Lessons Learned from Packing/Shipping for the Nth Time

Ah, the life of a rolling stone. In the Philippines we’re called NPA’s (No Permanent Address). Officially we’ve only lived in three countries — Thailand, Pakistan, and Nigeria — for four years each. But we’ve also changed locations numerous times. In Mississippi, for example, I moved four times in two years. During summer between jobs and countries we practically live out of  suitcases, shuttling between the US and Philippines. It’s good to know that we are getting better each time even if we have not come up with a perfect system yet.

Here are a few things that we’ve learned along the way:

Mentally Prepare Yourself Months If Not A Year Ahead

Knowing this will be your last year will affect decisions like where to spend your holidays and what to bring. One of my colleagues already started putting more items in her family’s suitcases when they traveled home to Canada during Christmas. We followed their example by bringing back to the US our Persian and Afghan rugs, but we should have also done the same for our DVD and music CD collection as another teaching couple did when they traveled to the US for spring break.

We also held on to the Rubbermaid and Sterilite tubs that we’ve used to bring stuff from the US. They are stronger than regular cartons (especially Rubbermaid, the Sterilites had a few cracks), and good to have around because we were able pre-pack a few things ahead of time.


Remember that Shipping Takes Months and Subject to Delays

We were advised against shipping to Nigeria, but allowed to ship out of the country. We normally ship our belongings between April-May so they will arrive in June or July. So far we have been fortunate, but not our colleagues. The longest I know were the books sent thru USPS that did not arrive in Islamabad until the following year. Our colleague did not receive her shipment from Tanzania to the US until October. It really depends with the countries of origin and shipping companies. But it sounds like a lot of shipment to and from Nigeria are delayed most of the time, and the delays could be for a number of different reasons. Last year the shipping company could not find a 40-foot sea container until May so many teachers who had to report for orientation at their new school/countries in August had to leave without their shipment.

Souvenirs & Handicrafts

This may not apply to every place, but we also compare the prices where we live and where we are moving to next as an excuse to go on a buying spree. In Pakistan we went crazy on rugs and carpets, gemstones, and furniture. In Nigeria it was over wood carvings, baskets, masks, and beads. The downside is we bought a lot just before the shipping date so we did not even get to enjoy these. But sometimes it is necessary to buy these at the last minute, because our place was getting cluttered. We did not buy as much in Thailand as it is one place that is easy to visit whenever we travel home to the Philippines.

Framing is way cheaper in all three countries compared to the US, so we also took advantage of this — so much so that we’ll probably run out of space on our walls if we combine all our framed stuff.

One of my mistakes this month was to ship almost all decorations. You see, when shipment was based on space we tend to cram everything in boxes. But our shipment in Nigeria was based on weight, so I organized everything in groups: masks, table cloth, beddings, and so on. I should have left some table runners and tapestries because our walls look so bare now. Thank goodness for plants.

carpets 013

Prohibited Export-Import Items

Sometimes US Customs will delay the release of a shipment. It happened to our friends when they brought Persian carpets during the Iraq trade embargo. We were also warned that it might be delayed if the US authorities want to fumigate everything in it. The shipment from Africa by another group of friends was held up when someone wrote on the manifest “elephant with tusks” to describe a wood carving. And we were advised against including alcohol (beer and wine are cheaper in Lagos) and seeds in any shipment to the US.

SONY DSCTo avoid such problems it is good to go over what is allowed and not allowed with your shipping representative. For example, CDs and DVDs are dirt cheap and widely available in Islamabad, so we had quite a collection of all seasons of Star Trek, Boston Legal, The West Wing, and other series — only to be told on the day of packing that we can’t include any CD or DVD! In Nigeria you need a permit from the National Commission of Museums every time you leave the country with handicraft items like wood carvings and masks. To that list we were advised to add cowrie shells (?) because these, along with trade beads, used to be the form of currency in Nigeria.

Breakage from Shipping & Handling

SONY DSCExpect the worst and assume that some damage may occur between the time your possessions leave your residence and reach its final destination. For this reason we try to ship only what can be easily replaced, or we take extra steps to protect the ones that are not. So far we have been lucky that nothing was broken or damaged in our previous shipment — but we really can’t say for sure because the ones from Pakistan went straight to storage in Seattle and remains there to this day. Some of our friends complained about broken dishes, pottery, and frames with glass — and I think I’ve avoided this by simply wrapping fragile items in a lot of towels, table runners, and table cloth. Unlike the shipping company in Thailand, the ones in Pakistan and Nigeria don’t have bubble sheets. But the guys in Pakistan were extra generous with the wrapping paper and reinforced their flimsy carton boxes by using two together.

We also had to think about water damage. One sea container had a hole so when it reached the US its contents were foot-deep in water. Our colleagues from Pakistan said their shipment from South America was taken out of its container and left on the docks with just a tarp over it for weeks. These are extreme cases, and the best we could do was use lots of garbage bags for waterproofing and a few bay leaves against bugs and ants.

Starter Kits & Flat Packages

They are great! We did not bring much when we moved from Bangkok to Islamabad. Our school had starter kits that included pots and pans, pillows and sheets, dishes and flatware for our first month so we could take time to buy our own. So we were able to borrow these items from the school again after we shipped ours. In Nigeria we pre-sold our flat package (bought from previous teachers) to a newly hired teaching couple. What this means is we don’t have to ship everything, and we could still use the dishes, cookware, and other household items until we leave.

Extra Luggage

We saved two Rubbermaids and 6-7 suitcases for the day we leave. It is actually prudent to pack your suitcases before shipping and have 2-3 empty ones. This way there is still room for things often overlooked, like going-away presents and all those chargers, adaptors, and cables. We are also amazed at how heavy paper is — and we try to ship as many, but could not entirely avoid having to handcarry important documents like contracts, birth and marriage certificates, insurance, medical records, etc.

Letting Go of Some

Moving and shipping is probably the expat version of spring cleaning. We have had to sell, donate, give-away so much stuff with each move and when I look at the photos of our former homes I sometimes think “shouldn’t have sold those bird baths,” or “where is that painting now?” But for most part it’s okay, even therapeutic to let go of material things — most of them can be replaced or we can do without. What I truly miss the most are the intangibles: moments spent cooking in the kitchen, entertaining guests or simply chilling in the living room, harvesting herbs from the gardens, and admiring the unique views from our windows and balconies.

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