Remittance by the Barrel
May 12, 2022 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I send barrels home every six months,” says Niko Bristol, who relocated from Grenada to Brooklyn two years ago. “I’ve sent laptops, juicers, generators, crockpots, clothes, groceries, and a bunch of other stuff back home.”
posted by MollyRealized (34 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating! Thanks for pointing to this.

It's a chancy business shipping things from the US to my parents' country (India) so people often ask relatives, friends, and distant acquaintances to carry stuff in their luggage for delivery from the US to relatives in India. This barrel system looks positively convenient by contrast!

In Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, people packing shipments for space shuttles/stations fill every nook and cranny with useful little "vitamins" (a term for all the stuff that, while useful in itself, is there partly as filler to cocoon the main thing being shipped). I wonder what the most popular filler objects are for the barrels and whether there are fads in filler!
posted by brainwane at 10:58 AM on May 12 [9 favorites]


Island economies are crazy. My sister lived in Curaçao for a couple years and it was simpler for her and my brother-in-law to "buy" my dad's old car (I don't think any money actually changed hands) and ship it than it was to find a reliable car on the island. Believe me, they tried. My mom and I drove the car to Houston and 100% filled the trunk with other stuff they asked for before dropping the car off with a freight forwarding business (owned by a family friend, which helped somewhat). It's been 25 years and I would be surprised if that car's not still tooling around the island somewhere.
posted by fedward at 11:06 AM on May 12 [11 favorites]


This is amazing. Shipping things to my mother-in-law in Romania is expensive and always faces a 10-15% chance of the stuff being stolen or lost, plus it takes forever to get there. Sending her a 55 gallon drum for $80-125 including the drum would be amazing. The solution folks in these islands have developed is so much better.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:11 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


For the longest time my request to anyone travelling to Japan would be to bring me back some socks and underclothes from Uniqlo. Now that we've got Uniqlo here I just get them myself. Going the other way I remember taking a couple of bags of licorice allsorts for a friend. Even between developed nations with lots of trade there are still many things, especially low value stuff, that are hard to obtain if you aren't in the right country.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:16 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I'm sure I read an article a few years ago - maybe here on metafilter - about how a certain community would do this by stuffing used cars full of goods, because car shipping was cheaper and the shipping companies were willing to pretend not to notice. I haven't been able to find the article, though.
posted by moonmilk at 11:18 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


In South Florida, it's very common to have relatives from the islands do a ton of shopping to bring back with them while they're visiting for the holidays, etc. One of my aunts was at the mall nearly every day during such a trip a few years ago. That barrel transport method sounds quite cost-effective for those who can't book such trips.

Even between developed nations with lots of trade there are still many things, especially low value stuff, that are hard to obtain if you aren't in the right country.

This is me with dolly mix. If anyone I know is going to the UK and asks if I want anything, that's always the first (and sometimes the only) thing I ask for.
posted by May Kasahara at 11:37 AM on May 12


This was really interesting! I can't believe how cheap the price is to ship a barrel to another country! In Canada, I'd have to pay that much to ships a few books to Vancouver.

Here we have a different domestic shipping problem, which is how to get things into fly-in communities in the North, where basic goods are ruinously expensive. For awhile, CanadaPost had a flat-rate shipping box that was flat-rate even to the North and people would use them to send all sorts of things, but I think they've discontinued that.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:02 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


The practice of containerization changed the face of the global economy in a kind of fascinating way. Extending the benefits down to the family scale is exactly the kind of access to the world that tiny or developing nations need.
posted by majick at 12:20 PM on May 12 [9 favorites]


In case anyone else was wondering what dolly mix is after reading May's comment.
posted by MollyRealized at 12:29 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


I liked reading that & I thought it was interesting how much of the system works simply through people responding to other peoples needs in a thoughtful, effective & efficient way. Growing up as a white person in the US almost nothing is set up like that & all of our various systems are dysfunctional if not actively harmful. So I find it heartening when I see people doing what people are supposed to be doing, getting shit done.
posted by bleep at 12:31 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Growing up in my very white bread hometown, every summer we'd have farm workers up from the Caribbean to pick fruit. They'd buy all kinds of stuff to send back. One supermarket catered to them, having all kinds of (to us) exotic products in stock. Massive sacks of rice of no brands the locals would know. Tools from Canadian Tire were especially popular -- there was a whole subtrade going in Canadian Tire money.

Now I know how it all got back.

Those workers were treated horribly, but us locals all convinced ourselves that they had a really good deal. Sure, they worked hard for those summer months, but they lived like kings when they got home, right?

Oof.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:43 PM on May 12 [5 favorites]


"communities in the North, where basic goods are ruinously expensive"

I can't even imagine how bad those fully "fly-in" ones are for cost of shipping, in Iqaluit many families find it is actually more cost-effective to purchase a used shipping container (half-size typically), and then fill it in the "South" and have it shipped by sea during the summer window when the port is open (Sealift). (And at least Iqaluit also has "Amazon Prime" delivery, where... normally here in the south, I see the price of Amazon groceries and shake-my-head, they are actually cheaper than what you can obtain in physical stores in Iqaluit)
posted by rozcakj at 12:57 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


This is where the term "barrel children" comes from -- children whose parents went abroad to work and send home remittances and barrels. Wikipedia link; pretty typical article.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:58 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


In South Florida, it's very common to have relatives from the islands do a ton of shopping to bring back with them while they're visiting for the holidays, etc.

I was always fascinated by the services at Miami International Airport that wrap your luggage in shrink wrap before it's checked in. I don't think I've seen it in many other airports. New York has them, though.

My brain tried to explain it as either "people don't trust the zippers on their bags", or "people don't trust CBP/TSA to not steal their stuff", but it seems more like it's because people are loading their bags to the freaking gills and beyond for the trip home.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:09 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


man i wish i could do something to limit duties to mexico and argentina. I'd use barrels like crazy.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:12 PM on May 12


Been to Cuba a couple of times. Those plane rides were fine but everyone other than tourists had bags stuffed with bicycle parts, random electronics, cookware etc. The checked baggage area at arrivals in Havana was amazing - so many vacuum sealed packages of anything and everything

I once benefitted from an Air Jamaica flight attendant bringing in a replacement A/C condenser for my Mitsubishi RVR wagon when I lived in Grand Cayman. Saved me a metric shitload of taxes and custom delays…..it was sent from Japan to Jamaica and then flown in to my mechanic through the global “friends and family” flight attendant network apparently…...
posted by inflatablekiwi at 1:26 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Island economies are crazy.

I remember the punchline to an article about this in The Economist, decades ago:

That's the problem with islands - they're surrounded by water.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:45 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I believe the rough equivalent of this for the Philippines is the balikbayan box which, as the name suggests, is a box rather than a barrel.
posted by mhum at 2:11 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


We used to pack commercial diving and oil pipeline equipment in comic books and jeans when it was being sent from Texas to Scotland.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 3:06 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


I just said "OH!!" out loud as soon as this image loaded. I live in Bed-Stuy and my local grocery store has a ton of those brown cardboard barrels, lined up on top of one isle of shelves. I guess I always assumed they were storage for the grocery store. I had no idea.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:41 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Going the other way I remember taking a couple of bags of licorice allsorts for a friend. Even between developed nations with lots of trade there are still many things, especially low value stuff, that are hard to obtain if you aren't in the right country.

You should go check out Reddit SnackExchange.

Also: why aren't the plastic barrels reusable? Too awkward to ship back to the USA?
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:52 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


any portmanteau in a storm: Even between developed nations with lots of trade there are still many things, especially low value stuff, that are hard to obtain if you aren't in the right country.

True, and this is one of the joys of travelling. I buy wooden clothespins in Denmark every chance I get, because they are constructed differently (compare: Dutch and Danish) and the Danish ones, with their large curly spring and thicker metal wire, are just superior.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:05 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I just got back from the Turks and Caicos Islands (most of the way to Puerto Rico). I was gob-smacked to notice -- which marks my naiveté -- that there's *nothing* on that island that wasn't brought there by ship or plane.

Without a eep-water port, it's all smaller ships -- not big freighters -- and thus none of the economy of scale that a big container ship can deliver. There's about 40,000 people over 13 islands, which is roughly the same as my New England suburb. Everything costs more, so I can see where privately getting stuff you need from someone in the U.S. would be a huge advantage to them.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:53 AM on May 13


JoeZydeco: Also: why aren't the plastic barrels reusable? Too awkward to ship back to the USA?

The article describes the blue barrels being used as rain barrels, washtubs, and to hold drinks at parties. It's the cardboard ones which are discarded, which I guess makes sense -- though I could certainly find a use for some of those around the house!

But yeah, the barrels would probably almost the same cost to return to the U.S. empty as they were to ship full, and who's going to pay for that? (Other than maybe an entrepreneur who, say, imports handicrafts or something.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:56 AM on May 13


Fascinating that, while the barrels are packed ultra-tight, they are still round barrels in a square shipping container.
Lots of empty space in-between.

Its a collision of two massively popular containerization systems from different centuries.
posted by bug138 at 8:15 AM on May 13


That, and they arrange them in rows at right angles, losing another chunk of floor space!
The real world is so sub-optimal.
posted by tigrrrlily at 9:54 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Fascinating that, while the barrels are packed ultra-tight, they are still round barrels in a square shipping container.

That was itching at my brain the whole time, too.
posted by praemunire at 10:25 AM on May 13


I wonder if it is because the are easier to move by hand? You can roll or walk a barrel a lot easier than a box, so if it's hundreds of pounds, easier to get it to the shipping point especially in NYC where most people don't have a car.
posted by tavella at 11:05 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


The article says essentially that. But also a barrel for the weight is way way stronger than the square box it would fit into. This is important where you are dealing with what is essentially break bulk cargo even though it is being shipped in a container.
posted by Mitheral at 11:45 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


Good points, both. Thanks.
posted by praemunire at 1:15 PM on May 13


That, and they arrange them in rows at right angles, losing another chunk of floor space!
The real world is so sub-optimal.


I'm pretty sure you wouldn't gain anything by offsetting them, since four across fills the container edge to edge as shown in the photo in the article.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:36 PM on May 13


(Wood) barrels were the original shipping containers and most everything came in them once upon a time.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 3:11 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


(Wood) barrels were the original shipping containers and most everything came in them once upon a time.

The amphora and the pithos say Χαῖρε.
posted by Etrigan at 3:34 PM on May 13


We moved when I was 4 and the moving company left at least three of those cardboard barrels. When I was 10 or 12, I used one to crawl into and roll down a small hill. Perhaps the dizziest I've ever been.
I still have one of the barrels, and it's packed full of stained glass remnants. I told my granddaughter about rolling down the hill, so every once in a while I have to empty it out so she can roll down our hill.
A year ago I was looking to see if I could buy one, but thought it was too expensive for a toy. Guess they'd be cheaper in Grenada.
posted by MtDewd at 6:19 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


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