Romy Arietta’s small apartment in Chicago is packed with stuff. There are stuffed animals, collectible figurines, and pots and pans crowding the kitchen. But he doesn’t just collect for himself.
Near the door are three big cardboard boxes, bound for family members in Quezon City in the Philippines.
“My sisters, my brothers,” says Arietta. “My sister’s the one that gives it to all my brothers and in-laws and nephews and nieces.”
The boxes hold groceries, clothes, and other souvenirs from America. Arietta sends them every couple of months. In Filipino, they’re called balikbayan boxes, and there’s a whole industry devoted to their door-to-door delivery.
The balikbayan tradition goes back many decades. Alpha Nicolasin remembers receiving boxes as a child in the Philippines.
“In Filipino we say it’s ‘amoy America,’ meaning to say it smells like America,” she says, “because it smells like chocolates, it smells like soap, goodies that come from the States. So it has a certain smell to it.”
Today Nicolasin works for a Chicago-area company that ships balikbayan boxes, called Cirera Express. The boxes take 4-6 weeks to arrive by sea, but people put up with the slow delivery because it’s cheap. Nicolasin says by air, the boxes, which typically weigh around 100 lbs, would cost hundreds of dollars to send. By sea, it’s only around $75 per box.
Now many of these balikbayan companies are pitching in on typhoon relief. Nicolasin is soliciting donations that her company will ship for free.
“They can bring it to our warehouse, we’re putting together boxes for shipment,” she says. “Non-perishable items, clothes, blankets, toiletries, shampoo, soap…”
Nicolasin says they’ll ship out whatever they get next week. But there’s a new challenge to getting the balikbayan boxes where they’re needed: the major Port of Tacloban was destroyed by the typhoon. Nicolasin hopes by the time her Nov. 20 shipment gets there, alternative routes will have been established to get the supplies where they’re needed.
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