Monday, Sept. 8
Accra, Ghana

Post offices. Sure, they’re useful for mailing stuff home. But they’re also a great way to experience a part of daily life in any given city.

The amount of red tape one has to go through to mail something, the way a post office works (or doesn’t), I figure is somewhat reflective of the country’s ability to function.

So I try out post offices in every country I visit. I visited Timbuktu’s tiny office, where my friends and I were the only customers.

The cost to mail a postcard has varied drastically across West Africa, from as much as 850 CFA, about US$2, in Burkina, to just 40 pesewa, or US$.40 in Ghana.

But the real fun is in sending packages — or parcels, as they call them here in Ghana.

Mailing my sleeping bag home from Dakar, Senegal, was easy. (When I’m freezing in the mountains of Cameron I’ll probably wish I still had it with me, but it was simply taking up too much room in my bag.) It cost me an arm and a leg though, around US$50, nearly twice my daily budget.

The postal system in Mali was more interesting. Seedy, really.

A man outside the post office in Bamako carefully created a box for my hiking boots — they, too, were taking up too much space in my bag — and taped them securely inside. Then, without explanation, he guided me to a small room at the back of the building and handed the package to a uniformed man.

The officer did not smile. He put the parcel on the ground and said nothing.

Finally he gestured to the guy who brought me there, who angrily tore open the package and handed the shoes to the officer. The officer inspected them briefly and handed them back to my middle man, who recreated the package in a huff. The officer stamped it. We had been approved by customs.

I never mailed the boots. It was too expensive. I gave them away instead.

In Kumasi, Ghana, I tried again, this time with a painting I had bought in Burkina. It fit in my bag, but I didn’t really want to carry it for four months.
I wrapped it and brought it to the post office.

Customs insisted I open the parcel, just at one end, so they could check for drugs. “Why didn’t you bring it here first?” the employee said. He wasn’t really asking the question. He was scolding me.

So when I made my way to the post office today in Accra, Ghana, I walked directly to customs with my item, another painting, before wrapping it. Approved, no problems.

Ghana post employees even offered me, for about US$1, a tracking number. I bought it even though the man who sold it to me couldn’t explain what I should do with the number should the package fail to arrive.

That means I’ve sent a total of three packages. We’ll see if any of them make it to my parents’ doorstep.

UPDATE: Mom says two of the three parcels have already arrived in New York state!