One of the things I’ve taken to doing while traveling on long journeys is occasionally mailing myself parcels from wherever I’m at. While traveling in Europe, North America, Asia, and other parts of the world, one often accumulates…stuff. And rather than lug an increasingly precariously-stuffed suitcase around it sometimes becomes more profitable – at least from the comfort and ease of travel perspective – to simply mail yourself a box of things home, instead of risking the structural integrity of your suitcase during that next border run.
And normally, it’s not too difficult to do. My experiences have all been fairly easy. France has a superb universal rate for international parcels (yay government subsidies!), Germany has eminently reasonable rates, Austria…is a bit annoying…but by and large it’s become part of my mode of travel during lengthy extended journeys. I’ve even tried it in Japan, although that story is fodder for an essay in and of itself.
So while sojourning in North Cyprus, and a day before heading off to Istanbul, I figured I’d undertake just such a mission. I’d never mailed a parcel in North Cyprus before, but I figured how hard could it be?
Well, that’s what I was about to find out.
The manager of the hostel I was staying at gave me directions to the post office, a large yellow building just across from the main square where the dolmus (a hybridized mini-van which serves as a sort of rough-and-tumble bus system in North Cyprus) dropped me off in downtown Kyrenia (Girne to the Turks. I never quite knew which name to use although whichever name I used was invariably the wrong one in the wrong situation at the wrong time).
The building looked friendly enough however: the door was propped open and a large hand-painted sign beckoned “Open!” in English (with a great deal of Turkish beneath it: qualifiers I hoped did not apply to me).
I stepped inside. There was a wall of quite high counters, behind which various post office staff were seated. I approached the first one that appeared open, smiling quite broadly. They say a smile is the universal sign for peace and friendship, and it’s something I’ve tried to adhere to. A fellow sat behind the high counter, busily stamping things. He didn’t look up at me but intoned – albeit quite tonelessly – something in Turkish.
“Er…hello,” I said.
Without even looking at me he lifted a hand and waved it vaguely toward his right. He yelled the name ‘Ozan!”
On the other side of the office, a pink bald head peeked up from behind a counter. Ozan was tall and thin, with small bespectacled eyes and a mighty Ottoman moustache. I assumed Ozan was the resident staff English-speaker.
Ozan waved his hand vaguely in the air. I walked over.
“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to mail a parcel.”
“Yes.” Ozan acknowledged tonelessly.
“Er, do you sell boxes?”
I must admit it caught me off guard. I suppose years of mailing parcels while traveling throughout Europe and North America had inured me to the possibility a post office might not sell a postal box. Indeed, I’d started to become somewhat self-conscious in North America while using boxes not purchased at the post office I was mailing them at. This was a whole new scenario.
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Do you know somewhere nearby I could buy one?”
He shrugged. “Some store perhaps.”
Ozan, I was beginning to realize, had a knack for pointing out the obvious. And little else.
And thus began a quest I hadn’t expected to undertake that morning: a search for…a box. I immediately revisited some of the tourist shops I’d already been at; the ones whose staff I remembered as speaking friendly old English. The following pattern developed: at each one I’d pop in, say hello, buy a post card or some small item, and then casually mention my dilemma. “I’m trying to mail a box, only the post office doesn’t sell them. They thought I might be able to get one at some local shop. Do you have any suggestions?” I hoped the implication was clear yet indirect enough: PLEASE GIVE ME A BOX! Yet at each one, the staff would look troubled for a few moments, and then painfully admit: “No.”
“No?” I would sigh, with exaggerated agony, while eyeing the empty boxes behind the counter quite enviously.
“No,” they would affirm. “Perhaps…some shop.”
I hoped the local stationary stores would prove promising, but they did not sell them either. Even the ones with full wall shelves of mailing supplies: envelopes of all sizes, parcel bags, packing tape, etc.
“Boxes?” I would ask hopefully, and the staff would invariably stare at me in shock, as though I’d asked for pancakes and maple syrup. “No!” they would dramatically affirm. I began to wonder whether people mailed boxes at all around here (I knew they did: the post office shelves had been stacked high with meticulously wrapped crates of all sizes. Yet apparently nobody actually sold boxes. I would perhaps have to go into business as a grocer or bartender in order to get the item I so urgently needed).
Finally I decided a compromise was in order. I would abandon my efforts to mail a box, and would mail a large envelope instead. I picked the largest envelope I could find. It was quite larger than the sort of box I’d envisioned. Unsure how much weight it would hold, I also purchased the second-largest envelope, just in case that proved more manageable. The stationary store staff nodded approvingly. I was apparently adapting.
Back at the post office, I went to the tables set up for customers to use and began packing my envelope. Ozan was off to one side, and occasionally observed my activity. Once the envelope was as full as seemed judiciously wise, I sealed it, but the seal seemed quite flimsy. I looked over at Ozan.
“Do you have any tape?” I asked. He stared for a few moments at my loosely sealed envelope, and then silently handed me over a roll of packing tape. I proceeded to very meticulously seal up the envelope, cognizant it would need to be secure to travel half the world. With the task completed, and feeling quite satisfied with myself, I turned around to Ozan and handed him the envelope, along with the packing tape he’d given me.
He took the envelope, and stared at it in horrified shock.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“My package?” I replied.
“But…I must control it!”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Er…ok?”
“No no no! I must control! I am the controller!”
I was at a loss for words.
“The envelope must be OPEN so I can control it!”
I continued staring back at him blankly.
“What is inside? We control it at the point of departure!”
I began to understand. Customs control…apparently taking place at the post office. I suppose it made a degree of sense. What didn’t make sense was why he’d assisted me in sealing up my package before he had controlled it.
“I must open it?” I asked, somewhat incredulously.
“Yes.” His flat tone brooked no compromise. I stared wistfully at my meticulous taping job, uncertain where or how to begin.
As nonchalantly as he had handed me the packing tape, Ozan then handed me over the counter a small knife. He then looked heavenward as though pleading for patience, and went back to stamping things.
With little alternative – and great relief that I’d purchased two envelopes – I proceeded to butcher my sealing tape job. Once I had the package torn open, I handed it sadly over to Ozan. He took it officiously. He peeked inside, and pulled out the first item: a jar of Turkish tea, wrapped in gift wrap.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“Tea,” I replied. He stared at me suspiciously. He then took the knife, and proceeded to slice off the gift wrap. Out came the jar of tea. He stared at it closely, and shook it a bit. He would have opened it, but there was plastic wrap sealing it shut.
“Where was this sealed?” he demanded. From his grip on the knife I knew he was seconds away from slicing into the tea itself. He apparently would not be satisfied until he’d smelled and tasted it.
“Here!” I replied. “It’s local. It’s a gift.”
He spun the knife appraisingly for a few moments, and put down the tea. He proceeded, however, to conduct the same inspection of my remaining items. He also appeared to disapprove heartily of my shopping choices, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and muttering at the tea and candy alike. Finally he appeared satisfied – albeit begrudgingly – and put them all back in the envelope. Interestingly I was not required to fill out any itemized list of contents like one does in Europe and North America: having ‘controlled’ the package himself, it was apparently considered redundant. Truth be told this system makes a whole lot more sense than our North American honour system – from the point of view of a determined controller – but I just wish he’d told me before he’d helped me seal up the package.
Either way, he produced his roll of packing tape and proceeded once more to seal up my package. He was quite good at it and far more thorough than I’d been. I got the impression Ozan was used to controlling quite a bit.
Task accomplished, he set down the package on the scale. His eyes narrowed and his moustache twitched. I could tell something was about to be wrong.
“Is it ok?” I asked.
“No.” he replied.
The woman next to him – who’d been watching half-entertained – asked him a question in Turkish, to which he replied, also in Turkish. Then he turned to me. “It’s too heavy,” he said.
“It’s not allowed?”
“It’s not affordable.”
‘Dear goodness’, I thought. How much could it actually be? I’d expected it would be a bit pricey, but still…
“That’s ok,” I said. “How much is it?”
“No,” he said. “I cannot let you. It is too expensive.”
I was beginning to find it difficult to figure out whose side Ozan was on. It seemed that, having controlled me, he now had my best interests at heart…and yet I really really wanted to mail my package.
“It is over two kilos,” he eventually explained. “Over two kilos means a different rate. Too expensive.”
I was at a loss for words. It was becoming an all too common state of affairs.
Then his eyes fell on my other envelope, which I’d set aside on the counter. His eyebrows and moustache arched.
“We will send two packages,” he announced.
“Two?” I said.
“Yes. Two is more affordable than one.”
Knowing what I do of the vagaries of international post, it actually made sense, in the nonsensical way international postal rates do. “Er…ok!” I agreed. I seemed to have little choice.
Out came the knife, and the package was sliced open yet again. Then between us we divvied the items out into two packages. Ozan took charge of sealing one, while I sealed and addressed the new envelope. It appeared to be teamwork…after a fashion.
Packages sealed, he then weighed them again. He nodded approvingly. I began to feel hope. My package – now plural – might be mailed after all.
Indeed, it was all easygoing from there. Ozan – whose mood had been steadily improving – portioned out the stamps (real, old-fashioned stamps!) and handed them to me.
“I put them on?” I asked. He nodded.
“YOU must put them on. Only you.”
This too somewhat pleased me. I’ve always liked stamps and always felt a bit let-down when postal staff in North America stamp an ugly black ink stamp on the package without even asking. In fact the last time I asked for stamps to put on a parcel the Canadian post office had refused! Stamps are apparently only permitted for letters any more in Canada.
I licked the stamps and stuck them on. I handed the packages back to Ozan. He took them and placed them on the table behind him. And then, for the first time since we had met, he cracked a short grin.
“Bye bye!” he announced. I was by now getting used to this at shops, where “bye bye!” usually accompanies the handing over of the receipt, rather than ‘thank you’ as in North America.
“Bye bye!” I grinned back. Then I decided to push my luck.
“Er…do you know how long it will take for the packages to arrive? Roughly?”
Ozan grinned into his moustache as though suppressing a laugh.
“A week? 10 days?”
“Oh good!” I replied. Better than I’d expected.
“Two weeks?” Ozan continued. I nodded: acceptable.
“Maybe three,” he mused, looking off toward the clock. “Possibly four.”
“Maybe more,” he finally concluded. “You know how it is.”
I nodded. I was beginning to discover how it was.
Well, my packages were sent, and perhaps with good fortune – and Ozan’s skilled taping – the thrice-sliced-open one would make it back to North America. Eventually. Either way, I had navigated my first post office in North Cyprus. The rituals were different, but no less arcane than those in North America. One of these days I might write a guide to mailing parcels around the world.
But right now, I waved at Ozan, and stepped back out into sunny Cyprus, pack feeling ever so much lighter on my back.