Sunday, March 02, 2008

A visit to Maktab Al Bareed: the post office

I needed to mail some postcards and a letter, so walked to the post office today. This is the same post office I visited spring last year. It has a special memory for me as the clerk took a sizable tip from me during that first visit. I gave her a LE 20 note for LE 12 worth of stamps. She only returned LE 3.5, keeping LE 4.5 or about 75 cents.

When I arrive, I see three men in front of me. There is no clerk to help them. Two men are at a table counting money. A third man sits to the side of the table, but is not busy. All three men are smoking cigarettes. A fourth man sits on the other side of the office, but runs out to get tea. No one wears a postal uniform. In fact, everyone is dressed casually. I stand patiently behind the group of three men. Waiting. Five minutes pass. Then 10 minutes. A young Egyptian lady walks into the post office. She goes to another window and asks for service. They ignore her. She asks again. One of the clerks tells her to wait. She looks annoyed, but resigned. Another man walks in. He asks for service. They ignore him. He asks again and this time, the man who is counting money yells at him in a stern tone. I don’t understand any of it. I can only imagine that he said something like, “I’m counting money. I”ll get to you when I’m done. Calm down, man!”

A few more minutes pass. I take out a piece of paper and began to write down some words from the wall that look like interesting vocabulary that I can show my tutor in the morning. I already recognize the sign for mail and package. I look at my watch. It’s been 15 minutes since I’ve walked in. Still no service. Finally, a clerk goes to the other window and tries to help the young lady. She wants to send a poster. After she’s done, I greet him with “Izayak, ya Basha!” Or “How are you, Pasha?” Basha is the Egyptian word for Pasha, the Ottoman Turkish title for the leader of the Empire. In other words, it is a remnant of the colonial era, but a very respectful, although playful title for clerks and blue collar workers. I ask for two post card stamps to America and one local stamp. He opens up the stamp book, but then tells me that I need to go to the parcel window. Strange. I’m at the proper window, but he tells me to go to the other line. No Matter. I’ve learned that one should never argue with a government worker.

I walk three feet over to the other window. I buy my stamps, place them onto the envelope and post cards. I leave them on the counter and check with the clerk to see if it’s alright. He tells me that I need to drop it off into the mailbox – outside the post office. I do as told. I look at my watch again. It’s been 20 minutes since I stepped into the office to buy three stamps. Two words that a friend used to describe Egypt last year come to my mind as I leave for my afternoon walk to downtown: needlessly inefficient.

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