The moment I saw the letter I knew I was doomed. It was thick and full of stamped signatures and Sri Lankan government logos.
It had come from the Postmaster General and it smelled like bureaucracy. It was the kind of letter that means long line ups, awkward conversations in broken English and lots of sweat.
Resisting the urge to toss the letter away and forget I had ever seen it, I reluctantly started to make my way through the English version of the letter (provided in triplicate of course).
Apparently the Grand Poobah of Postal Workers had intercepted a suspicious package addressed to me. In order to get this shady piece of mail, I had to go down to the Central Post Office in person during business hours (9 to 12 or 1 to 3:30), present this letter and watch as a postal employee opened the package for all to see. And, for every day they held the package, I would be charged 40 rupees. Obviously, it takes big money to store all these seized items.
Thinking there must be an easier way, I took the letter down to our patient and knowledgeable neighbours to get their take. Surely you could just call a number or email someone to get this taken care of. What about people who had to work?
Calmly (and correctly) our neighbours informed me that actually going down in person was the easiest way. You could send a letter back to the Poobah, but the chances of ever seeing your package via that route were extremely slim. And, the 40 rupees would continue to mount.
As my afternoon off work evaporated around me, I suddenly felt a surge of determination and focus to complete this mission. I was going to get this package – whatever it was – even if it meant wasting an entire day in a post office hell. Armed with the letter, directions and fresh sweat rags, I headed off on the 190 bus to parts unknown.
Here’s a chronological look at what happened next:
12:48 – Get off the bus at Union Place. Wander around asking people where this Foreign Parcel Post Office Pickup was located. Eventually I am directed to a post office, but when I present the ominous letter, the man shakes his head and points out the door. Through his disgust, he mumbles something about Lake House. I know where that is!
1:04 – While I know where Lake House is, I have no idea how to get there from where I am. I decide to try a three-wheeler and lucky enough he knows where the Poobah resides.
1:15 – We arrive at the Central Post Office and my driver offers to wait for me until I’m done. I show him the letter thinking he’ll immediately be scared off by the obviously long wait ahead of me/him. He’s obviously never had a parcel seized because he doesn’t blink at the letter. He wants to wait. Poor man.
1:19 – I’m directed to the second floor where a giant counter with large glass divides the room into two. On one side are about 50 postal workers, only 3 of which are visibly doing any work. On the other side, about 40 poor saps like me – mostly Sri Lankan – patiently waiting to hopefully get their hands on their parcel before the whole operation shuts down at 3:30.
1:25 – I find out that I need to get a ‘now serving’ number from some angry looking man in the centre of the room. This part feels very much like the “Soup Nazi” episode from Seinfeld. You have to have your form filled out perfectly or you are tossed out of line and not given a number. I get tossed out of line.
1:35 – Confident my form is filled out correctly (in triplicate), I get back in line and mercifully I am given a number – 109. Time to wait.
1:40 – I take a seat next to an older man who I just saw arguing with the workers behind the counter. He asks me where I am from and then starts to tell me the way I hold a pen is incorrect. Thanking him for the tip, I ask whether he thinks he will get his package today or not. He finds this very funny, and in between guffaws, he says yes, of course.
He then gets called back up to the counter to continue the argument about his package. (I never did see if this confident, almost cocky, man actually ever did get his package.)
1:50 – I notice the lady beside me has number 102 – only seven ahead of me. Maybe this won’t take too long, I think.
2:00 – Only one person has been called up in 10 minutes. I start to figure out the process of how this whole thing works – one guy calls out the number, one guy takes the person’s letter, one guy gets the package from the back, one guy opens the package, one guys accepts the money, one guy moves the package from one guy to the next and one guy eventually hands the package to its owner.
The only thing they all do – look at what’s inside everyone’s package! It’s the perfect profession for a peeping Tom.
This process wouldn’t be so bad if all these guys were doing their assigned task immediately after the next, but they don’t. Each guy takes about 7 minutes in between performing their one task. It was painful and hilarious, all at the same time.
2:05 – My number is called, even though the lady with 102 is still sitting there (never did see if her number was called). Obviously, their ‘now serving’ system needs some work. I hand my letter over to the Letter Taking Guy and am told to sit back down. His job is done for another 7 minutes.
2:15 – I am called back up and am shown a package at a distance from behind the glass. The Man Who Talks to People Guy asks me, “Is this your package?” I reply, “I have no idea. I can’t see the address, and besides someone else has sent it to me. I didn’t send it to myself.” The irony of this is lost on the guy and my answer seems to satisfy him. I am told to sit down after the obligatory small talk about Canada and wanting to visit someday.
2:35 – The Ripping Open the Package Guy is finally ready to have at my mail. As all the Guys stop what they’re doing and huddle around, it becomes so quiet you can hear someone getting a paper cut in the back. The tape gives way and the bounty is revealed – 5 pairs of underwear, some liquid hand soap, ant killer, Twizzlers and Starbucks coffee – a birthday gift from my parents sent in September.
One of the Guys actually lets out a disappointing groan.
“Ah, gifts from home. This is allowed. There will be a small fee, of course,” says the Talking Guy with a smile. I am told to sit down.
3 p.m. – Time is ticking and I still don’t have the package in my hands. A strangely familiar man suddenly appears before me – my three-wheel driver!
“Taking a long time sir,” says the driver.
“No shit,” I think.
I apologize, pay him and send him on his way. It looks like I’m going to finish this mission on my own.
3:05 p.m. – I get called to pay. My bill comes to 424 rupees ($4) – an assortment of taxes, and storage and handling fees. I happily produce 500 rupees with the apparent end in sight.
“No change?,’ asks the man. I laugh and say, “Keep the change, just let me the hell out of here.”
This produces a laugh from the other sympathetic civilians still waiting- quite possibly the first time a Sri Lankan has ever laughed at a joke of mine. Strangely and quite fittingly, in this post office hell, I have become one of them. I am Sri Lankan.
Unaware of the transformation that just occurred before him and amazed at his good fortune, the Money Guy asks, “Really, I can keep the change?”
3:15 p.m. – I am called over to the Package Handing Over Guy and am presented with my box of underwear and coffee. I victoriously raise it over my head and give it a kiss. I was hoping for a cheer from the crowd, but that would have been too much. A few smiles and nods is all that I get – a fittingly Sri Lankan response as I walk out into the hot sun and jump on a bus.
The adventure is over. My mission was complete.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Enjoy your day.