Monday, January 31

Post Office in Luang Prabang, Laos

New country, new post office! Welcome to the interior of the official post office in Luang Prabang, Laos, kitty-corner from Wat Chon Si. If you were here, you'd know this temple wherever you stood in the city, regardless of knowing its name. It's the huge, ancient temple mounted atop the most enormous hill in the center of town. Over 300 steps to reach the top, just to see a spectacular sunset each night...

I digress. I'd written a stack of postcards and even a letter, all going out around the world. I confess I feel a certain glow of warmth whenever I have a stack of mail to go out and it's not all in the US. Having pen pals around the world to at least drop a line to (currently I have no mailing address for myself) makes me feel like I've expanded myself a little, and sending postcards from other nations is like a special "thank you" I can render to these friends who agreed to correspond with me way back when I wasn't doing anything that interesting.

Of course, this gets to be an expensive habit. Experience has shown me it's much better to e-mail from Norway, as postage rates there will quickly impoverish anyone with more than two people to write to. Thailand and Laos have rates a little closer to US rates, but a pile of cards and letters will still diminish the tidy wad you've just extracted from the ATM, leaving you pretty glum about your prospects for lunch and dinner that day. (Or, in my case, give my wife some reason to ask you to hold off on going crazy with my pastime until we actually have some form of income. Writing letters is cool, but it's not worth having to go home early.)

I don't know that I saw any mailboxes in Luang Prabang. I'm quite sure they were there, I probably didn't recognize them for what they are. I'm including a shot of the exterior of the post office, the slots where I was directed to deposit my own letters. Now, when I was in the States and brought a stack of postcards (I never write a few when a great many will do) to the post office, I was quite accustomed to being handed a strip or card of stamps and affixing them myself to my missives. That was easier in the States, with self-adhesive stickers for postage. In these SE Asian nations, they're still using adhesive you have to lick or moisten to activate, and even that's an imperfect science: my clerk handed me a glue-stick to help tack on some of the lesser stamps that wouldn't hold. So applying two kinds of stamps to each envelope or postcard, when dealing with fifteen of these pieces of outgoing mail, begins to border on the tedious and can soak up a lot of time.

But still it's worth it, because I'm enjoying sending these things out to people... though I wish my recipients were a little more diligent about letting me know they've gotten them. My friends in other nations are, they're great about that, they'll shoot me an e-mail or notify me on Facebook that something turned up. My friends in the States, not so much: I have to assume that either the postcards were lost/destroyed in transit, that the Indonesian infrastructure could not support safe transport of my postcards, or that my friends don't feel any compunction to let me know they got anything. That's a little discouraging, but then, "snail mail" has fallen out of favor in the US and we don't have any traditions or conventions governing that behavior anymore.

Friday, January 14

Post Office in Pai, Thailand

This was a personal victory for me: I have the opportunity to visit a few nations outside of my own, so I've been making it a personal goal to visit official post offices where I travel. I haven't made it 100% of the time or even 50%, I don't think.

In my other blog, I posted a picture of my visit to a (temporary) post office in Bali, Indonesia. When I was in Iceland I'd only walked back and forth outside a post office in Reykjavik but never made it inside. I regret that a lot. I thought I was going to replay that regret when I finally located the post office in Chiang Mai City, Thailand, but showed up on the one day of the week it was closed.

As it happened, I was visiting Pai for two days and wrote up a bunch of postcards, hanging out at a coffee shop. I figured one of the local convenience stores around here might have some stamps (7-11 is very big in Thailand, the way Circle K was in Indonesia) but anywhere I went was out of them. Pai has a pretty strong independent artists community and its remote geographic location is a popular motif to play upon, whether it's the "762 curves" on highway 1095 between Chiang Mai and Pai or the tiny town's postal code, 58130. There are a lot of beautiful postcards for sale throughout the town, and if there's such a demand for them, perhaps people really were draining all the 7-11s of their postal stamps.

I was directed to the post office (which I was excited about) but finding it was another matter. There were several maps in town but... I don't know if the scale was off or if they were simplified to highlight the local bars and hotels. The map in Lonely Planet was worse than any of those. Rebecca and I wandered around the neighborhood south of Pai proper until she asked some directions from some friendly women at a corner cafe. We took an immediate left and found ourselves in front of the post office--we'd walked that street before on the other side and didn't see it at all. How'd that happen?

Regardless, once inside the process was swift and simple, and I think the postal rate for postcards was more or less equivalent to that in the States. That's convenient, but time will tell whether their postal infrastructure is any better than Indonesia's: only two intended recipients have indicated the cards reached their destination, out of a couple dozen sent to friends around the world. It's too soon to tell whether any of the Thailand-issued cards have arrived, but still I wonder.

Sweet relief: greetings from Pai, Thailand!

Wednesday, January 12

Universal Letter Writing Week: Helpful Advice

What is more pointless than writing letters to people who
never write back, when you don't have a return address?
(Hotel Yani, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia)
Well, I hope I didn't sound very down on the idea of Universal Letter Writing Week. Sure, I question the foundation of its existence, but far be it from me to suggest we swing radically in the other direction and not write letters.

I love letters! Oh, in the name of the Divinity, do I love letters! I love writin' 'em, and I love readin' 'em! In this sense I am 50% similar to my friends, and that would be the latter half. The "I'd love Christmas better if I didn't have to get anything for anyone" half. Or, as the wielder of that somewhat stunted end of the stick, "I'm not worth 20 minutes and 29 cents to anyone I know."

So why not have a week in which the laity are encouraged to please write a letter? Sure! Let's go ahead and do that--everyone put on your stationer's hats and pour a round of holiday absinthe--take pen to paper and have at it with our innermost... well, not our most intimate thoughts. That would be redundant: we already transmit those to faceless strangers via Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal. No matter: just go ahead and write to your friends... well, not your friends online, obviously. Write to your family... unless you live with them.

Huh. Universal Letter Writing Week is a bit of a sticky wicket, what?

To assist with this conundrum, I thought I'd take it upon myself to promote some solutions in case anyone else out there is encountering the same difficulties I have faced. Generally speaking, one can never solve one's own problems, but when someone else has the same trouble, don't we have all sorts of advice for them? Absolutely.

Ideas for To Whom One May Write
  • American soldiers
  • Enemy soldiers (spell poorly--it's demoralizing)
  • Your favorite author, if they're still alive
  • Swollen children in Shriners hospitals
  • People learning English as a supplemental language
  • Farriers
  • Your congressman/woman
  • Cultural anthropologists
  • Manufacturer of your favorite hygiene product
  • Geminis (actually written Geminians or Gemineans--they can't decide (gasp and swoon))

Topics Upon Which One May Expound
  • Your top three resolutions for 2011
  • Why you're staunchly opposed to resolutions
  • All the things you know about the culture from which your favorite food emerged
  • Half-baked plans to visit every nation with an atomic icebreaker
  • If you could build a movie star, what they'd be like
  • The sexual fetish you've never confessed to anyone, not because it's naughty but because it's in second place to the other one that you can't stop talking about
  • Who your friends were in second grade and why
  • Reasons why you shouldn't hit yourself when you make a mistake
  • How to get over a cold, in case the person you're writing has a cold

Monday, January 10

National Letter Writing Week

Dear Reader,

Has anyone else heard of this? National Letter Writing Week? I just caught a tweet from Wordnik claiming that this is so (and, presumably, started this Monday), followed by a cool little link to a page listing various writing-related terms, a word-list called Penmanship.

But I can't find the source for this declared observation. There's an eHow article that corrects my presumption and puts "Universal Letter Writing Week" at Jan. 8-14 (or was that last year?) and offers suggestions of recipients for various letters, if you can't come up with any on your own. For me, the problem has never been sitting down and writing a letter: it has wholly revolved around coercing, tricking, or forcing anyone else to write back.

Awareness for this week seems to have exploded in 2008, according to my cursory and undisciplined research. A women's website, BellaOnline, also offers suggestions for types of letters to write as well as a short inspirational bibliography in the same vein. Here's an especially vacuous blog post about the event, courtesy The author collects stamps but the imagination he expends on this article rings a little limp. By accident I found a dead-fascinating article on letter writing under Japanese Etiquette in Wikipedia--otherwise, Wikipedia seems to have never heard of this week-long observation.

  • Int'l Society for Friendship and Good Will says they "sponsor and promote" this Week in their list of yearly Observances. Did they create it? No idea, but I've never heard of any of their other Observations, either, so... maybe!
  • The Smithsonian Institute's National Postal Museum features a vintage art deco post that places the Week at October 17.
  • Without citing a source, the DermaNetwork (for Clinical Dermatology) brings up the Week as something to observe while sitting in the waiting room for your dermatology appointment. Their topic suggestions are equally surprising ("Write a letter to someone you know who has great skin").
  • Holidays for Everyday, a preschool educators resource, refers to "National" Letter Writing Week as early as 2007. No source.
  • At least one stamp collector is looking for a 1980 Thai commemorative stamp for International Letter Writing Week, but this source does not say which week that was. If you don't believe in 1980, you can buy a later version of this stamp from 2008. It would help to speak Spanish, in this case.

Does anyone reading this know anything more about it? I'd love to hear from you.

Your pal,

P.S.: A bunch of sites claim it's actually in October. From the contexts I've glossed over, it looks like it used to be in October maybe a century ago, but now someone's started it up again and placed it in January. Can anyone clear this up?