Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move: Packout

Packout: What We’ve Been Preparing For

On packout day, Jeff and I try to arrive at the house early. We each have notebooks and pens. We’re as prepared as we can be, but there are still uncertainties. Although we know what to expect procedure-wise, we have no idea what to expect from our moving crew. Will we have a crew of 4, 8, or 20? Will they stay together, break into two groups, or have to be prevented from breaking into three or more groups? Will they be conscientious and pack our things as carefully as if they were the owners, or will they do as little as possible and potentially put our things at risk? In our three moves, we’ve had both extremes: the American crew was very good, and we thought at the time that they were the gold standard; the Egyptian crew was atrocious; and the Cambodian crew overwhelmed us with their skill, their conscientiousness, and their professionalism—they are the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned.

The crew always consists of at least four men, usually five to seven men. One of them is the crew supervisor, and often, a manager will come too—I don’t recall if a manager came in the States, but one dropped by once or twice in Egypt, and one was here full-time in Cambodia (I think it was a requirement here because of language differences).

The procedure always has the same structure, though details may vary. The first priority always is to pack and weigh the UAB. The second priority is to pack the Storage. This procedure clears the way for the bulk of the packing—the HHE—to be free and clear, without worrying about mixing my piles.

In our previous moves, the crew supervisor packed the UAB, with or without help from one or two others, under Jeff’s supervision, while the rest of the crew got started on the Storage, under my supervision. In this most recent packout, the crew preferred to stay together, so everyone worked on the UAB, and when it was done, everyone worked on the Storage. This preference to stay together made it incredibly easy for Jeff and me to supervise—in the past, I’ve had to chase men down and tell them that they can’t work in that room yet, that they have to stay in one room where I can see them all; but this time, I never had to go chasing after anyone, and Jeff and I even were able to switch off for bathroom breaks without leaving anyone unsupervised.

Why the emphasis on supervision? Well … because this is our stuff and these are strangers. I believe that most people are mostly trustworthy. But some aren’t, and I don’t know which ones those are. So no one gets trusted until I know them better. Especially since even basically trustworthy people may have moments of weakness when faced with small items of relatively large value (in developing countries, an item worth $20 is valuable!) and a lack of supervision around those items. Plus, close supervision of the movers allows us to catch our mistakes before they become unfixable—if we’re watching each item go into the box, we’ll recognize that that charging cord shouldn’t go, and we’ll notice if the trash can still has trash in it (there have been cases of foreign service families opening their shipments to discover that the trash cans were still full, and the contents had been rotting in shipping containers for months). We also can verify that our things are packed appropriately; Jeff has given many lessons on the vulnerability points of certain electronics. Supervision also means that we can protect our safe areas from overzealous packers—the American ones were good in this regard, and the Cambodians were exceptional, but the Egyptians had to be told multiple times “No, put that back! Don’t pack any of that!”

Once the UAB is packed and weighed (giving us the chance to take items out or add more items, depending on how good our planning was), and the Storage is out of the way, it becomes more of a free-for-all: If it’s there and it doesn’t have an “X” on it, into a box it goes. Most of the embassy shippers have enough experience to recognize embassy furniture, embassy transformers, embassy lamps, and other things that stay with the house, so they usually avoid those things on their own—though Jeff or I watch constantly to be sure. The house becomes a mess of boxes (filled, made but empty, and not yet made), white paper, bubble wrap, tape … our stuff gradually disappears and is replaced by brown boxes, ideally with contents and room labeled, but always with Jeff’s full name and a number. The numbers are used for inventory control: the supervisor creates a master list with each box’s number, contents, and weight. In the past, Jeff and I have created our own inventory lists with box numbers and a more detailed description of the contents, as well as the box’s weight—we didn’t bother with that this time, as we’ve never actually used our lists in the past; they usually get set aside during unpacking because it takes so much longer to actually inventory everything as we unpack it, and we never manage to write down all the contents anyway, and we see the boxes get sealed in the crates, so it’s very uncommon for anything to go missing during transit. But we do value the copy of the master list we receive from the supervisor—we use it to make sure all the boxes make a reappearance on delivery day, and for some items that we want to unpack first, we can use the contents list to figure out which box they’re in.

This whole process takes anywhere from two to three days. Theoretically, it could take one, but that hasn’t happened for us. Most of our things usually get packed in one day, and then day two consists of putting the boxes in the crates (called lift vans), putting the lift vans in the truck (unless they were constructed and filled in the truck to begin with), and going over the paperwork. This time, it took a full two days to put everything in boxes. Day three was devoted entirely to constructing, filling, and loading the lift vans. Jeff and the manager met for a few moments on day four to go over the paperwork. It took longer this time both because we had more things, and because this crew took exceptional care to pack things well—they constructed boxes for a perfect fit around furniture, speakers, and other large or oddly-shaped items; they carefully supported our double-glass framed papyri with cardboard, paper, and bubble wrap before putting them in specially made boxes before putting them in specially made crates complete with extra styrofoam padding; they took the time to fill in around fragile items (like a small sculptures made from camel bone) with broken down styrofoam, as packing peanuts were not available. 

However long it takes, it always ends the same way: our stuff boxed up and trucked off to the warehouse to await customs clearance and loading onto the ship or plane, and us checking out of the hotel and moving into a shell of a house.

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move, Part:
3: Packout

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