Post Office Woes

Before I left for Vanuatu, the "On the Homefront" handbook warns family and friends of volunteers that communication in general will be difficult. No matter how many times I stress this to family and friends back home, they still don't understand.

They live in America and look at everything with their Western perspectives. I tell them that it's okay that my birthday package arrives a month later. It's okay that the bag of candy and spices they sent me arrives three months after they shipped it. I am rarely in Port Vila (where my mail is delivered), and time for us passes very differently, so instead of anxiously awaiting a package, I am pleasantly surprised when it arrives in my mailbox.

Sometimes I send letters or packages back home, and they arrive quite promptly in comparison. I think the fastest something arrived in America was three weeks. Meanwhile, packages I get here can take as little as a month or as long as...forever (the first package my parents sent me has yet to arrive).

The reality is that we're very isolated, and things are never sent directly. There are a ton of stops en route to Vanuatu, and there are often ships involved. Even once it's in country, there's a process. Other than the capital of Port Vila, mail can arrive at the post offices in the provincial centers throughout the islands (and international mail can be delivered to about 60 locations throughout Vanuatu).

My address is a PO box in Port Vila, which for me is a boat and truck ride away. When mail arrives in Vanuatu, it's sorted, then it goes through customs, and then a staff from the PC office grabs it, brings it to the office, and finally puts it in my mailbox at the PC office. Sometimes if I really badly want a package, I'll go straight to the post office with a tracking number, but often I just wait until it's brought "to me" or, rather, to the office, where always find myself when in town running errands.

Now you have a a pretty good idea of how mail works here, but here are a few anecdotes to give you an even better idea of the mail system in Vanuatu.

The post offices do not have mail bins as you see at USPS offices. Mail is often stacked in corners or ushered off into "staff only" rooms behind closed doors. Sometimes that mail is sent. Sometimes it is never seen again.

A PCV on Ambrym, Aaron, went to his local post office to drop off some mail to send to the states. He paid for postage, and he watched them stamp it and set it aside on the counter. He returned to the post office a few months later and saw they were still sitting on the counter where they were last placed.

I once sent off a stack of letters via the Port Vila post office. The cashier was completely out of stamps, but the neighboring cashier had a full binder of them. Because my cashier didn't want to interrupt his neighbor's transaction, he simply set my mail in a small pile on the floor behind his chair. I left the office, hoping for the best (I know at least some of those did arrive at their destinations).

Most customers in line at the post office are not sending mail, but instead doing Western Union money transfers. It's rare I see a local sending mail at the post office.

The Port Vila post office is in the process of moving all the PO boxes and mail services to a new location, slightly out of the city center, where it was once located. The new location does not have a mail drop box as the previous one did, so you can only drop off mail during working hours. You can also drop off your mail at the 24-hour mailboxes, but there are only three: one out of town at the airport, one on the far north end of town, and one on the far south end of town, all of which are 6-min bus rides or longer from the actual post office.

However, Vanuatu loves quirky mail boxes. There is one mailbox located on the Tanna volcano, and one located underwater near the capital, Port Vila. The latter sells special waterproof postcards at the giftshop that are about $5 to send. Neither of these, despite any pictures may lead you to believe, are manned. They are simply standalone boxes. These are both kitschy things for tourists.

Once, a large package mistakenly arrived at the PC office (the Port Vila post office dropped it off) that did not have our PO box number on it, no volunteer name, or any other indication that would even hint to being a logical delivery.

PCV Ted was stuck in Vila for a while once, and he told a fellow PCV that he would send her a post card. That's right, he was sending a postcard from Port Vila to Port Vila. It took over three months to arrive.

I have sent a couple packages domestically in Vanuatu, both to Erromango. The first was a small (under a few ounces) package to PCV Matt, in December. Then, a few months later, I sent a package to PCV Frances for her birthday. During the visit to the Vila post office to send Frances' package, I learned that, because Erromango is so small, the Vila post office doesn't even send off mail until the total quantity reaches 2 kilos or more (thus, Matt's package was still probably sitting in Vila, awaiting more mail to be sent along with it). They told me that if I wanted Frances' package to get there sooner, that I would have to pay a more expensive option for express. The express option also has "added customer service" wherein they will call Frances upon the package's arrival. See, when mail arrives in Erromango, it arrives on the plane, and it sits at the airport until Frances happens to be at the airport asking about mail. If she doesn't ask about it, it would not be delivered to her in the village. Months later, I saw Frances in person and asked if she got the package. No, she did not. I called the customer service number on the receipt. They never notified Frances, and they told me she never came to pick it up. I know I should have low expectations by now, but I argued with the women on the phone "How on earth could a person pick up a package that they never even knew arrived in the first place?!"

Stamps to send a letter to the USA used to be $1.20  (120vt) when I first arrived in Vanuatu. In a year, it's doubled to nearly $3 (300vt) per letter. It's currently $1.50 (150vt) to send a postcard. However, I often send letters with 120vt stamps and they still get to the USA without being flagged, because mail here is extremely inconsistent.

Vanuatu postage features an interesting variety of things, like pictures of Nelson Mandela, white people riding on ATVs, and advertisements for restaurants in Port Vila.

I recently had to send four identical packages to the USA as a favor to my friend Frances. They were large cylinders, about 6" in diameter and 18" long, but very light, under a kilo each. The first three I sent together, but I had to send the fourth at a later time. The first three were 1800vt each to send. When I went to send the 4th on a separate occasion, the office worker wanted to charge me nearly 6000vt ($60). No, wait, they corrected, 1800. No, wait. They looked at the parcel price list. Apparently, during my first visit, I was charged for the correct weight but for a "small parcel." Their "small parcels" range up to 2 kilos. For "large parcels" the weight begins at 2 kilos. My package was large but under 2 kilos, thus there was a debate. They couldn't agree on what to charge, despite three staff workers debating for over 15 minutes. Eventually I was charged an arbitrary amount of 3200vt.

The Lakatoro post office (on Malekula island near Norsup, the country's 3rd largest town at 3000 people) is repeatedly out of stamps.

I went to the Vila post office to get 150vt stamps because they were out of 300vt stamps (enough for a letter) and instead they gave me a couple 100vt stamps and a load of 50vt ones. Now I need three or more stamps to send a single letter.

I went, in person, to the Vila post office to send off a huge pile of Christmas cards. Here, postcards are sent in envelopes, and all of my postcard-like cards were sealed in envelopes. I paid the postage with the cashier and sent them off. Later that afternoon, the post office called the PC office (my return address indicated I was in the Peace Corps) to say they accidentally undercharged me. They told me I needed to return to the post office to pay more, because the envelopes were already sealed and they had no way of knowing that I was sending postcards or letters. I was pissed the person I talked to was changing the rules, and also I was just about to leave town to head back to site, so I had a friend Colleen go to the office and get my cards back for me (they were all stamped with 150vt stamps). About a month later, when I returned to town, I took my letters and dropped them directly into the post office box instead of going to the counter, and they were sent off, no questions asked.

I received beef jerky in one of my first care packages with no issue at was even written in the package contents. Then, in the second one that contained jerky, the contents merely specified "snacks," however, the jerky was found, and it required me to pay nearly $20 to receive it (the other option is for them to toss it in the trash for free). I paid for it. It ended up being a tiny 1-ounce snack bag. The price does not change for the quantity of jerky. Please don't send jerky.

My family paid big money (nearly $100) for a heavy package, half of the contents were various kinds of BBQ sauce and a bottle of honey. Honey is not allowed through customs, so that was immediately confiscated, and all the BBQ sauce was confiscated because ONLY ONE indicated it was "honey BBQ" flavor. That shipping cost could have been a lot less had we known what would have been tossed in the garbage.

For those of you back home sending me mail, thank you so much. The expense is high, but every care package and letter brings me (and other volunteers) great joy.


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