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When Cynthia, the boys, and I first went to Nepal in 1970, we stayed for several months in the capital city, Kathmandu, learning the language and adjusting to the culture in preparation for our move to Liglig Mountain, where we had been assigned to do medical work. We got some of our first lessons in cultural adjustment in a most unexpected place-Kathmandu's Foreign Post Office, otherwise known as the FPO.
The FPO is a department of His Majesty's government, originally established to control the importing of goods through the parcel post. Housed in a large, modern building, it can be easily identified by the words "Foreign Post Office" in bold red letters across its front. At first glance, foreigners are reassured just to see this post office as they go down the main street of Kathmandu; they get the impression that they've been singled out for special consideration in the delivery of their parcels. And indeed they have.
My first visit to the FPO took place in October, 1970. A friend told me he'd seen a package there for the Hales, this friend having chanced upon it while searching for one of his own packages, about which yet another friend had told him. I arrived on a hot day. Having found no one to help me, I began wandering down the long corridors into offices and sorting rooms, most of which were strewn with packages in various stages of disruption, some of them partially opened. Then I entered a large room in the back, where hundreds of parcels lay in heaps all over the floor or on shelves. Around the periphery of the room were desks at which young men sat chatting, reading magazines, or just relaxing. I mumbled something about my having a package here, and they waved me on, indicating that I could look for it if I liked. It was evidently self-service.
I looked. For about forty minutes. It became a challenge not to be given up lightly. I was learning a great deal about the FPO, even on this first visit. Finally, as I was on the verge of quitting, I caught the name "Hale" on a tiny package the size of a cake of soap. I grabbed for it, only to discover that it was addressed to another Hale, who also happened to be living in Kathmandu. That was a disappointment. I left the FPO forty-five minutes after I'd arrived, with all the clerks still sitting in the same places I'd seen them at first. That was to be my most benign and uneventful visit to the FPO.
Soon after this, another friend told me I had a package in the FPO. I smiled, thanked him, and told him I knew about the package, but it was for a different Hale. But he persisted that it was for me. So with some hesitation, and my wife's encouragement, I went again to the FPO.
This day was hotter than the first, and unfortunately I had a tight schedule. Two mistakes already. Everything looked the same, the same clerks sitting in the same places. I was allowed into the Great Package Room again, and as before, I benefited from the same assistance in locating my parcel.
I had no idea what I was looking for. I didn't know what the package contained or who had sent it. In fact, we had instructed our family and friends not to mail us packages. At that time we weren't permitted to receive more than two parcels per person per year, and we wanted, therefore, to be sure that those two parcels contained items that were really crucial. The clerks at the FPO kept track of how many parcels each person received by marking the person's passport and entering the person's name in a Great Package Book. When I found my package, I would have to decide whether to have my passport marked or simply not to accept the package. I hoped to get a clue to its contents by looking at the green customs label that is always affixed to every international parcel.
After searching for fifty-five minutes-I'd allowed myself one hour-I actually found the package. It was from my mother.
During my search, none of the six clerks in the package room had left his seat except one who twice had to prevent me from going into small side rooms that were also filled with interesting-looking parcels. He informed me that the parcels belonged to people that either had died in Nepal or couldn't be located. That explanation stimulated my imagination because I had distinctly seen in one of these rooms a package addressed to Dr. Bethel Fleming, one of the founders of the United Mission, who was at that time very much alive and living in Kathmandu. Nearly everyone of importance in Kathmandu knew Bethel and her husband, who was the secretary of the Kathmandu Rotary International. If she could be "dead and unlocatable" in the eyes of the FPO, what about the rest of us? I reassured myself that perhaps the package had just been thrown there by accident. I later learned, however, that other people also had seen in the "dead and unlocatable" section parcels for various active mission personnel.
In any event I held on securely to my diminutive package and walked out to the customs room. The seven clerks I'd seen at the customs counter on my way in were now in a frenzy of activity. Apparently, while I was hunting for my parcel, some man had found a large package that contained Christmas presents for himself and his family. As the clerks inspected the man's package, they found it contained fifteen or twenty smaller packages, all nicely gift-wrapped in attractive Christmas paper.
I watched as these clerks descended on the large carton like birds of prey: two ripped open the small packages, a third inspected their contents, two more tried to reconstruct the opened parcels, while a sixth tied them up with string from other packages that lay in fragments about the room. (I suspect these package fragments had belonged to people who decided the packages weren't worth accepting as one of the year's two allotted packages.) A seventh clerk busily recorded the contents of each parcel on a separate 2' by 3' sheet of paper and then rushed off to what must have been the customs evaluation room. There five men leafed through huge books of interminable lists, computing the duty they would inflict on this man's Christmas presents.
Looking at that distraught victim standing powerless as his family's packages were dismantled, I gained perspective about my own difficulties and began to calm down. I figured that, for me, the worst of the business was already over. This man's plight unsettled me a little, but then I had only one small package. My package wouldn't take long.
I still had to decide whether or not to accept the package. But my decision was complicated by two facts: The package was from my mother, and she hadn't specified on the customs slip what it contained. After thinking about it, I decided to accept it. After all, no one else would be sending us packages, and I couldn't risk offending my mother by refusing to take it. So I stepped up to the counter.
Excerpted from On the Far Side of Liglig Mountain by Thomas Hale Copyright © 1989 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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