Postcards From the Edge

This is still a pencil blog, but I’m aware that a certain travelogue-like vibe has crept in these past few months, on account of my having moved to a pretty exotic place which I’m still discovering for myself. But I do try to stick to the subject, and while I would love to comment on the awesome chivito that I had yesterday or the fresh eggs wrapped in newspaper at the Saturday open-air market, I do my best to rein in the impulse. But the mystery surrounding the postal system in this country merits some discussion, especially since the post, if you think of it, is an important public service that helps sustain our various analogue activities. If one were to talk about an infrastructure necessary for the culture of writing by hand to flourish, which in turn sustains the well-being of the stationery industry (at least in part), surely the post would occupy a significant place. In addition, it brings those small delights from around the world to our doorstep. But after five months in Uruguay, I’m asking myself: how is it possible for such an essential service to be so invisible?

When we first arrived, one of the things that struck me was the absence of post offices in the city. You could ride a bus for thirty minutes, an hour, and not see a single post office. I’ve lived in big cities for most of my life, where post offices are as a rule very visible, and never far away. The lack was such that I began to wonder whether “Tiempost” was the national postal carrier – it wasn’t, it was just a private courier service. I wanted to send some postcards upon my arrival in a new country, and thought that if there weren’t any post offices nearby, I could maybe buy some stamps or get some from my husband’s office, and put them in a postbox. But that wasn’t so easy either: there were no shops selling stamps or processing the post on behalf of the postal service (as is the practice in many other countries – drugstores, convenience stores, etc.) apart from the post offices proper.* Moreover, there was not a single postbox to be seen on the streets. Even after five months I have yet to see one. On top of that it took me quite a while just to get hold of some postcards! This is the first country where I have had to hunt these things down with such single-minded determination. I found them at last in a bookstore, not a souvenir shop, where the accordion-folded packs were stored well away from the customer’s eye and looked like they hadn’t sold for quite some time. 

 Even the Bradt guide on Uruguay, which claims to be “the only dedicated English-language guide to this small but characterful country”, comments, “Uruguayans don’t seem to use the postal service much”. This is really a mystery, since internet banking doesn’t seem widely developed or used, and bills still arrive in the post. (On the other hand, online shopping doesn’t seem widespread either, which would obviate the need to develop delivery services further… or is it the very lack of such services that hobble the development of e-commerce?) In an era where post carriers around the world have had to adapt to new realities in order to survive, Correo Uruguayo seems to hang on by offering only the minimum of services. A Google map search brings up less than ten branches in Montevideo, a city of 1.3 million, and most are small and tucked away in the middle of nowhere except for a large building up north where the customs office is housed within, and where they hold packages from abroad hostage and ransom them for exorbitant amounts (sorry, I’ve been there, I had to say this :(). I’ve spotted real postmen in the street once or twice but have never seen a postal van. It is a mystery how things get delivered at all. I wonder if this situation is unique to Uruguay, or is South America as a whole more or less similar?

All this makes me appreciate the post back home so much more. The Korean postal system is cheap, fast, reliable, and delivers on Saturdays too. The Japanese system costs a bit more but is just as efficient. I liked the Canada Post offices (or Postes Canada, in Quebec), with its pleasant interiors, maple-leaf-patterned packaging tape and seasonal stamps featuring Canadian celebrities and hockey players, but they were very expensive. (Despite charging such high fees, they were chronically short of funds, and at a point announced the cessation of home deliveries altogether – all mail to be delivered to a communal locker outside. Well, of course the lockers froze over in the winter and there were stories of people trying to get their mail by pouring antifreeze on the locks. I could go on and on with the Canadian snow and ice stories but I will stop here :))

So, the point of this post is to say the postal system here is weird, but I’ve finally figured it out and won’t let it get in my way. Correo Uruguayo here I come!

*The Bradt guide says some pharmacies with the Correo sign outside sells stamps, but so far I’ve never seen one with any such sign, and even if I found a pharmacy that sold stamps I would have to go to the post office anyway to post the letters. [sigh]

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6 thoughts on “Postcards From the Edge

  1. I started to work as a postman in Correo Uruguayo six months ago. I have some things to note. In my area we deliver the mail in motorbikes, also little packages (less than 1 kg). In six months I delivered no more than ten, yes 10, postcards. We deliver mostly bills: electricty, water, phone. All state owned. You can pay this bill online if you wish, and many of them are sent by e-mail if requested. So in a few years my job will dissapear. Or not, may be the traffic of little packages with cheap chinese things will keep growing up and up. For a total population of 3.5 million people we are less than 1000 postmen, on foot, bycicle or motorcycle. We are a state owned company but not a monopoly, as you have seen we have lots of competitors. However, no one of them covers the whole country as we do. Finally, if you want to know more about Correo Uruguayo here is the official website:http://correo.com.uy/ (we have lots of vans, Mercedes Benz and Peugeot. Also we deliver on Saturdays)

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    1. Wow!! Thank you for your comment!! How did you find this blog? I think yours is the most surprising reply I received in two years of blogging. I mean, what are the chances of a real postman replying to you?! I really appreciate your insider’s point of view and please feel free to comment on any other Uruguay-related post. Are you anywhere near Punta Gorda? :)

      It is indeed regrettable to hear you handle so few pieces of personal mail (don’t Uruguayans write Christmas cards, even?), but I don’t think downsizing more and more is the answer. Postal services in some countries offer banking and insurance services alongside traditional mail delivery. In our case, FTA agreements with other countries mean more packages from abroad arriving by the day; also, people may not write letters that much anymore but send boxes of fruit and other gifts (most notably kimchi) to friends and relatives in time for various seasonal festivities. The volume of traffic keeps the postal service and other private entities busy, but it probably helps that people have a favorable view of the national post compared to other private couriers – it just seems more reliable, and, yes, they cover the whole country as yours does.

      Perhaps it is a futile exercise to try to figure out why people do or do not do certain things in a certain country, but what is certain is that there has to be some effort to stimulate the demand. For example, the Japanese are great writers of postcards. People send off hundreds of New Year’s postcards (nengajo) in December, and many also send midsummer greetings (“how are you doing during these dog days of summer?”) in August. All this activity keeps stationers and makers of brush pens and printers happy – the latter because many people create their own postcard-format nengajo. The Japanese postal service does its best to foster that demand, and customizable postcards with the appropriate postage are available in packs, delivered straight to your home. They also run a New Year’s lottery program in which the numbers printed on the postcards are entered. The prizes are not lavish, 1st prize is only a thousand dollars or so and most get stamp packs, but this is one of those many Japanese “traditions” that probably started out as a brazen commercial effort and ended up as something people look forward to every year. It would be great to see an initiative like that here – maybe Suarez could help out? ;)

      And thank you for the link – I’ve already been there many times trying to figure out the import regime. My gripe is with the customs office and not the Correo in this case – I found out that I don’t qualify for the annual $200 tax exemption because I’m a foreigner (meaning I don’t have a CI number). I’ve resigned myself to coughing up 60% of the value of the merchandise every time (but, to be fair, I think they let some small packages through). I’ll keep an eye out for the Benz vans, thanks for telling me :)

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  2. Ow, that sucks! I love receiving postcards and letters in the mail all the time. I can’t imagine having to hunt down such an essential service. I guess different cultures are different :) If you ever feel like getting a postcard from Canada to brighten up your day, let me know, I’d be happy to send you one.

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    1. Hello Canada!! So nice to see your comment :) Thank you for the greeting and yes, I’ll let you know when I start missing you guys. Just don’t forget to scent the card with a few drops of maple syrup ;)

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experience with the postal system there so far! A real head scratcher but who am I to judge? Hope it doesn’t get any weirder for you. And how amazing is this thing called interwebs? I guess you never know what’s going to happen!

    You know, I’ve gotten postcards from Japan with lottery numbers and it always makes me jealous I can’t participate.. 😅

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    1. I’ve never managed to win anything either – but I know, the numbers seem so promising, don’t they? And I think it’s neat that you get to participate with the numbers on the cards other people sent you and not what you bought yourself.
      Towards the end of my stay there I started getting e-cards, carefully timed to arrive on New Year’s Day, and for all I know they may have gotten more popular. Still, nothing beats the original postcards (bound together with rubber bands for each address)!

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