did he wrap the box with muslin, he proceeded to thread a needle and expertly sewed the sides shut in beautiful stitches.  In a blink of an eye a gorgeous box wrapped in crisp white cloth was sitting there in front of me.  He moved so fast that my photos of him working all came out blurry!

Finally the lady behind the counter gave me a form to fill out (four identical forms I had to write out four separate times) and then I was sent outside to obtain some glue.  The glue they were referring to was a bluish white paste that was in a steel tray on a desk, in the courtyard of the post office.  I had to use my fingers to get some of the glue paste then smear enough of the it on the back of one of the forms to affix on the side of my package.  Done.  Then they handed me a black marker to write out my parents’ address on the box (twice).  OK, what next?  Weigh the box.  4.7 kg.  The lady behind the counter then furiously typed and I watched.  A few minutes later she demanded that I hand over 1,610 rupees.  1,560 rupees (~$35 USD) for postage and 50 rupees (~$1 USD) for all the work my guy did to prepare the package.  I turned around to look for my Indian McGuyver but he was already gone.  I happily paid the lady and handed me a print out of my receipt.

Only in India, right?

They told me it would take a month for it to reach America but I now know that my box has arrived at its destination.  It definitely was a long and involved process, but it summed up for me so much of what I have been witnessing and experiencing everyday in this country.  You need patience and time, but with India’s creativity and ingenuity everything is possible here.

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