The Cloth Diapered Christmas Boxes

In accordance with Christmas tradition we decided to purchase gifts and send them from Nepal to friends and family.  When asking advice from other ex-pats on getting it done, we were surprised to find few people actually sent more than cards or calendars. One said “If people would like nice gifts, they can come and visit me here.” Fair enough, but lame.  We felt especially indebted to our loved ones since they had done so much to send us to Nepal, the least we could do is send them some Nepali souvenirs.

The actual shopping was fun and easy. We went up to Thamel, the touristy part of Kathmandu with shop galore. We had made a list, checked it twice, and in a couple of hours had everything crossed off.  Curiously though, none of the stores had gift boxes. Not only in Thamel, but across the city, boxes proved hard to find. This seemed suspicious as nearly everything here is packed in boxes.  It is common to see a delivery guy with about 20 boxes on the back of his bike.  None the less, when we stopped at stores to ask about used boxes the only thing people seemed to have were strange looks for us and the jumbo boxes that 360 rolls of toilet paper come in. Dave checked at the local DHL/Postal store to see if boxes could be purchased but there were none there either.  There must be boxes to mail packages in this country right?  What do the other ex-pats do when sending gifts home? Oh wait, that’s right, they don’t.  Anyway in this frantic search Hannah went to one of the mega- super-duper marts and asked for boxes. She was not be put off by the answer “no” and strange looks. After pinning one guy in a corner, trying to explain herself in halting Nepali while wagging a sack of beans at him, he finally half pointed worriedly, down the stairs.

Down stairs, was a parking garage, which didn’t appeal to our five-year old son. “Umm, I don’t think we are supposed to be here, Mom…” He mumbled.  Must find boxes!!!!, she kept looking.
“I think that man wants us to leave.” He said, a bit more energetically, as a security guard headed their way. But the boxes had been found!!  Piled against the wall in a dark corner, mixed with bits of trash was the Mecca of boxes.  Big ones, small ones, odd shaped ones. She had hit the jack-pot and our son’s anxiety hit a pinnacle as Hannah started to climb the mountain of boxes.
“MOM, WE SHOULD GO!”.  It was the first moment, as parents, we can remember publicly embarrassing our son. It kinda felt good, as if we had passed an important test in parenting school.  Hannah marched past gawking security guard with her arms full of collapsed boxes, taking him off guard by greeting him with a smile and a “Hello! how are you today” in Nepali.  No one stopped them as they exited the store and proceeded to schlep the boxes on to a public bus and bring them home.  Mission accomplished.  Almost.

After the gifts were wrapped, and the boxes packed, all we had to do was mail them. There is a chapter in the book, On The Far Side of Liglig Mountian, by Thomas Hale, dedicated to the horrors of the Nepali post system.  Thirty years ago, ex-pats were only allowed 2 boxes a year but, no one would tell you when a box had arrived for you. You had to go into a cavernous room and sort through all of the boxes until you, maybe, found one with your name on it.  If you found one,  you had to decide if you actually wanted the box because after all you were only allowed two per year. So one had to weigh out how much they liked the person who sent it, and what the value of the how contents might be without opening the box. But that was 30 years ago, things are different now right?

We felt fortunate, because we work for United Mission to Nepal, and there is a specific post of ‘staff mail person’ filled by a Nepali guy who’s entire job it is to mail and retrieve packages. Though this seemed to our advantage, it should have been our first warning.  Why exactly would there need to be an entire staff position who’s job it is to mail and retrieve packages.  However, this didn’t occur to us till after the fact and we felt confident that since he knew the ins and outs of the Nepali mail system all we would need to do was drop off the boxes and let him work his magic.

The first day Dave dropped off the boxes (all 5 of them) to the secretary and explained his intent. She was a little wide eyed, but coolly explained all that needed to do be done was write a list with the contents of each box and she would pass them along to the “mail man.” Tomorrow they would have a bill, we would pay, and the packages would be on their way.

The second day Dave swung by to collect the bill, and was surprised to see all 5 packages sitting right in the same spot.  It was explained that the bill would need to be paid before they were sent.  That information would have been useful the day before, but no problem, what is a day lost. He left 12000 rupees, which was more than what they had calculated it would cost to send them, and headed off to class.

Day 3 Dave swung by and saw the packages were still there. But he was sure they would get out that day, so didn’t say anything.

Day 4 Hannah saw the packages sitting by a company vehicle, apparently on their way to the post office and then on to their respective destinations.  Pheww!

Day 5 Dave received an email at 5PM, explaining that they had brought the packages to the post office and were told the person who packed the boxes needed to be there. This was because they intended to open every package, and a person familiar with the packages contents needed to be there to answer whatever questions came up. Apparently a list of the contents was not good enough. There was going to be an interrogation. It was agreed that either one or the other of us would go to the post office on Monday.  Dave’s interpretation of this was that Hannah would go since she was the physically packed the boxes.  His interpretation was influenced solely by the desire not to lie to customs officials and not at all by the desire to avoid, what seemed to be turning into, an unpleasant hassle.

Dave swung by the front desk on Monday morning at 10 AM to make sure everyone knew Hannah would be there at noon to go to the post office, but she needed to be out of there by one for an afternoon meeting. There were some wry smiles, and then it was explained the office was only open from 10 to 1:30, and we needed to go in the next half hour. Oh, and expect it to be there at least 2 hours. Dave was thus unfortunately thrown into the hot seat and had to cancel language classes and prepare himself by prayer for whatever was ahead, and repentance from whatever he had done to deserve this.  The ‘mail man’ came an hour later and collected the boxes and they were on their way.   Dave, practicing Nepali, asked “In your thoughts, is the Nepali post office a good place?”

“The Nepali post office is a very not good place.” was his reply. “You will see.”

The building looked more like a prison than a place of daily commerce. There were imposing grey,cement buildings and a few men with guns. Dave and the mail man grabbed the tower of boxes and made their way through some dark passage ways, around the back of the building, and found a room the size of two typical American living rooms put together. Inside were around 50 people. Half were calm looking Nepalis sitting in chairs, sipping Chai, or casually filling out forms. The other half of the people were bedeshis who looked as if they were about to cry or punch someone, and there was a cloud of mumbled curse words in several languages.

These are the steps required to send a package from Nepal to America or Paraguay, if you are ever interested in doing so:

Step 1: Fill out a yellow form declaring your name and address, the name and address of the person receiving the package, and the contents of the package. If you accidentally reverse this order, you must start over. If you write the value of the items in the value column, you must start over.  The mail man will tell you it is best to leave it blank as actually filling it in would incur exorbitant export tax.

Step 2: Cut open all your boxes and stand in line. This is a good time to listen to other foreigners cry and maybe pick up a few curse words in other languages.   Time required: 45 minutes.

Step 3: Allow inspector to rifle through your neatly packed packages. Fortunately he will not want to take apart wrapped gifts, but merely squeeze them.  One particular gift will strike his fancy and he will as ask “what is this?”

You reply “A hat”, and that is the end of the interrogation.  You are not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed having geared yourself up for advanced questioning on each item, under a hot light, while a uniformed Nepali with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip encourages you to really think about if your nephew would want to play with a finger puppet.  Time required: 15 minutes.

Step 4:  Your box must then be resealed.  Apparently they don’t trust tape in Nepal. Thus, every box sent internationally is wrapped, or one could say clothed, in white cotton sheets. The sheet is then tightly stitched into place, each seam is sealed with wax and stamped with an official purple stamper. A group of four persons sitting against the wall are there to shroud, seal and stamp everyone’s boxes as if it were an official gift from the King. Time spent: 45 minutes.

Step 5: Re-copy all addresses onto cotton wrapped boxes. This can be done in ones ordinary script, unless you are sending a box to Paraguay, then you need to write in all block letters.  Time required: 5 minutes.

Step 6: Pay for steps 1-4. 25 rupees per yellow form filled out.  Listen to frantic German yelling, quite logically, “Why am I paying you when I was the one who filled out the forms?”.  You also must pay 500 rupees per box for getting them cloth diapered.

To complete the remaining steps you must go to another room 100 yards down another back alley, and passed the German woman who is swaying and smoking a cigarette. This room will have more space, but only one dangling fluorescent light bulb. This room will also have a scrolling, red billboard like sign obnoxiously stating how much it would cost to send a box to any place in the world. This room will also have lots foreigners in various crying/ punching/ cursing stages.  However this room will only have 2 Nepali staff.  Once in this room the following steps can be completed.

Step 7: Fill out another form for each package declaring your name and address, the name and address of the person receiving the package, and the contents of the package. You must then write your name in a book and the number of packages you are sending. From this book each of your packages will be assigned a number and a sticker. Time required: 25 minutes.

Step 8: Wait in line with the other foreigners for one of the workers, the same one with the job of assigning numbers and stickers, to weigh your package. The other worker is sitting at a desk filling out forms. While waiting, watching the red scrolling billboard, you will get a sickly sense you may not have enough money.   “Do you have any extra rupees?” you will frantically ask the Mail Man, never having crossed your mind it would cost more than you have already put out.  Apparently you will not have considered the extra cost of filling out the yellow forms and having the boxes made to look like photo shoot props in a Martha Stewart catalog. Time required: 30 minutes.

Step 9: It is now your turn in line and you must convince the Nepali worker that you are indeed out of money.  Try turning your wallet upside down and pull out your pockets to prove the point.

Step 10: You pray and thank God for the ‘mail man’ who convinces the man behind the counter that you will be back the next day to pay the remaining balance, and you do not need to go back to Step 1.

If you are thinking of sending boxes to American or Paraguay from Nepal you will spend at least two and a half hours in the post office.  Just something to consider.

For those of you who get a box from us this year remember that it came to you with tears and maybe some multilingual curse word. Hopefully that makes it more special.  Next year, we hope you all enjoy your 2014 calendar and if you would like a really nice gift, you’re just gonna have to come here and pick it up.