Did Someone Say “General Delivery”?

When traveling in far away—often underdeveloped—countries and out of the way places, it is always a great pleasure to receive mail from home. Amazingly, mail delivery is truly world-wide, even though sometimes very unorthodox, with few exceptions.

A brilliant example was one envelope that followed me half-way through the South Sea and caught up with me after a month or two.

It all started on my round-the-world trip in Tahiti, French Polynesia. This was our first stop in a series of island stops that would lead us across the southern Pacific Ocean. We didn’t enjoy our stay on the French Polynesian islands as much as anticipated. Therefore, we changed our flight date and continued the trip earlier than planned.

Before leaving Switzerland, we had given a detailed list with travel dates to our family members, so that they could plan their letters to us. Now, this would already be changed and it would be hard to let those at home know in time.

So we went to the post office and filled out a “change of address” form, from “General Delivery” in Tahiti, to “General Delivery” in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. We were hoping to like it and stay longer there, and that the mail would catch up with us.

But since we got to the Cook Islands “too early”, we found ourselves in the tail end of the monsoon season, and moved on. Again, we filled out the change of address form at the local post office.

Our trip continued through several more islands in the South Sea. But for various reasons, we never stayed long enough for the mail to catch up with us. Finally, in Auckland, New Zealand, I received a tattered letter that had stamps from all the places we’ve been traveling through. It had followed me all the way, from island to island, until I finally received it.

Another—different—story happened at the general post office of Denpasar, Bali. We inquired if they had any “General Delivery” mail addressed to us. The clerk wanted to see our ID and tried to decipher our names. As strange as their language is to us, as strange must ours and our names be to them. Overwhelmed, he handed us several hefty stacks of envelopes and made us understand that we could search for our mail ourselves.

It took us almost an hour to sift through all the envelopes. I was amazed at the sheer quantity of mail waiting for their addressees. And—of course—I wondered if others had sifted through our mail, and if no one was ever tempted to take envelopes that weren’t theirs. Because… when we were done, we just smiled at the clerk and left. No one asked us if and what we had taken, and if any piece of mail we’d picked from the stack was actually addressed to us.

As strange as this may seem, there are worse countries.
When I was in Zaire (now named Republic of Congo), it was simply impossible to send a letter to or from this African country. I heard stories of whole rooms in a warehouse filled with mail. I heard that if somebody knew they had mail, they would be let into the warehouse and they could sift through an astronomical amount of mail. (I had nightmarish visions of climbing mountains of mail, trying to read all the names on the envelopes, for weeks, months, years… and never find the right one.)

As far as I know, no one wanted to even attempt to find their mail.
Instead, people would try to locate somebody who was traveling to and from the countries of interest, and persuade that person to carry their mail.

When I traveled from Switzerland to Kinshasa, and then back again, I had each time several envelopes in my luggage, to be forwarded or handed over upon arrival in the correct country.
I don’t know if things have improved after the demise of the notorious dictator Mobutu.

All in all, I’m still astonished at how well international mail works. It is a great invention and even now, the internet and e-mail haven’t completely replaced this remarkable postal organization.


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