Return to sender?

When Kevin and I visited Madagascar several years ago, we had a tremendous guide who was really smart and really curious about the world.  Unfortunately, he had little access to books, so we sent him a couple that he requested when we returned (one on the Grand Canyon, a French-English dictionary, and one on North American snakes).  I was concerned whether the package would arrive though because there were no traditional addresses in his village.  He told us to put his name and description, guide at Tsingy at Bemaraha park, plus the name of his village.  Shockingly, it arrived because he was able to go to an internet cafe in a bigger town months later and email us a thank you.

The lack of addresses didn’t totally surprise me in Madagascar, an extremely poor country, but I just discovered that this is a problem that plagues many Latin American countries as well. The Christian Science Monitor has a piece about Latin American countries starting to try to rectify the situation. Here is their description of the situation:

“Opposite the church, 500 meters north of the cedar tree, the blue house with a wooden porch.” In many parts of Latin America, these are not just the directions you might be given by a friendly local, but an actual postal address. 

Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua are among the countries that use landmarks, such as schools, parks, or even fast food restaurants, to locate houses and businesses in bizarre address systems that make mailmen “more like detectives,” said one regional newspaper last month.” 

Ecuador and Colombia have recently embarked on an effort to standardize addresses and reduce the problem of lost mail.  It is estimated that 1.71 million mailed items were lost by the Ecuadorian postal service last year (and $75 million of wasted gasoline on “failed deliveries”).  In Costa Rica, about 25% of all mailed items do not arrive at their destination, a cost to the economy of more than $700 million (a 2008 study).

My two favorite tidbits of the article are the following:

1. An envelope once arrived to the capital city of San Jose’s central post office headquarters addressed: “To the man who is sometimes outside the post office.” That letter did apparently reach its intended recipient.  

2.  Making post efficient in a country with no such tradition will require a “change in culture,”– right down to teaching people “that mailboxes are for putting post in, not trash,” says Ecuador’s National Postal Agency’s (ANP) director Maria de los Angeles Morales, who has overseen Ecuador’s $1.2 million project.

2 thoughts on “Return to sender?

  1. Then there are Japanese postal addresses. The final number (sort of house number) was often assigned in the order entered into the registry, so addresses do not indicate the location beyond a particular area in the city (a block or a few blocks). I remember this from a Japanese culture class many years ago and the Wikipedia article on Japanese addresses confirms my memory.

    While the reliability of a postal system is critical for economic development there is another side not mentioned above. I remember warnings about 15 years ago about sending packages to former Soviet states. Depending on the route the package took it was likely to never reach its destination because postal workers (or other officials) would keep valuable items from packages rather than deliver them.

    The same can be true anyplace. Stopped mail information (who is out of town) has been passed to burglars, though in the US this is rare most places.

  2. When I was in law school in Vermont (thirteen years ago) my address was:

    Chicken Coop
    Route 110
    South Royalton VT

    It didn’t matter because there was no rural delivery anymore – only post office boxes in town.

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