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The snail mail in the digital superhighway
Rimaliza O. Opiña

Flawlessly written script on plain, colored, and maybe scented-paper, the mailman – the bearer of the good and even the bad news from your significant other, from a parent, your child, or sibling working overseas is what defines snail mail.

To the baby boomers, the Gen X’rs, Gene-ration Y, and, the millennials, and to an extent, the zennials the phrase “Sulat ka ha!”meant a handwritten letter with an attached photograph, a colorful stamp, and money sometimes.

For the Generation Z, a stationery and envelope and the mailman still signifies a form of correspondence, but its significance has been downgraded overtime. To them, receiving letters from the kartero means receiving a billing notice or even a judicial notice – no longer that much awaited or (may be dreaded) letter from nanay, tatay, ate, kuya, kasintahan, or a relative whom they have not seen in a long time. To them, receiving a colored envelope is limited to special holidays or occasions like Christmas or Valentine’s Day.

Baguio Postmaster Bernardo Kub-aron said  that because mail service then was handled solely by the government, the then Bureau of Posts not only delivered letters but also parcels and packages. With letters and the telephone as the only means of long distance communication, the Bureau of Posts was one of the branches of government that was earning revenue.

Under its wing is a history of achievements: In 1948, the Philippine postal and telecommunications services were considered the most modern in Asia, with its airmail service inaugurated ahead of other countries in Asia.

But along with its successful operation was the growing dissatisfaction with the services it provided. Reports of missing, undelivered, delayed, and pilfered mails were common complaints.

In 1992 the Bureau of Posts was converted into the Philippine Postal Corporation, a government-owned and controlled corporation. The reason behind the move was to improve its services and address, among others, the growing public distrust on government’s mail service.

At that time, there were already private courier services that operate mainly in urban centers. The Internet too, and its electronic mail services were already gaining popularity but costs and lesser accessibility to the latest in communication technology, helped maintain Philpost’s dominance in the courier service.

Kub-aron said little did they know that technology boom through Internet and short messa-ging service (SMS) would adversely affect their operations.

Kub-aron said Philpost soon found itself losing clients. He said many now choose the more convenient and faster way of communication.

One by one, patrons of traditional mail shifted to email, SMS, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Skype, and other online platforms that made communication faster and cheaper. As a result, some of its services such as the telegram had to fold up and profit dipped dramatically.

Coincidentally, the last telegram in the country was sent on Sept. 20, 2013 from Baguio City. The last telegram message went like this:

Meanwhile, to cut on costs, Philpost had to retire most of its employees and some of its assets were leased to augment its income to sustain the operation of smaller post offices in the municipalities that are not earning as much as the post offices in urban centers. Kub-aron said from 14,000 employees nationwide, Philpost’s 2013 rationalization plan reduced the number of employees to only 7,000. In Baguio, the present number of mail carriers stands at 26.

Compared with private courier services that operate mainly in urban centers, Kub-aron said Philpost has to follow one of its missionary duties – deliver letters up to remotest barrio anywhere in the country.

To augment the lack or absence of regular mail carriers, Philpost taps local government units to delegate an employee who will help oversee municipal post offices. LGUs, on the other hand, tap barangay officials to deliver some letters. He said mailmen are mostly deployed in Baguio and La Trinidad while in the rest of the provinces, they only hire on a job order basis.

To add to its income from delivering letters and parcel, the Baguio Post Office management is also leasing portions of the Post Office compound. Although aware that this move has been heavily criticized by concerned citizens because of the historical significance of the building, Kub-aron said they have to lease out a portion of the property in order to survive. He said that when a petition was lodged at their central office for the declaration of the Baguio Post Office as a heritage site, then Postmaster General Josefina dela Cruz considered the same, but a change in management have relegated the issue to the backburner. “We never objected to that move as a matter of fact,” Kub-aron said.

Even with fewer resources, Kub-aron said that Philpost is trying its best to improve its services. He said just like private couriers, tracking of express and registered mail may now be done online. Since 2000, the Central Mail Exchange System has adopted a modern way of sorting all incoming and outgoing mails. It has also addressed issues on the prohibited enclosure of money in mails by operating its own money remittance service.

When Philpost adopted a rebranding system and changed its name to PHLPOST, it also introduced reforms in the corporation.

Kub-aron said PHLPOST is implementing a quality control and monitoring mechanism where each mailman is required to deliver at least 200 mails daily. PHLPOST has set standards on how many days it should take for a mail to be delivered and it deploys a quality control officer who monitors the speed by which mails are delivered.

Depending on the type of mail (ordinary, express, or registered) and the destination, PHLPOST can deliver in fast as 24 hours and the longest is one month – usually this happens in remote and in areas where there is insurgency or history or ongoing violence.

PHLPOST also has projects to bring back public interest in letter writing. In 2013, in partnership with the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino and the Department of Education, PHLPOST institutionalized the “Sulat-Mulat” postal awareness campaign. The project is done annually where participants, usually students, are assigned a theme where they will base the content of their letter. Following the process in letter writing, they will also have to send their letter through the postal office.

But Kub-aron admits this is not enough to convince people back to using snail mail again.

He said most of the mails it delivers now are institutional mails or those that are sent by government agencies, banks, and the courts, among other institutions. PHLPOST also continues to print new stamps, which philatelists regularly buy to add to their collection. 

In this difficult times, PHLPOST’s efforts will not go to waste for in this digital age, there are people who still use the snail mail.

It is not for sentimental reasons alone but to maintain the discipline required when writing letters – when you make an effort to write legibly, on a straight, invisible line, follow a margin, and without erasures, makes the effort of writing so much sweeter, according to retired Saint Louis University Mass Communication professor, Marie Lee Anne Castro.

She may have embraced the digital form of correspondence but Marie remains a believer of traditional letter writing. In fact, in her many travels abroad, she mails post cards to her closest friends, relatives, and even to herself.

Marie started writing postcards to herself in 2014 when during a trip to the U.S.A., the restaurant, Fisherman’s Wharf offered to mail for free, the postcards they issued to their customers. She decided to write a postcard to herself to remind her of that trip.

Several trips after, she created her own tradition and has been sending postcards back home, even when she brings with her, her digital camera and cellphone which she uses to capture as many snapshots as she can.

Marie keeps these postcards in an album because to her, they are substitutes to digital pictures.

“I send letters/postcards to myself because they remind me of the places I’ve been to, and the wonderful times I spent in those places,” she said.

Marie still sends letters via snail mail to her closest friends and relatives because compared to email, a handwritten letter is more intimate and more personal. And compared to email, which can only be accessed if one is connected to the Internet, letters can be kept and read again anytime she wants to.

The stamps that come with snail mail are also worth keeping. An amateur philatelist, Marie says snail mail educates her about the culture of where the mail comes from.

Overseas worker Janah Mara has taken the practical and convenient route when communicating with her relatives in Ilocos Sur. Now based in Kuwait, Janah has long abandoned snail mail and prefers video calls and SMS to keep in touch with her loved ones. She did not, however, forget to write notes to friends, colleagues, and her boss.

On special occasions, she buys especially crafted cards and gives these to a colleague or a friend. She also looks forward to receiving birthday cards from her boss because to her, receiving a handwritten note or letter evokes sincerity from the giver. At their home in Ilocos Sur, she has kept letters from friends, suitors, and loved ones and every time she comes home, she reads these letters again.

Janah said handwritten letters sent via snail mail evokes beautiful memories that she will treasure dearly.

There are things that technology changed and we cannot predict if snail mail will still be here in the future. But for as long as there are people like Marie and Janah, who still support traditional letter writing, our beloved mamang kartero is here to stay


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