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]