A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. ~Emily Dickinson
lauro, a dear family friend, doesn't have email and doesn't feel like he needs it. so he and i write letters to each other, taking advantage of pens, paper and the postal service. having just finished another missive to him full of wedding news, i headed out the door yesterday on a trip to the post office here in nicolas romero. actually, my trip included a double mission: mail the letter and ask for some advice.
why the need for advice? well, patricio and i discovered that, after a number of furniture and pizza delivery snafus, we aren't the only couple who live in house #73 on lake chapultepec street; the place two or three doors down also boasts the same address. i can say with confidence that we are the real number 73, sandwiched in between 71 and 75, but the mailman apparently favors the other residence, and gives them all of our mail. the neighbors, bless them, have been pretty kind in bringing our mail over to us. granted, they have a habit of waiting a week or two to do it, preferring to toss the envelopes in through the gate instead of depositing them in the mailbox, managing to deliver our mail to us on a number of surprise rain shower days, and leaving the majority of our letters and christmas cards with extra character--blurry words here and there and good, warped, card stock. we've appreciated the effort, but i figured it wouldn't hurt to let the post office know of our predicament and ask what we should do.
i also admit to loving the post office because i am amazed, upon entering, that it can function as well as it does. it's a tiny little office, located on the second floor of a building where the entrance leads off a small alley-like corridor. it's located right off the plaza and across the street from the market, but despite it's central placement, i still had to ask a number of people how to find it when i went for the first time. half of them had no idea where it was, and the rest, except for two, had no idea how to give me directions other than, "it's up there close to the bank." now that i know where it is, though, i feel like it's my little secret wonderland, where only a select few can enter and send greetings magically to any country, near or far.
it's location is not the only interesting part, though. the thing that really blows my mind is that it's the only post office in the entire city. last year's census claims that about 270,000 people call nicolas romero home. anyone who has driven through it, though, knows that the statistics are vastly inaccurate. patricio and i estimate that the entire municipality, including four or five outlying mountain towns, has at least half a million inhabitants, but could easily have a lot more. even if only 75 percent of the houses here have electricity or running water, that's still a whole lot of bills to deliver, not to mention any other notices or correspondence.
however, there are three key factors i've come up with to explain the existence of our one and only, magically realistic, post office. and if my speculations aren't too far off base, they also influence each other cyclically. first, i imagine that the government doesn't dedicate a whole lot of funding or rigor to the institution. not being able to pay lots of employees to deliver the mail, not being able to afford more efficient sorting equipment, and not being able to weed out corruption (stealing checks, for example) would be a real deterrent for people when it comes to sending anything from a payment to a birthday card. which leads me to the second factor: few people write to each other here, and no one--ever--pays a bill by mail. neither patricio nor his parents had mailing addresses for any of their friends and family. needless to say, sending post-wedding thank you notes posed a bit of a challenge. and christmas cards? what a novel tradition! additionally, also due to the first factor, stamps here are expensive. it costs almost twice as much to send a letter both within and from mexico as it does in the states. if we americans, some of the wealthiest people on the planet, complain about the rising stamp prices, you can imagine how many people here would feel about shelling out their hard-earned money for a stamp, when they can make a phone call for a lot less?
the third factor that would also keep the post office small is something that will make a lot of you smile: junk mail is virtually non-existent. that's right, no credit card applications, no nordstrom sale advertisements, and no unsolicited-solicited catalogs. it is beautiful (with all due respect, timo).
in any case, the postal system really works. erin reminds me to keep the faith, believing that mail will arrive sooner or later, and she is right. with the exception of beth's super-vitamins (patricio suspects that customs deemed them a little too suspicious), we've received everything from lauro's letters to an exquisite italian ceramic bowl. and once i follow the postmaster's advice of posting, very visibly, "familia uribe cooper" on our mailbox, we might soon be getting our mail even faster than before. so i'm taking erin's encouragement to heart, but i also know that harboring a little doubt makes the mail's arrival even better news.
speaking of faith and good news, my trip to the post office was fruitful for another reason, too. first, some background: it's been such a treat for me these past five months to experience first-had many of the religious and festive celebrations i've only read or heard about for so long--independence day, dia de los muertos, and christmas eve being the big examples. the second half of the christmas season has also been wonderful, too. on epiphany--january 6--patricio and i celebrated that day of the three kings' visit with elidia. similar to the french king cake tradition of new orleans (the one with the baby figurine inside), we feasted on the mexican rosca de reyes. a rosca is a bread in the form of a circle or an oval, with a hole in the center. the rosca de reyes, or king bread, comes rife with symbolism: it's shape speaks of an eternal God, without beginning or end. it also mimics the shape of a kings' crown. the fruits that decorate it are like the crown's jewels, and can also be reminders of Christ's sweet grace. the bread itself symbolizes brotherhood and unity, and the little baby figurine(s) hidden inside are symbols of Jesus, both the child that was hidden from king herod and the redeemer we should seek out.
whoever slices their part of the rosca with a figurine inside will host another gathering on february 2, or candlemas. this is the day when joseph and mary apparently went to the temple to present their son and receive both blessing for the child and purification for the mother. all new parents were called to do so, 40 days after the birth of a child.
it is a tradition here for families to have their own baby Jesus doll, and every three years, before christmas eve, two members of the family are chosen to be the godparents of the baby Jesus. patricio and his sister, trini, were the godparents a number of years ago, and their responsibilities included presenting the baby Jesus on christmas eve in a special ceremony when he was sung to, kissed, and placed in his cradle. for three years, they kept the baby in their home, and each year, before february 2, they took him to be dressed. there are even fashion guidelines on how the baby should be dressed each year, from the color of the dress to whether or not he should have a throne in which to sit or a crown to adorn his head. during the candlemas service on february 2, each family then has the honor of presenting a newly-dressed Jesus, reenacting the presentation of Christ in the temple and receiving the priest's blessing. afterward, the family spends time together enjoying tamales and atole, a cornmeal drink. (from las posadas that begin on december 16 to february's candlemas, the infant Jesus sure has become a pretext for lots of good parties).
patricio, elidia and i all ended up finding a figurine in our slice of rosca, so we'll be splitting the cost of the tamales tomorrow. but i'm not sure if anyone will be presenting a newly-dressed Jesus, since we all accidentally forgot to bring him to our christmas eve celebration. oops. i suppose that means we'll be celebrating more a la azteca, which didn't call for any representations of Jesus, but did call for celebrating the new year--which began around the same date--by eating and offering up to the gods their tamales.
it was clear to me yesterday, though, that many of Jesus's godparents in nicolas romero didn't forget to bring him along to his birthday party in december. neither are they neglecting their preparations for tomorrow's celebration. the main streets leading up to the market were abuzz, an awesome explosion of stands dedicated entirely to fixing up, dressing up, and fitting out the baby Jesus. each stand had, at the very least, five or six people huddled around it, choosing outfits and the appropriate accessories while workers diligently and carefully airbrushed brown hair here and rosy skin there, restoring the dolls to perfection. one of the stands had a sign saying that they "dressed the baby Jesus with lots of love," and it was easy to believe. it was a beautiful yet surreal experience to see dozens of people, men and women alike, walking the streets and cradling blankets or bassinet baskets with Jesus peeping out from underneath layers of silk and ruffles. others, still waiting to be proud bearers, carefully spoke their desires: one woman, ear pressed to a pay phone's receiver, reminded the person on the other end--with not a little urgency in her voice--that it was very important "not to forget to bring the big baby Jesus, not the small one."
these traditions surrounding candlemas were ones i'd never heard of before. i suppose they don't carry the cache that celebrations like dia de los muertos enjoy, but that actually made the walk to the post office a lot more serendipitously special and unforgettable for me. none of what happened yesterday was for show, but rather the unquestioned continuation of a yearly ritual, keeping a community tied together around traditions rooted in faith and family. that, to me, is also good news. and something to write home about.