February 15, 2010

Air Mail

Journalists know better than anyone right now that the internet is where it's at. And being far away, we don't know how we'd survive without it; e-mail and Skype are essential.

But that doesn't mean I'm ready to forsake regular mail.

I'm not sure Abu Dhabi agrees with me, though.

Trying to mail a letter here is a serious undertaking. There is one main post office and two (rumored) smaller ones on the island. The Emirates Post website says there are 15 post offices in greater Abu Dhabi. We have only ever seen the one main post office.

What it doesn't say, and nobody outside the post office seems to know, is how much it costs to mail a letter.

We have managed much of our correspondence by e-mail, but AT&T, that legendarily difficult organization, insists that we mail them proof that we live in the UAE. They insist on, among other things, a postmark from the country. (They also insist on a utility bill, which we don't have, but that's another story).

When we left California we had some time left on our AT&T contract. We asked them to cancel our service at the end of the billing cycle, so there would be no weird outstanding partial bills. We told them where we were going. We said no, we couldn't simply transfer our accounts to someone else. (Who wants someone else's old account??)

Many months later, they are still insisting on $150 for breaking our contract because we haven't (yet) satisfactorily proved that we live outside the country.

In any case, that was the genesis of my post office issue.

How much postage did I need to send a letter to AT&T in Baton Rouge, LA? I had a handful of stamps left over from my first weeks here, when I thought I might send postcards (that was when I thought there might be postcards of something -- anything -- to send). What I had was three stamps worth 350 fils and three stamps worth Dh2 each. I thought I could probably put all of them on the envelope and it would get there. But I wasn't sure.

So I asked a member of our office staff. Not only did she have no idea how much it costs to mail a letter, she didn't know that 350 fils is Dh3.5. She kept insisting that it was 1,000 fils to a dirham instead of 100. She went to another colleague. She didn't know either. I asked at least a half dozen other colleagues. Surely, I thought, someone had sent a letter, a birthday card, something -- home?

But no.

So the woman finally told me to call the mail room. The guy in the mail room couldn't have been less helpful. He insisted it would cost Dh90 ($24.50) to send a letter. I balked. He insisted again. I said look, I want to send a letter to my Mother (I was trying to make the point that it wasn't a business letter) and he said well, that's what it costs. I said seriously? For a letter? And he said, essentially, hey, if you want to know how much a letter costs to mail, go to the post office and leave me alone.

I went to the Emirates Post website to see if the information was there. Nope. No postage rates. Not even for a letter within the UAE. It helpfully gives you the definition of a letter, and a post card, but not how much it costs to mail one. (I did finally find that I could send an aerogram for Dh2. Who knew anybody even used those anymore?)

So I called the post office. And they were actually helpful!! The postal guy told me it was Dh11.5 to send a letter to the US. Joy! I happened to have Dh10.5 worth of 350 fils stamps, and three Dh2 stamps. I could send my letter. While I had him on the phone, I asked if there was anyplace other than the post office that I could buy stamps. He said some supermarkets carry them, but he couldn't tell me which ones. Mine, I know, does not. A small but not quite complete victory.

The post office is not near our house or the office and requires a special trip even though it isn't far by distance. It's just not in an area where we ever are. And there are very few post boxes on the street. I may have seen two since I've been here. Remember, too, there is no home mail delivery. So mailing a letter is almost as difficult as buying stamps (and requires going to the post office, just the same).

As it happened, I went to dinner with a colleague and the restaurant was right behind the post office. Which was open until 10 p.m. And which didn't have long lines. And which was staffed by someone fairly friendly.

I showed him my letter and he added up the stamps. Dh11 he said. That's what it costs (so the helpful guy on the phone was helpful ... but not right). I had Dh12.5 pasted all over it, so I was good. I expected him to hand me back the letter, and he surprised me by taking it to mail. And while I was there I bought some more stamps.

Now, I might be the only person in the newsroom who knows how much it costs to send a letter. But I might also be the only person who needs to send one, too.