The box stood out right away.
Lots of boxes and packages and envelopes—of different sizes, shapes, and colors—arrive at this residence on a regular basis. The closest town with stores & services is over thirty miles away, and the selection—while not abysmal, and for many things adequate—leaves some things to be desired. Plus, even for goods that can be procured there, the extra costs of gas money and driving time are added to the sticker price. So, long story short, we mail order a lot of things here, and are on a first name basis with the UPS driver.
But even so, this particular box caught my eye: It featured bright orange colors and was labeled “Industria Argentina * Argentina Produce.” I was quite happy to find that it was addressed to me!
It had arrived the day before, so I felt comfortable handling it (for future readers, this was during the 2020 pandemic, when we would let packages sit overnight before touching them), and I went to pick it up. I was immediately surprised by its heavy weight for its size. I set it back down and inspected it more closely. The contents were revealed in English in only two places, in rather small lettering, and the first one I found was a label that had clearly been affixed later, I assume in the United States: “Seedless Organic Select Thompson Raisins.” Ooh! Now I was really psyched!
Ordinarily—as in, for the last twenty years—I have ordered bulk food items like this through whatever local food co-op that’s nearby. It’s an easy enough process and the wait time is generally less than ten days. There’s no shipping charges or other fuss, and the price usually can’t be beat. But, because of shortages due to the pandemic, my local food co-op here is not taking bulk orders. Apparently, it’s been too much of a challenge to keep their own bulk section stocked and do customer orders. This has been disappointing, but I definitely feel for the folks working there; these are stressful times to be in retail, for sure. Even dangerous. (And here I refer not only to the risk of contagion but to the recent spate of shootings by customers upset about store policies requiring face masks.)
So after much research, I had ordered these raisins from an online distributor (not Bezos’ evil empire), but then had forgotten about them. Mail orders can take a long time these days; you just never know.
But even besides the surprise of its arrival, it was a thrill to get this box. Certainly, so much of what we consume or wear or use is grown or manufactured overseas, but unless we look at a tag or sticker, it’s not often called to our attention. This box, though, was very explicit about its foreign origin: the nearly exclusive use of Spanish, the various logos and seals, the stamped numerals. Last but not least, there was a map on the front of the box showing what part of Argentina the raisins came from.
In a word, the box was “exotic.” And “exotic” = “exciting.”
(In a notable coincidence, the Argentinian state of production was “San Juan,” and the date of the raisins’ arrival, May 8th, happens to be the Eastern Orthodox Church’s feast day for St. John.)
I was expecting the raisins to come from California, considering how huge that state’s output is: first or second in the world, depending on the year, a ranking traded back and forth with the nation of Turkey. The US is a net exporter of raisins, and traded 127,054 tons in the 2016-2017 year. Why these came from Argentina, I don’t know, but international trade is an amazing thing.
It’s not a new thing, either. Europe got hooked on coffee, sugar and chocolate in the age of sailing ships. The Vikings traveled all the way to the Black Sea, and the forests of the Mediterranean were razed for shipbuilding in the time of the Ancient Greeks. The common housecat spread from Egypt and the Middle East in part by accompanying merchants on their boats.
Nor was travel and trade limited to the West. A Chinese age of exploration preceded the European one by centuries, and at its peak, giraffes from Africa were displayed in the courts of the emperors. Evidence exists for contact between the Americas and Asia and the Americas and Africa many thousands of years ago.
But over the course of my lifetime—the last half century—global trade has exploded. As measured in US dollars, it has increased from just over $300 billion to nearly $20 trillion. That’s 61 times more. This has changed the world in many ways. In terms of products, the exotic has become increasingly mundane. Culturally, Westernization has been spreading by leaps and bounds. Environmentally, the whole planet is now up for sale and is being plundered for the sake of exports at an unprecedented rate. For human rights it’s been a brutal disaster, as land is stolen and people enslaved, including children. And, as the current pandemic shows us, infectious disease can now race around the world faster than ever. All this and more comes under the rubric of “globalization.”
The end of trade on this scale—of what is really a scourge—is likely to come well before another half century passes. If for no other reason, the cheap fuel that serviced it will not last that long. (Yes, there still is such a thing as “peak oil” even though people don’t talk about it as much as they once did.) Also, the climate will also not allow it. Ports will be submerged by rising waters, commodity crops will be destroyed by extreme weather, nations will increasingly focus on mere survival.
So this box of raisins from Argentina, which is a miracle of sorts, represents a system that is on its way out, and that’s a good thing. Yes, it’s a fun novelty to get a box from a distant land, but no, it’s not sustainable. In the future, my raisins will more likely to come from the US, and at some point, hopefully, from my own time and labor, harvesting and processing grapes myself. I’ve already started that project, too; in the plant nursery here, I have dozens and dozens of grapes sprouting from seed that I saved from feral vines last year in Lake County, California. I’m so delighted about them, but it’ll be a few years.
Oh, and how did these “pasas de uva” taste? ¡Deliciosas!