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So one day, not long after I moved into this building, I got a note, telling me I had something at the post office, and that I should come get it. Visions of sugarplums or at least a care package danced in my head, and off I went. Not to the post office, per se, but to the post office offices. I stuck my head in the door, saw a giant carrel-farm and found a woman standing in the dingy doorway of about a 15 X 15 room full of boxes. Sure that my mother had unexpectedly sent some US-based delicacy to me and that it was just then gathering dust, I waved my piece of paper in the air, and asked the woman if she could find my prize.

About ten minutes and a lot of box shuffling later, she emerged from the grimy package room empty handed, and somewhat apologetically. No package. What about under my middle name, I suggested? (me only having one last name has led me to be called Mrs. Barbara (my middle name) on more than one occasion.) Back she went into the room, and she came back again, shaking her head no.

Curious. Why would the postman come all the way to my house to leave me an index-card-sized piece of paper correlating to a nonexistent package? We puzzled it over, the woman and I, until a teeny 20-watt lightbulb went on over her head. Into the carrelfarm she went, paper in hand, and she returned with a flat envelope bearing my mother’s handwriting, the words proudly block-lettered in English “PHOTOS, DO NOT BEND.” And they did not. But then again, they also did not deliver.

So the woman handed me the envelope, and I looked at it. I said to her, I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but why do you suppose that this envelope, which clearly could have been slid under my door or placed into my pigeon-hole mailbox would be here at the post office office and not at my apartment?

Silence. Then words.

Well, she asked… Have you tipped your postman?

me: What?

her: A tip, extra money, some pesos. Have you ever given that to your postman?

me: I don’t even know who my postman is, I’ve never seen him. I’m supposed to tip him?

her: People usually do. You’re supposed to pay him for every piece of mail he delivers.

Okay, this is new information. I was not aware that the postman worked on a piecework basis. I thought he was a government employee with a salary, and then he, you know… delivered the mail. I seldom receive mail, since it is widely believed that a courier is a better way of sending correspondence within Chile, and any bills I get normally come by courier, if not by email.

But I’m game, and far be it from me to stand in the postman’s way of having a decent standard of living.

me: How would you suggest that I tip my postman?

her: You could give the tip to him when you see him.

me: But I never see him. I live on the sixth floor of my building and he leaves the mail at the front door. Plus I work.

her: What about your nana (maid)?

me: I don’t have a nana.

her: (incredulous that a foreigner sweeps her own floors) Could you leave it with the concierge?

me: Ummmm, he’s not always there, and to be honest, I’m not sure how much I trust the guy to give the postman the cash.

her: Well then, I don’t know.

me: Let me ask you something. Is my mailman going to hold every piece of mail I get hostage until I start tipping him?

her: I guess it’s possible.

Then a dim 20-watt lightbulb went on over my head, and I took out a 500 peso coin (about a dollar these days).

me: Can I give this to you, and then you give it to him?

her: No.

me: What about if you leave it in his carrel? I could write a note. Then he would know it was from me and deliver my mail in the future.

her: Not possible.

me: What if I go to his carrel and leave it there?

her: Can’t be done, you’re not allowed in there (pointing to the carrels).

me: So what you’re telling me is that the system is set up so that every time I get a piece of mail, my postman will ferret it away here in the carrel farm until such time as I miraculously find him and leave him a tip, and I can’t leave him a tip unless I see him because you can’t leave this coin on his desk, and neither can I, not even as a special exception to the post office office rules?

her: that is effectively the case.

So I said thank you, took my 500 pesos and bought a diet coke and enjoyed the walk home looking at my beautifully unbent pictures of my then five-year-old niece.

I’ve checked with several other people who live here in Chile, and they report that yes, you’re supposed to tip your mailman and that yes, it’s tricky to find him when you live in an apartment building and that no, I shouldn’t worry about it too much. Which I mostly don’t, but then I saw this post guy today in the little plazuela by my house and I thought of the six pieces of mail I’ve gotten in the past two years and felt slightly guilty. And then I drank another diet coke. It’s a vice.