All packed up

This article was inspired by my parents’ first trip back to Manila, ten years after we migrated to Australia.

If there’s one enduring symbol of Filipinos all over the world, it’s the balikbayan box. Whether we’re travelling home or merely sending presents to relatives, packing these nondescript brown boxes has become a Christmas tradition for many expats.

My Aussie friends, used to exploring entire continents carrying no more than a backpack, are aghast to learn that Filipinos travel with boxes. ‘What do you put in them?’ my friends ask. I shrug. ‘Pretty much anything you can think of.’

The demands of pasalubong (gift-giving) can be a burden, particularly for travellers. Having to pay for excess luggage is totally un-Filipino. Two kilos overweight? Say goodbye to your spare clothes and toiletries — anything to spare the SPAM. After all, canned meat is practically currency back home.

It’s even worse on the trip back, as you try to cram twenty bags of ChocNut, two bidets and four weeks’ worth of intense bargain hunting into a finite space.

For this reason, the weighing scale is the most well-calibrated piece of equipment in a Filipino house. Before their last trip home, my parents spent several nights kneeling beside an open box perched on a scale, assorted souvenirs bearing the word ‘Australia’ strewn around the room. Two days before departure, Dad triumphantly exclaimed, ‘Thirty-nine point five kilos!’ It was a beautiful moment.

The art of packing balikbayan boxes is passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a skill requiring tremendous patience and practice, with some key essentials for success.

Packing Tip 1: Carry on, baby!

Handbags, nappy bags and even children’s backpacks are excellent for smuggling in those extra kilos. Remember when stringent restrictions for carry-on baggage were enforced in major airports? Filipinos weren’t worrying about potential terrorist attacks. We were wondering how to pack forty tins of corned beef without exceeding our baggage allowance.

Packing Tip 2: If there’s air, the box is not yet full.

In a balikbayan box, any space is wasted space. It’s amazing what you can fit into a shoebox, aside from shoes. In fact, it’s amazing what you can fit into a shoe. Those air soles are the perfect cushion for small breakables wrapped in hankies and socks. Just make sure you remember where you hid everything, or you might discover that those opal earrings you stashed away in a pair of basketball shoes were accidentally given to your nephew’s girlfriend.

Packing Tip 3: Think outside the box.

Luggage, guitar cases, surfboard bags — if you can seal it shut then it’s good enough to carry canned goods. Even coffins are fair game, according to the critically acclaimed short film, Balikbayan.

If Schapelle Corby were Filipino, she would never have been caught with drugs in her bag. Four kilos of cannabis in a boogie board bag is plainly a waste of space. On the other hand, she might have been caught smuggling in some dried fish or contraband pastillas — and forty cans of corned beef.

This article was first published in the December/January 2007 issue of the Australian Filipina.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s