Sunday, May 27, 2007

Living in Paradise Part 2 - Time is Lost in the Mail

As one of the US territories, mail in the Virgin Islands is handled by the US Postal Service. But like everything else here, getting your mail on island is a very different experience than it is for most Americans who live on the mainland.

The major difference for us was not having a mailbox at home for the first time ever. A hard as it might be to imagine, the majority of roads in the Virgin Islands do not have street names. Yes, you read that right -- the main cross-island thoroughfares and streets within the towns on the islands have proper names, but the majority of roads do not. We live on one of those unnamed side roads -- we tell people who need to find us to go to the entrance to our estate (regions of the island are still known by the names of the estates that originally owned the land in the 17th and 18th centuries), go past the dairy and the school, past the little bodega where the Friday night cockfights are held (~ grrrrr shudder cringe~), turn right at the white picket fence, follow the road around the curves and go past the two satellite dishes up the hill -- and we're the first yellow and white house on the left that sits down and tucked into the side of the hill (it's a great natural hurricane barrier). And on top of that, there's many cases of two houses in the same estate sharing the same plot number, which happens to be the case with our address. With challenges like that, is it any wonder the Post Office doesn't offer home delivery and pick up service? Instead, we contract with a Mailboxes USA franchise for mail delivery, which unlike a PO Box, enables us to receive packages at that address. Fortunately, our Mailboxes USA isn't too far at all from our home so getting there to pick up and send mail isn't much of a hassle at all.

The timing of sending and receiving mail also works on an entirely different set of natural laws than those that rule on the mainland. How quickly (slowly) anything posted will travel is a total crap shoot. We've sent mail to Michigan and the Baltimore/DC area that has arrived there in 4-5 days, while other cards and letters to those same destinations will take three weeks to arrive. I receive a regular check each month from my long-term disability provider. The check is issued and mailed on the 4th of every month -- it has arrived as early as the 9th and as late as the 26th. The most insane example of randomness is a postcard a dear, dear friend of mine sent to me during her July 2004 trip to Australia. It arrived in December of 2006, and the stamp wasn't even cancelled. Thank goodness for online bill payment. Without it, we'd need to mail every bill payment at the day the bill arrived or face bankruptcy from mail delay-induced late charges.

Our magazine subscriptions provide a weekly reminder that we're not in Kansas (or DC) anymore. I subscribe to both Time and Newsweek, both of which publish once a week. These publications tend to arrive in clumps, and only once (this week, in fact) has one of these arrived at the same time it's on the newsstand. Most need to be thought of as a review of news of the past. Most arrive within three or four weeks of the cover date, but there was a batch that arrived in late April that included an issue from early January. When I saw the cover story, I thought, "Whoa, deja vu -- I can't believe something like that happened again." Needless to say, it was a great relief to see the publication date and realize that there wasn't another tragedy but rather Time had just gotten lost in the mail. (Okay, so it wasn't actually Time, but "Newsweek was lost in the mail" just isn't as catchy.)

As if the randomness of the regular mail service isn't enough, packages sent down to us face an even tougher journey. These Virgin Islands are a US territory, but because the Caribbean is viewed as a potential gateway for Central and South American produced illegal narcotics to enter the United States, any packages sent through the Virgin Islands must pass through customs. This little detour between sender and recipient takes the randomness of time to a whole new level. We feel it most with our orders from, a Net based supplier of discount prescription medications, medicine cabinet and household type goods that saves us a bundle off of island prices for those product categories. Some orders arrive in about a week, while others take three weeks. The record was eight weeks from order to delivery, and one order never made it at all. Fortunately, has fabulous customer service policies and have happily replaced, at no additional cost, orders that seem to have disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle.

The final problem with getting things sent here is finding vendors who will ship items here. It's downright scary how many retailers are under the belief that the only US territory is Puerto Rico, and will happily treat orders sent there the same as packages sent within the lower 48 but charge us Virgin Islanders much higher expedited or international shipping rates. And I had one twilight zone moment when I found a web vendor who had no problem getting my order to me, but wouldn't provide a way for me to enter my USVI address as my credit card billing info!

Geographically, no part of the US Virgin Islands falls within the infamous Bermuda Triangle, but given the erratic mail service we live with, it seems pretty clear that every letter and package sent to and from here travels right through the heart of the place known for making things mysteriously disappear without a trace. But life here is laid back, and you pretty quickly get used to it being just another quirk of living in paradise.

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