You've Got Mail... If You're Lucky

Posted: 26 March 2013
Category: Features Comments View Comments


There are serious costs attached to keeping things old school on a trip to the post office to mail some letters, such as being harassed by a belly button.

You've Got Mail... If You're LuckyIt is a normal afternoon in Windhoek, Namibia. That means it is 30 degrees Celsius in the shade and certain death anywhere else. The sky is blue and devoid of clouds - they might have scattered for fear of being indicted as accomplices to the murderous heat that radiates from every surface. The city traffic is languid; most holidaymakers have escaped Windhoek and headed down to the cooler Swakopmund coast for the December holidays. Those who are possessed of a preternatural love for their extended families have braved even worse heat and a more robust species of mosquito by travelling to the north. I, on the other hand, find myself standing in a queue at the post office.

Obviously, being in a queue is not how I envisioned myself spending the holidays but, this being Africa, it is nigh impossible to go any distance or do anything without winding up in some kind of queue. The circumstances that prompt my current predicament are simple but, apparently, oddly antiquated in the present times: I have 40 letters to send to various friends around the world.

I send letters regularly throughout the year but December is the busiest time. When I am home for the holidays (I study at the University Of Cape Town, in South Africa) I break my year-end routine of gorging on literature, naps that can only be undone by true love's first kiss, home-cooked meals, and squabbling sibling rivalry by writing to a shortlisted group of human beings who make my time on Earth particularly memorable. The well-behaved ones receive a card or some kind of souvenir. The ones who possess the awesome gene receive T-shirts or books, and a letter - not the wish-you-all-the-best-with-your-future-endeavours kind that is typed and signed, a handwritten one, written using my special letter-writing fountain pen (I have one, it is called Peter Parker *cough*) on generic notepad paper made more special by the effort I have made to track it down in Windhoek's small selection of stationery stores.

They are letters in the purest sense of the word: they carry whatever thoughts I may have at the time of writing. They may have spelling and grammatical errors. Most of all, they lack the immediacy and the carefully edited, controlled tone that some of my emails possess; they are personal. The 40 letters in my hand were written over a period of two or three weeks. Some are short stories that I serialise and send to friends whenever the mood takes me, some are nothing more than thank-you notes to close friends for being around in troubled times, and some are Christmas cards. I send local postcards to a few recipients and original photographs I have taken to others. Regardless, with each one, I have taken the time to write whatever it is I want to tell my correspondent as honestly as possible. No letter or card is the same.

You've Got Mail... If You're Lucky

Once they are finally written all that remains is to survive the last hurdle: the queue.

The municipal queue, my particular predicament, is native to all parts of Africa. It can be found in any government building where words such as efficiency" and "service delivery" are plastered on every available centimetre not taken up by garish posters outlining the office's vision and mission, which, more often than not, have spelling errors in them. This kind of queue is long, snaking all the way from the sporadically manned service counters and looping in mesmerising and confusing circles like some ancient folk dance before vanishing into the sun-baked infinity of tarmac and pavement outside the building. The queue I find myself in, the one that will take me to stamp-buying glory is, unfortunately, such a one.

The line is so long that time is distorted along its length. This is the kind of queue you do not enter unless you have your affairs in order. I did not even get to kiss my mother goodbye.

The man behind me is standing so close his beer belly rubs against my lower back whenever the queue shuffles an inch forward. Ordinarily, my back would be protected from harassment by my backpack but I forgot it at home on this occasion. Returning home for the December holidays numbed the survival instincts I honed in Cape Town. If people in South Africa lack a basic understanding of the concept of personal space, Namibians seem to be completely offended by the concept. They frown upon any gap, however small, that forms between people in a queue. We are sandwiched together, zippers poking buttocks, buttons biting into back - sardine cans are sprawling, luxury condos compared to the queue I am in.

In short, my situation justifies any argument that anyone might raise in favour of email communication.

So why persist in sending letters?

Despite the dying tradition, I enjoy letter writing. The feel of pens gliding on paper, dating letters, and then waiting for them to arrive at their destination at some unknown future date is a thrill that email cannot deliver. I have been enamoured with letters since I sent my first one, back in the fourth grade, when we were required to write a Christmas letter to our parents. To help us understand what happened to our mail once we put it in the postbox our class was taken on a field trip behind the counters and to the sorting rooms where letters were handled and sorted according to their various destinations and delivery methods: airmail in one giant box, land couriers in another. It was all done manually, and quickly. I got to see my letter being sorted along with the other local mail before being stacked into a bin that would be picked up the following day. It was impressive.

Since that day I have been drawn to letter writing, maintaining correspondence with friends in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, the US, the UK, Brazil, and Singapore throughout primary school. At some point, fuelled by the various letters I received, I dabbled in philately, collecting stamps from all of my pen pals. The oldest one I have is a 1939 square someone sent me from the Ukraine. At the height of my pen-pal correspondence my friends and I were sending each other things one would barely believe could fit inside an envelope.

During high school, in the early 2000s, email addresses started catching on - everyone had a ludicrously named address at Yahoo! (which was pretty big back then) or Hotmail (which sounded really cool if your address was something such as Trips to the post office became rarer and rarer.

Emails had the inside edge. They were instantaneous and, because you could send as many as you wanted, you could send messages piecemeal. Best of all, you could copy and paste the same message and recycle your words, thoughts, and emotions to as many people as you wanted. All that was necessary was a few tweaks here and there and you had to remember to search for "Michael" and replace him with "Jane". If you were really lazy you could send those dreadful "Dear All" messages that seem to be the rage these days with any bureaucratic structure.

What would once be written as one long narrative, full of creative figures of speech and colourful, entertaining language became a series of staccato hellos and promises to chat or write a longer response when time was available - details came later, if at all. Everything was short and direct. For a while I made the effort to construct paragraphs, introductions, bodies, and conclusions but, slowly, even I began to give up on writing since people would reply with "LOL"s. At some point I became the only one who bothered to write anything more than 10 lines and even that was classified as a long read. Emails became purely administrative.

By the time I reached university, in 2007, Standard Bank was my sole written correspondent. Every month I would receive a bank statement telling me how little was remaining in my bank account. I never wrote back.

However, after years of emailing, my friends and I renewed our postal correspondence two years ago. We started writing to each other again because we liked the thrill of getting something in the mail and we kept it up because we felt as though we were the keepers of a long lost art. Our BlackBerrys and iPhones are constantly abuzz with emails, Twitter notifications, and IM messages but we found a comforting unobtrusiveness from letters: they arrive when they arrive - there is no blinking red light letting you know that someone demands your attention. Opening the post office box to find something from the other side of the world is like Christmas every other day.

We write emails for the really important things that demand immediate responses but we leave letters for the life problems and the growing pains of people in their mid 20s. We tweet incessantly but we save most of our wit for topping each others' letters. Most of us have blogs and web sites and Facebook accounts but we save our best creative works for letters that are written and then mailed to far-flung corners of the Earth.

I particularly enjoy writing letters because it is akin to time travelling. I communicate from one context and place and send my finished work to another time in which the conditions of my writing may or may not still exist. Due to the time that lapses between letters I am forced to be meticulous in how I put my points across. Letter writing requires me to think of the diction I will use, how to structure my story. Most of all, it makes me think of spelling, since there is no squiggly line to warn me of a misspelling.

You've Got Mail... If You're Lucky

Somewhere at the front of the queue someone is called to a counter. In that moment he ascends to a higher form of life and is no longer homo sapiens sapiens - he is now homo served thank God. It is a state of being I am 50 people away from attaining. As the line shuffles another small inch forward I take a look at the people who approach and leave the counters. They vary from people in their early 20s right up to the elderly. They withdraw money, deposit funds, and collect pensions. No one buys stamps. Nobody is sending things off - they are all using the financial services that the Post Office has had to develop in order to stay profitable. The Namibian Post Office is now a quasi bank that offers almost as many services as a normal bank. Sending letters is archaic.

In a world in which you can press backspace as much as you want; highlight, cut, copy, paste; share links; and attach zip files of a holiday in Bali with nothing more than a "Hey, good times! LOL!" letter writing is labour intensive. In email messages you can recycle your emotions and stories. You cannot in letters. On paper, everything has to be personalised, everything is special, and everything takes time. The effort it takes to write a letter and mail it is monumental compared to composing an email. Furthermore, maintaining as diverse a correspondence as mine is exhausting - it would be easier to join Facebook and just "like" my way through people's photos and occasionally drop them a message every other lunar cycle.

If it were not for the letters I will receive in return, I would definitely say the electronic age beats standing, waiting, in a sweaty queue being poked in the back by someone's belly button while on a quest for stamps.

Tags: #arts_and_culture

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