Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Permission To Speak, Sir.

Lovers of things English (or British to be less racist--see BBC assessment before you stick in the boot) may remember the 1960s-70s TV sitcom, 'Dad's Army', about the Home Guard during the Second World War. The Home Guard consisted of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age. The platoon was led by 'Captain Mainwaring' (pronounced “Mannering”; a pompous, but essentially brave and unerringly patriotic, local bank manager, who appointed himself leader of the 'platoon), and he had three key 'sidekicks': 'Sergeant Wilson' (diffident, upper-class bank clerk who would quietly question Mainwaring's judgement ("Do you think that's wise?"); ' Lance Corporal Jones' (old campaigner who had joined up as a drummer boy aged 14 and participated, as a boy soldier in the 19th century Boer War, famous for urging "Dont panic!" and deferentially saying "Permission To Speak, Sir"); and 'Private Pike' (a mummy's boy, constantly wearing a thick scarf with his uniform to prevent illness, and often the target of Mainwaring’s derision (“Stupid boy!”), Pike was a junior bank clerk. He called Wilson “Uncle Arthur”, and although never explicitly stated, it was often implied that Wilson and Pike’s mother were having a relationship. It was also occasionally suggested that Wilson was Pike’s father...). The comedy revolved about how this platoon often never managed to really help the war effort with its bungling. The show was set in a fictional seaside town on the south coast of England.

Some interchanges over the weekend left me with the strong impression that at least one Barbadian (I dare not use 'Bajan' in case that leads to another diatribe) thinks that no foreigner has the right to point out anything wrong (sorry, not absolutely perfect) with this blessed little isle, even if it's mere repetition or amplification of what Bajans (oops) themselves are purported to say or think, as reported say in local newspapers or heard on the radio. To be fair to this 'person' (and I hedge the term because the anonymity of commentators means that one is not sure if this is real human thought being expressed or the results of a very elaborate computer algorithm) he/she/it needs very little prompting to vilify anyone for any remark, so my treatment is not unique. Anyway, that experience of feeling lashed by someone who loves to beat behinds is behind me now, and I will move on.

Undeterred, I will continue to point out things that are not as wonderful as they could be (see how I am learning quickly the language of positive thinking?). They only need a little tweaking to improve, so I am optimistic if everyone plays their part. My hope is that those concerned or observing or reading will learn and pass on lessons for how to be better. That is what I try to do in my daily interactions and I am never going to be put off by glazed expressions or shows of indifference or ridiculous remarks. But, in deference to the single dissenting opinion, I will seek 'permission to speak'. I will relate two related tales from the past two days.

First, I visited a police station on the Barbados south coast, with my little daughter. She was very nervous: "Is there a jail inside, Daddy?" she asked. I had to tell her that I was not sure, but we would ask. I had left my visitor's driving permit abroad after a recent trip and wanted to find out how and where I could get a duplicate (it still has a few months of validity) or obtain another permit. I had tried calling the Licensing Authority (LA) during the two previous days--during their stated working hours--but had not had anyone answer the phone on either day. That left me feeling a little frustrated. Breath in...out. Let's call that 'strike one', for those who wish to be critical.

In the station, I found three officers and three 'receptionists'. The police officer whom I met at the front desk (he did not greet me nor raise his eyes to look at me, hence my choice of verb), spun his pen as I asked my simple question about whether I could get a driver's permit. He was no young whipper-snapper, so would have been raised in those days when the country's values were in tact and people knew respect.

I had previously obtained a permit from a police station or a car rental office, so I naturally thought I could still do so. "You need to go to the Licensing Authority. We had a budget." His eyes remained fixed on his spinning pen. I tried to understand what that meant. I knew there had been a Budget; I had listened to it live and read the speech. "You need to go to Holetown police station after 3pm, though," came another answer, from a 'receptionist' sitting behind the officer. "We don't do permits anymore," came yet another reply from another officer. I digested all of that for a few seconds, then heard, "You can get a copy of the permit; they have it on record." Now, to write the text, I have to make the statements/sentences separate, but you have to imagine these remarks coming more or less at the same time, and my head whipping left and right as if I were watching a Nadal-Federer exchange at the net. However, after I filtered the comments, I thought that I had enough information, wished all of them a pleasant day, and left. But, I had a tinge of regret. The 'receiving' officer had raised his eyes to look at me as I was about to leave, and his pen was still spinning. I should have counted how many times the officer spun that pen. It's going to bother me that I did not do that. And I forgot to ask about the jail. But, my daughter--perceptive child--never mentioned it again. Let's call that whole episode 'strike two'.

The next day, I called LA--that's my literary licence at play, and I mean the Licensing Authority not somewhere near Hollywood--to check their hours and if I was right in thinking that I could get a permit from their office nearby. I also checked on the cost and duration of permits. I did not mention that no one had answered when I called the two preceding days: I wanted to leave a nice impression and show that I can move on without grudges. I then took a nice stroll along Pine East-West Boulevard to LA. I knew my mission and it was not impossible. I met two long lines of people in the office that seemed to deal with payments, but the sign suggested that you could get permits there. I joined one of the lines. It moved along quite quickly (note, more positives). 'Little England' may be little but it is not lesser (again, accentuate the positive). I promised myself to be on my best behaviour. When the buzzer rang someone pointed me to booth 11. I took off my cap before I spoke (someone once taught me that was polite).

DJ: Good morning. I bought a 12 month permit last April but left it overseas, recently. Do you have records of current permits, so that I could get a duplicate?
LA officer: No.You can get a permit for 2 months for B$10.
DJ: But I called the Licensing Authority this morning and was told it was 3 months for B$10. That's funny.
LA officer: Funny? Why funny?
DJ: Odd, then. I would think that your answers would be consistent.
LA officer: (SILENCE)

I gave the LA officer my overseas driver's license, and he began to fill out a form. He counted two fingers, then wrote on the form the licence duration as February 4-May 4, 2009. I pointed out that he had given me 3 months. He shrugged his shoulders. I guessed that the forms were numbered so he needed to keep the sequence and explaining the gap or some correction on the carbon copy might take a while.

I asked if I could renew the permit after it expires. He hesitated, and I took my cue: "Don't worry, I will just come back and get a new permit." I am no maths wizard, but without my fingers I could work out that if I (or anyone) will be visiting and staying for 12 months then paying B$10 six times for 2 months each, is cheaper than B$100 for 12 months; better still if you get a friendly LA officer who can let you have 3 month permits for B$10. I would love to help the PM balance his Budget but not with this. Where else in Barbados can you get a service with a 40-60 percent discount on the price?

Clearly, someone will review the records and will point out to the LA officer concerned that he has made an administrative error. But, maybe not. I was told in LA that there are no records kept (despite what the police told me, and they are never wrong, right?) . I walked out, back into the light of the day, and cast an eye down at my new permit and the receipt for it that I had been given: the official receipt shows "...permit (for under 2 months)". I felt a little confused. Let's call that whole episode 'strike three'. (In passing, I have to point out something stunningly brilliant about Britain/'big England' and drivers' licences. When you get one, it's for life, well up to age 70. You see, they know that you do not need to go through this guff more than once.)

One great thing about travel is that you get to see the world. That is patently obvious. What I mean is that you get to see the many things in the world and compare. Somethings are startlingly the same--like bad bureaucracy (Russia, Uganda, Germany, Mexico, Jamaica...appalling is appalling)--but many things are truly very different. On the physical level it can be clear. Winter in Norway (say mid-February), with its coldness, and snow for months, and days when there is more darkness than light, is much different than in tropical Barbados, with its warmth, where the sun shines most of the time. Procedures for getting driving permits too are very different (see procedures for foreigners wanting to drive in Norway). Note a key difference with Barbados:

'It is now required that everyone wishing to get a Norwegian drivers license take the driving test. If you change your license within one year of getting your residence permit you are not required to take the theory test, but you MUST take the driving test.'

No visitor's permit. You have to get the 'full Monty' national licence and prove that you can drive. I don't want to be developed.

So, I gave Barbados three strikes, and normally that would mean you're out. I know that Test cricket is on now so I should not use a baseball metaphor, but the problem with cricket is that you can play badly all day long and still not be out. I want this thing to get to a finish. But as Barbados walks back to the dugout, there is no need for its shoulders to slump. This was not a failure, but a challenge. You will get another chance to bat.

My lesson from my recent experiences is that Barbados is really a simple place and some people like it that way and want to keep it that way. I have been told in several organizations "That's too sophisticated for us" or "They can do that in America/England, but don't try that here". I looked around the office concerned and saw the banks of computers and I heard the beeps of computer games being played on them. When I was at a police station recently, I asked a favour and was told that it would be done in a minute. I waited 10 minutes and asked, "Did I misunderstand the reply?". To that question I got, "We'll do it when we are not busy." The people concerned were doing nothing--in my humble opinion: the three 'receptionists' were in front of phones that had not rung since I walked into the station (but could have erupted into a barrage of panic-stricken ringing any moment), and the three policemen were sitting on stools or looking out of the window 'keeping their eyes peeled'(waiting to see a crime, I guess).

I say it again. Barbados is a service economy and will live or die on the quality of that service in every sector. I have suffered excellent service in other countries and I have had it here on very rare occasions, and it feels good and refreshing. Being made to feel that you count is not trivial. Getting consistency should not be the preserve of 'them up north'. If service is not excellent then, my fellows, mediocrity will rule the day, and Johnny will not be able to play anymore: sit on the bench until you are better at it. Better still, let me give you a beating so that you understand better.

I hold firmly that if you point out to someone here hat they have done less than sterling service or worse something silly (sorry, made an understandable error), you are often greeted with silence or a ridiculous reply. Silence used to signify consent, and in my simpleton's head I would expect to see a correction. The ridiculous reply? I do have a keen sense of humour.

1 comment:

Jinxie said...

I thank the gods that this European pedantry usually stays on your own shores. If you are in a country, you accept the local culture or you complain. There is also a third alternative: leave.
That being said I take your point, occassionally the service in Barbados is poor. As a 'foreigner' you would expect better treatment, no?