There are some things I knew I could live without and others I couldn’t. The latter were added to a list for circulation around family and close friends pre-departure, those that had very kindly offered to ‘supply’ me while overseas. On arrival I provided them with two addresses, the VSOB compound in Lalmatia and my NGO’s Head Office in Mohammadpur, and settled back to wait.
Knowing my first parcel was underway, destined for Dhaka city stirred me up. At such an early stage in-country I hadn’t worked out where to source what, and was particularly anxious to restock a couple of hard to come-by but essential items that clamed a mild allergy I have carried all my life. Dispite bringing out a modest supply of these products I knew they would span only the next couple of months. Unable to calculate the duration before delivery I had requested my re-supply upfront. Options for despatch included shipping, air or courier and transportation prices varied accordingly. This parcel was big, laiden with an additional assortment of items from ‘the list’, and so was traveling out by sea.
Experienced volunteers counselled patience, it appeared some take months for delivery, but no-one told stories of parcels failing to arrive, which I took as a good omen. When the first couple trickled through unexpectedly I was euphoric. Moderate jiffy bags stuffed with my favourite brand of Earl Grey tea and coffee beans. Nothing to get unduly excited about you would think, but I practically danced around, parcel held high…a triumph!
These had been delivered to the VSO compound, and both surprisingly arrived while I was there. Having started work with my NGO I now only occasionally visit this office. My flat however is very close, so it remains a convenient place from which to collect my bounty. The postman produced a receipt written in Bengali to confirm I had paid duty on their contents. I scribbled my signature in the various boxes indicated by him. Both were charged at around the 200 taka mark (approximately two pounds), only the most modest parcels, usually containing documents are delivered free of charge.
The next arrival was addressed to my NGO in Mohammadpur and this time only the receipt was delivered to Bishwajit, our Admin Officer. This we would need to take to the Post Office where my goods awaited collection. We arranged the trip later that same afternoon.
I was surprised it was so close, and that I had passed by on a rickshaw twice daily for several weeks unnoticed, going to and coming from work. On the edges of Mohammadpur Town Hall Bazaar, a regualar shopping destination, this was one of the first places we new volunteers wandered across by accident days after arrival. In my defence it was set back from the main road itself and with all signs written in Bengali wasn’t easily identifiable.
It was dark and cool inside and I was greeted by an enormous counter spanning the entire width of the building. A relatively orderly queue of customers waited at each of the various service points, manned by both male and female Post Office officials. A decrepit uniformed security guard sat in one corner surveying the scene, complete with ancient rifle, ensuring order was upheld.
On producing my receipt we were waved passed, behind the counter itself and through a series of rooms, eventually reaching a small office at the very back of this cavernous building. Three men sat on an assortment of rickety chairs at an old wooden table, transfeering the addresses by hand from a pile of letters heaped in the centre into long slim white ledgers. Here the stuffy atmosphere closed in around me almost immediately. The ceiling fan barely moved, revolving in slow-motion overhead. A plastic stool was produced, and grateful, I sat myself down while Bishwajit introduced us and explained why we were here.
Sweat broke out on my forehead and I could feel further beads trickle down my spine. I marveled at how anyone could work in such heat, and noticed the white vests worn by all beneath their cotton shirts. One of the men, with tiny glasses perched on the end of his nose, produced the paperwork required on this occasion enabling the release of the correct parcel to the correct recipient. Clearly an impressive amount was required for such an event.
The corresponding entry, hand written in a large official looking ledger was located and carefully matched with our receipt. Then, the form filling began. I was almost swooning by this time and simply scratched out whatever was required using a frustratingly unreliable ballpoint.
By this stage all I wanted was my parcel and to get myself out of this airless room, but nobody else seemed to be in a rush, they were all busy chatting with Bishwajit about me: where was she from? what was she doing here? etc. Time seemed to stand still, and then one of them reached into a drawer, took out a key fob and opened the padlock on the lid of a huge wooden crate taking up more than half the room. Somewhere inside was my parcel. Retreived, it was placed on the table for all to see, inspecting it’s stamps, post marks and returnable address in case of non-delivery. Somehow I managed to wait, silent and patient, resisting the urge to snatch it up and flee.
I could see immediately it had been opened and inspected. Several shiny black round globules of dried wax, each with official stamp indentation lined the entire rim of one edge. This is how duty is calculated, painstakingly checking every parcel arriving in-country and creating a hand written list of duty payable by the recipient. On this occasion I handed over four hundred taka and scuttled back outside, into the soaring afternoon heat. Traveling back by rickshaw I arrived at my office hot and sweaty, but opened my parcel in the blissful air-conditioned room in which I work. A vast contrast when compared with where I’d been seated only minutes before. How typical of Dhaka city.