For many Caribbean communities across New York City, carefully curating barrels to ship to relatives outside of the U.S. is a relatively common practice. Fueled by an urge to provide for loved ones left back home, the Caribbean diaspora in New York, and cities around the country, meticulously source a variety of sought-after goods, intricately packing them in barrels on the cusp of overflowing and eventually mailing them overseas. The unconventional shipping method is the most affordable way to get a hefty load abroad. More than four million barrels are shipped from the northeast to the Caribbean annually, indicating a strong demand for merchandise from the U.S and a thriving business in this niche logistic sector.
For years, I watched my partner's family in Brooklyn pack barrels to send to aunts, uncles, and cousins in Grenada. As an African American born and raised in Queens, the process was both vaguely familiar and completely foreign to me. The neighborhood I grew up in—on the border of Richmond Hill— featured many small shipping companies emblazoned with signs promising fast cargo deliveries to places like Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana, and Trinidad. But I never needed to ship anything outside of the states, so my experiences were limited to the likes of the post office, UPS and FedEx.
As I spent more time around my Grenadian partner and his family, my understanding of small-scale international logistics–and the crucial role that 55-gallon drums play in it–evolved. Barrels don’t just linger around collecting junk; their lifecycle is choreographed and predictable. The cardboard fiber or blue plastic containers would appear, slowly accumulate a multitude of items, and then vanish, with the process eventually repeating itself a short while later. The vast variety of goods being shipped initially confused me. While I could understand sending certain things—like name brand clothing and shoes— I couldn’t comprehend the need for basic products like bags of rice or ramen noodles. Over time, I inadvertently learned a fair amount about why Caribbeans opt to ship these things–consumer packaged goods that are totally commonplace in the U.S.– back home. Aside from a sense of obligation to look after those left behind, logistically, it just makes economic sense.