Adventures in International Shipping

Just how do we transport the contents of an entire household from one continent to another?  This week, I will relate the twists and turns of my household goods as they passed from Nashville, Tennessee to Cape Town, South Africa.

I should really start with the preliminaries.  I lived in a four-bedroom house in the United States, with a finished floor area around 3000 square feet (279 square meters).  That didn’t include the two-car garage or utility shed, both of which were fairly cluttered, and an attic area that I had loaded with a variety of boxes.  Because I had been planning to move since mid-2014, I had aggressively reduced my inventory through several avenues.  I sold some items, but many were given away to friends through Facebook (some of my friends were so caring that they took me aside to make sure I wasn’t thinking of harming myself).  A large pile of old clothing and housewares made its way to the local Goodwill store.  I had to give some thought to electrical concerns, and I dispatched many electronic devices because they could not run on 240V power (though I did forget some light bulbs; see below).  I was ruthless in the attic, cutting down the heap one box at a time.

To plan a move well, you need to have some notion of what housing you will occupy on the other end.  I could only evaluate real estate possibilities in South Africa from network posts.  I had thought some recently developed condominiums and townhouses were likely candidates, but they would cut my space to around 150 square meters (1614 square feet), very much a smaller target.  I did not yet realize that garage space frequently gets counted as part of floor space in South African real estate listings!  I knew that individual room sizes would likely not scale well for American furniture, since we like cavernous rooms in the United States.  I was very sad to give up my king-size mattress set, but I knew it was unlikely that a condo or townhouse would have a bedroom of appropriate size for it.  I traded a friend for a queen mattress set and canopy bed frame.  With all these cut downs in place, I felt ready to move.

I was in the very fortunate position that the university recruiting me was willing to pay for a shipping container, full-service moving crews, customs assistance, and transit insurance.  If you have never moved in this style, let me just say it is totally worth it, so long as you are not paying the bill.  The bids for this service were pretty staggering in price.  If I remember the estimates correctly, they were in excess of $20,000.  Shipping containers, by the way, are the standard way to move a pile of random items from one place to another; they have greatly reduced the amount of time a container ship remains tied up at a port to offload goods.  The university required three bids, and each resulted in a visit to my Nashville home by an estimator who looked over the contents from top to bottom and computed the number of large and small boxes plus individual items required for the move.  My friend Gerard had gone through the same process six months before, and he decided to work with a familiar company, agreeing to pay the difference between the lowest bidder and his chosen company.

I was nervous that the estimates were not being collected in time, and so I emphasized to each estimator that the pickup of my items must take place before the end of October, 2015 (the scheduled closing on the sale of the house).  One of the companies took this very much to heart, and Coleman American scheduled the date of pickup for Friday, October 23rd.  When the big day arrived, the team of packagers arrived with mounds of boxes and wrapping paper (I’d accumulated boxes, but they were entirely unnecessary).  The workers moved at lightning speeds, and within six hours they had packaged up probably two-thirds of the house.  They explained that they would return on Monday, October 26th, so long as the container would be available for loading that day; failing that, I would see them on Tuesday instead.  I breathed easier knowing the end was in sight.

When Monday came, I gathered that the container wasn’t coming until Tuesday, since the team didn’t arrive.  When Tuesday came, I got distinctly panicky by 11 AM, since the team hadn’t reappeared.  Remember that I was closing the sale of the house on Friday, October 30th!  When I called the offices of the moving company, I received a considerable shock.  The company had not been selected as the winning bid by my new university home!  Their appearance on Thursday had been a miscommunication within the office.  Given that the selected moving company had not contacted me to schedule pickup, I was in a tight spot.  I called the company that had mistakenly started packing and struck a deal; they agreed to charge nothing for their Thursday work, and I would agree to pay them myself to send a team on the afternoon of Tuesday the 27th (the same day of our call) to pack the remainder, load it into moving vans, and house it at their warehouse for a month.  They were as good as their word, and by nightfall all my goods were in a warehouse.  I began a frantic 48 hours of runs to Goodwill and recycling centers with the remaining detritus of the house.  A friend directed me to a motivated cleaner who worked miracles on a short time scale.  A dear friend from my chorus made a last-ditch run to recycling with an SUV full of cardboard and paper.  I was out of my house in time for the close!

Remember, though, that the warehouse storing my goods was not owned by the company that would actually do the shipment.  Once my university settled on a moving bid, their U.S. partner company (Armstrong Relocation) had a visit to the offices of the company whose warehouse held my goods.  In order to ship, a representative from Armstrong had to see the items (not just the boxes or the lists of items) they were shipping to be able to make out the customs manifest!  As a result, Armstrong was compelled to empty out all those boxes from Coleman and transfer the contents to new boxes.  It was apparently quite involved, and I am grateful that I didn’t know much about it at the time as I was nailing down my visa while this was taking place.  The new boxes were then transferred to a twenty-foot shipping container; the company was concerned that I might have slightly too many items to fit, but the company found a way to get them all into the container.

I do not really know the date on which my container made it to a ship, nor do I know the port where it took place.  Nashville is not on the sea, after all!  In January, though, I learned the name of the ship.  It was called the “Dal Karoo.”  The Karoo is a desert area that’s on an inland plateau from the Western Cape, past the coastal mountains.  I hope to visit it someday.  The name of the ship could be translated as the “Karoo Dale (valley)”.  I was thrilled to learn that if you know the IMO number for the ship, you can track its movements quite precisely with the Vessel Finder website I’ve linked above.  The agent from the relocation company borrowed my passport on January 6th and returned it January 13th; he was able to handle all the customs paperwork in advance of the ship arrival, and I never had to make a personal appearance in the downtown / port area.  Just the same, I sweated bullets for a week to be without my sacred passport!

January 10th was a very big day for me, because the ship was scheduled to make landfall at Cape Town.  I had chosen the 10th as my day to move into Turtle House with this expectation in mind.  The ship was certainly near Cape Town on that date, but it could not come into the port because the winds in the area were so strong.  Dal Karoo continued on its course, passing to Port Elizabeth and Durban before reversing course and heading back in this direction.  It made port late at night on Saturday, January 23rd.  My container was offloaded earlier this week.  In this photo, you can see it on a truck beside Turtle House on Wednesday, January 27th, around noon.  Right away, you can tell it was going to be a tight fit to get everything inside!


The shipping container of my household arrives at Turtle House

After certifying that the container was the right number, the workers from Monarch Relocations were forced to remove a large wooden barrier that had been nailed into place.  One of the workers rolled his eyes: “the shipping agent in the United States thinks this is necessary because the container is coming to Africa.”  (The Western Cape province of South Africa is rather unusual in the efficiency of its government; corruption and pilfering are not commonplace here.)  With the barrier removed, the boxes were swiftly moving out of the truck and into mounds within my garage and driveway.


Anton unbundles items on day one of unpacking.

We formed into an effective team.  Violet stayed at the side of the container, dutifully recording the number of every box or bundle that came out of it.  Anton (pictured) was the unwrapper, slicing and pulling off the heavy wrapping papers with a box cutter, prioritizing items like table legs for retrieval (he was very good at it; I haven’t seen a single gouge from this process).  I was the dispatcher, pointing to the rooms that should receive items flowing in from the garage.  The rest of the team (I believe it was four different men, with forearms of steel) worked tirelessly.  We were very fortunate that a break in the heatwave had arrived!  As the day drew to a close, all the items were either in the house or boxed in the garage, and the team promised to come back the next day to help with unboxing.  After some bustling about, I was surprised at how livable my main area had become.  I unboxed and connected the TV and DVD player, and I watched a disc from the Nashville In Harmony chorus and then from the Klingon Collective to celebrate.


Dave’s home is surprisingly livable after the first day of unloading. Not pictured: a mound of boxes in the garage

The team was somewhat delayed on Thursday, January 28th, day two of unloading.  When they arrived, we had a brief strategy pow-wow.  My two reinforced bookshelves from the United States had not survived the journey; the Office Depot particle board shelves had broken into top and bottom pieces, and the cam bolts at the tops were particularly mangled.  We decided that any box marked “books” (and there are several) should be heaped in the garage until I work out a better place for them.  “Linens” were to go to the guest room atop the black bed I had rebuilt with my friend Erik, and “clothes” were headed for my bedroom.  “Office supplies” went to the front room (which featured a built-in desk next to my black desk, which I had reassembled that morning).  Any box with computer equipment inside was to come to me in the living area, where I would excavate the numerous computers and monitors destined for the Stellenbosch med school campus (note to potential thieves; they’re not here anymore).  Boxes of junk that I shied from dealing with in the hullabaloo (such as a box of saved gift bags from the attic) headed to the outdoor braai area.


Thursday afternoon is a bit of a blur to me.  I was slicing boxes and extracting contents as rapidly as I could.  Sometimes when we paused, we caught little mistakes.  I had sequestered some wooden legs that I was sure belonged to a low coffee table, but they really belonged to the dining table!  The Monarch crew wanted to be sure that I captured the “assembled” end table above; the legs are intended to be on the outside corners!  We also enjoyed a fun moment when the XXL sweatshirt for one of the Coleman packers turned up in one of the moving boxes.  Violet posed for a photo with the sweatshirt; it’s pretty clear it will never fit her!


With all this activity and so many boxes, it is unsurprising that every flat surface in the house was covered with items by nightfall.  That’s where I find myself now; organizing all these items into some semblance of order.  Clearly some of the things I shipped cannot stay here.  I now have a surplus of coffee and end tables.  It will be weeks before I have it all squared away, I am afraid.  Each day, though, I hope to make a little progress.  Just as the ship made it from America to South Africa by continuing, nautical mile by mile, I will settle into Turtle House a bit more with each passing day.  Thank you for your encouragement in this journey!


I have some cabinets to fill!



3 thoughts on “Adventures in International Shipping

  1. Pingback: Turtle House: signed, sealed, delivered! | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Angels visit Philippi Township: the South African Education and Environment Project | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Should you leave the United States? | Picking Up The Tabb

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