Welcome

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.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Not Leaving On A Jet Plane

Today, I am going personally "where no man has gone before", to borrow from Star Trek. I am going to travel on LIAT--again. My wife does it all the time and curses as soon as she arrives at the airport and starts sending me messages: "We're delayed..." "We are on board, due to take off..." " We are still on the ground; mechanical problems..." "We are back in the terminal..." "Flight has been cancelled. Coming home..." "My bags did not come...". "I'm in Martinique. I don't know why." "We have turned back to Antigua..." The other day I knew what she really felt: she booked with Caribbean Airways and booked me on LIAT! Going to the same place. What the ----! I see your faith, woman.

She has tried to calm my fears by telling me that the flight is direct. But, so what? Direct does not mean that there is no chance for an unscheduled stop. Or it does means that my bag wont be left in Barbados and be waiting for me when I come back. It does not mean that I will take off on time and not have to spend half a day in an airport. I must admit that being stranded in Barbados is better than in Antigua--which I will dub the hub from hell. 

So, to what do I have to look forward? I spent time yesterday trying to explain to friend in Africa why travelling within this region is so hard. I told him of the ways that LIAT could be made into phrases so that it became a series of acronyms. He is a very witty and wordy guy, who regularly whips me at Scrabble. He came up so fast with his own set.

Living In A Tailspin
Life Is A Turnaround
Left In A Terminal (already have it)
Like It All? Thanks
Leaving In A Tardy (plane)
Life Is A Task

Life Is All Toil

Anyway, I just want the pilots to not be on strike, and better still not go on strike after we take off. I want the steward or stewardess to be there too after I have to open the emergency door, rather than having jumped first. I do not want more for an in-flight meal than a bag of chips and a box of juice. I don't have time for the full steak meal. 

Though LIAT cannot control the following, I also do not want any talkative person burdening me with his or her problems, and counting out money in her lap. I do not want a little child vomiting into my lap. I do not expect value for money, just a nice take off and landing. I do not expect points for my travel because I can never get any simple answer when I go to the office in Bridgetown. I wont hold grudges for those things. Why? LIAT is our regional airline and it is us. Lazy. Idle. Annoying. Tiresome. It is LIAT. It is Windies cricket in the air. Full of broken promises. It is politicians who cannot take responsibility for their short comings. I want LIAT to be like Usain Bolt--a good thing sent to the world--not like a spliff smoker or a gangster--a thing of shame from which I want to dissociate. So, make us all proud, no.

This is your last chance and I promise you, if you mess up this time and I have trouble getting to or from Dominica, you may wish that you had flights to Timbuktu.

Away From It All And Still There

This is probably the best time to be on vacation in Barbados. The madness that is Crop Over is coming to its climax as the wukking up has become frenzied and the mud is just ready for the lead up to Kadooment. What better time to head to the beach and just get away from the mad and maddening crowd. So, pack the car (with a small bag of swimming trucks, tee shirts and underwear) and hit the road. It was a better journey than I expected as I reached Burke's beach in just 10 minutes. I never believed that Carlyle Bay could be so mysterious. I had seen the houses as I walk the sand but to see the sand as I watched from the patio was intriguing. Now, I could gawp at the joggers and walkers and exercising people; with their dogs and iPods, and radios; with plastic bags and umbrellas, too.

Food was the best thing. Guavas from my yard were added to mangoes from my friends' parents' yard, were added to sour tamarinds that feel from the tree beside the beach house.But heavier food was just two minutes away at the Jamaican eatery, Kingston 10. Yea, man. Stew peas and rice and salt pig tail. Callaloo and salt fish and green banana and yam and sweet potato and dasheen. Stewed pork and rice and peas. Steamed snapper and pumpkin rice. Whooi! Too much of that.

The children? All day long on the sand with boogy boards. All day long in the sea. All day long not saying "I'm bored." Then night time came and they could stand by a bonfireand roast marshmallows.

Was it really a week of vacation? For my hosts, yes. But for me, just a few days passing through. Now I have to get back to reality. No Internet but just the ability to read messages on my phone. It was not the world's end.

Some great converstation with one of the country's former PMs: on cricket and not on matters of state.

That is what I like about a short holiday. You pack in a lot.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On The Trail Of The Snark

I'm not afraid to say that I have only a shallow understanding of Barbadians. You cannot say you know a people just from the contacts you have with those people, and two years is no time to get to know a lot of people. I've been married a total of 30 plus years and understanding is still a work in progress.

You get to learn a lot from those personal contacts, but it's important to remember that sometimes you are shown what people are prepared to let you see--and that can be both the good and the bad sides. The good can draw you in, if that is desired; the bad can ward you off, if that is preferred. But I am on the trail to get to know the inner Bajan. I get a sense of it dismissive side even when I do not have on my hunting gear. "You are a Jamaican. What can you tell us? Your country is so full of killers and killing and drugs and filth. Go back to where you came from!" Or a variation on the theme. Sometimes mere observation on my part can lead to an assault that is like a fusillade from a hunting rifle: "Why are you telling us what to do? You just came here? What do you know?" Or variations on that theme. It does not take much wit to say that because I have travelled a lot and seen a lot that I may know a lot more about what happens in the greater world than I see on this lovely rock of 166 square miles.

But that sort of observation comes from someone who is clearly an 'uppity educated newcomer'. That's some insult. As I would retort, let's hear it from the cobwebbed, know your place dummies of the world. You get a sense why some Americans cannot deal with the likes of Barack Obama (too educated and definitely very uppity, a newcomer of many degrees--not counting those he got from the Ivy League schools) or Louis Gates (super educated and so uppity that he does not let a policeman just walk into his house uninvited; and what is he doing coming to live in that stooshy neighbourhood?). Here's to progress. Onward! I doff my cap at that well know 'uppity educated' Barbadian, Errol Barrow, who once called Ronald Reagan "a cowboy" and a "zombie". He also ushered in free education in Barbados. What was he thinking? He could have saved taxpayers billions and put on a few good wuk up shows. Tschoupse!

Someone offered me alternatives to 'uppity' in good Bajan parlance and said that I was perhaps 'poor great' (a person of modest means or circumstances who may or may not have achieved a higher level of education/financial means/influence and acts and speaks in a haughty manner; this person avoids his or her old friends and may claim not to recognise common Bajan utensils, e.g. cou cou stick). I confirmed that I was not 'poor rakey' (of no account e.g. the West Indies Cricket Team or like a mongrel dog). I thought that I may be poor (but only in a relative sense), but neither 'great' nor 'rakey'.

I had a couple of weekend encounters with some deeply concerned and highly expressive groups of Barbadians, plus a passing encounter with their opposites--some highly charged, post-partying Barbadian youths. Both gave me some sight of the inner Bajan. My expressive friends--Bajan to the core and fiercely proud of themselves and their nation and compatriots, and experienced with life in the US or England. One lady told me the essence of "see me and don't see me" and "keep my name off your mouth". Her basic point was that foreigners need to understand that for many Bajans their observations come like needles into a thin skin, and the more the observations are made, the more the skin gets pierced and gets sore. See and don't see. Come here but do not do more than be respectful visitors.

Some other acquaintances told me of their own frustrations when trying to discuss things that they saw as in need of improvement. Having come back from England and gone back to live in their old local areas and near their families, it was somewhat like needing to pretend that things had not changed over the decades and carry on regardless. Please do not come and tell us how it is done in England. This is Barbados. Part of that also extends to less willingness to expose oneself to social comparison, which means a certain willingness to remain isolated even within a community setting. I've discussed this before in the context of how people view neighbourliness, but I had not had it presented to me by Barbadians who were living with the exclusion.

I am going to think more about my close encounter with the youthful kind. It was harmless and interesting but it had its troubling undercurrent, but I need to not jump too fast or too far.

The vocal moods of local people often leave foreigners with the distinct impression that any comment that does not drip with syrup and praise is taken as unwarranted criticism. In fact, the reaction to comments seem programmed and before any time could have been taken to read correctly, the conclusion is made that a criticism has been made and the autopilot starts to fly off the handle. People like me find this very irritating, especially when what is being said is merely a repetition of what some Bajan or several Bajans of note have written or said? Why can Tony Marshall say "What are the facts?" but I cannot. Why can some prominent Bajan say "We love to complain but we do nothing" but I cannot. Why cannot I share the observation that no one follows rules and everyone expects things to somehow get better at the time? Where does this sense of denial start? It certainly extends beyond a reaction to foreigners' comments as David Ellis found when he had the temerity to ask the PM a question in Guyana, about immigration policy, whose answer did not reflect the country in a positive light. Oh, now I get it. The PR machine that everyone oils is that which says all that is good we claim as our work and all that is bad is the work of the devils from other shores or those ungrateful nationals who are doing nothing to build this country into the superpower that it is destined to be. If Barbados had gone through a period of communism this mind washing would be more understandable.

I sense a lot of tension in the lives that people now lead--that is not unique in the modern world. Some of this is the understandable dislocation that comes from losing a simple way of life and dealing with a complicated one. Barbados has many trappings of a truly rural society, but it has passed rapidly toward an economy and society that has dispensed with agriculture, but yet cannot stand firmly enough. Barbados has no major income source except its tourism and offering mainly financial services. It cannot feed itself and so must earn enough to import its needs. I spoke about this when I was at a local eatery and some people agreed that moving from the 'old' Barbados to the 'new' Barbados has been an uncomfortable journey. The simplicity of life has gone. People do not want to grow sugar but they do not want to grow food either. So, when I walk the beach and see men casting lines and pulling in one or two fish, I see something very normal, but now also very rare.

Industry is not something that Barbados has in abundance. I do not mean the ability to work, but the presence of factories and places that make many things. The discipline of modern life is often reflected in the rhythm of the factory. But, much of Caribbean life is based on a different pattern and is much looser. Part of that, I have often argued, is a reaction to the days of being 'yoked' to a plough or consigned to hours in the sun working cane (or cotton) as slaves. People go to the other extreme and taking it is easy is now our right. After 400 years, people deserve a break. But, the modern world does not buy into that. A corollary of the easy life approach comes from no sense of obligation to be at work. I have heard some stories about people needing to take time out of the office but not seeing that there was an obligation to advice their employer or supervisor (just not coming back after lunch, say) or taking umbrage that they needed to verify the reasons for the time off. I spoke to a manager of a gas station some weeks ago who explained how a bit of rain or a heavy night would mean that his staff did not show up for work. But this is institutionalised: how can the frequent radio announcements that parents need to come to collect children from schools because there is no water or some hazard make sense with their implied acceptance that people can just leave their places of work and deal with this 'situation'?

Barbados is a beautiful island. My Yardee friends need not skin up their teeth and roll their eyes. It does not have the lush beauty of Jamaica or even Dominica (to which I hope to make a first stopping visit this weekend, having only seen it from the air or from the tarmac of Roseau airport). Its beauty ought to offer solace. It is not the harsh environment of a granite covered wasteland, or the mind boggling emptiness of say the Sahara Desert. But do people feel soothed?

A people is also its food. The French know the importance of food (Napoleon was reflecting that when he said "An army marches on its stomach".) I have discovered a little of the Barbados that food-driven, as in the lime and pudding and souse on a Saturday. That is when pressure is off and life seems good. For people like myself who have the opportunity to work at a very flexible pace it's easy to see such times as the norm. But they are not. Although the industrial rhythm is not what dictates here, the office life and school life rhythms are important and both are demanding--subject to time off for water leaks, etc. Time for food has become an after thought. Chefette and KFC are places for meals taken in haste, and are to be avoided at all costs for that reason alone--the nutrition issue is a red herring (sorry for the mixed metaphor). So too is the van parked on the street, dispensing meals to those who are in the adjacent buildings. Sitting down and eating during the day should not be a luxury. There is a good reason why most of France and Spain come to a grinding halt in the middle of the day. People go for lunch--home, restaurant, wherever. For a good two hours, too, and then for a nap. I tend to have my meals at home. Whenever I go out to eat I only see people walking around with polystyrene containers in white plastic bags. Those sitting down are either tourists and expats (by that I mean white Europeans) with very few locals (by that I mean black people). The only exceptions I have seen tend to be at places like Ackee Tree or Kingston 10, but both are small. Roads are not packed at lunchtime, which suggests that people have not moved to go and eat; most places do not have canteens on their premises. By contrast, come lunch time in Jamaica and you cannot move on the streets. True, many people are in a patty shop or in Island Grill. I was shocked to find Muster's. Not for its food but for how few people seem to go there. It's like taking lunch in the British Library, it's so quiet.

So, my pursuit of the inner Bajan continues. I am nowhere near bagging my target. No matter how elusive he or she wants to be I will keep on the trail.

The Gates Of Wrath

After a couple of weekend encounters with some deeply concerned and highly expressive groups of Barbadians, plus a passing encounter with their opposites--some highly charged post partying Barbadian youths, I wanted to talk about the inner Bajan. But, I have to go back to Gates vs. Crowley.

We now have the tape of the 911 call and the initial interaction between Sgt. Crowley and his department. I have a lot of questions for the two men, which revolve around why they got so angry: part of Gates' ire I can possibly understand, and part of the policeman's irritation I can also understand. But I am at a loss to why the policeman felt that the way to proceed was to arrest Prof. Gates. Was he armed? Did he threaten the officer or his colleagues with his cane. Did he refuse to comply with requests for ID? So far, I hear "No" to each of these questions. Did he try to flee? "No". So why arrest? Tell the man to go inside, calm down and have a good day.

Why did Crowley go searching for two black men at the scene of the alleged crime when he had been told nothing much about race, and the caller gave a vague positive to the questions posed about race "White, Black, Hispanic?" hinting at a possible resemblance of one person to a tall Hispanic; the other person had gone inside the house. We hear no indication of Crowley saying anything to the caller, who was at the house when he arrived. How about "Does this look like one of the men?" Maybe police do not do that until the matter gets to court. Why was he so persistent with Gates after the man had proved he was in his own home? Almost as if he still did not believe and wanted some reason or proof that this was a burglar? I sense a lot of people jumping and saying "I know why." Comedian Bill Maher said on CNN last night that Gates was arrested because he would not kiss butt. Wolf Blitzer did not know what to say. "But, butt,...". Do watch the link http://www.wikio.com/video/1462323. He also called America a "stupid country". OMG! Sarah Palin also got tazered.

Beer and pretzels with POTUS might get to some better understanding between Gates and Crowley but I fear that the officer's actions are too typical, and therefore the root of a tree that is still standing strong. Police are trained to be suspicious, but sense needs to prevail in the face of evidence that you are not dealing with a criminal. That said, I have been in a situation in Barbados when a policeman alleged an offence. I told him he was categorically wrong; my wife was with me and she agreed. He then moved on from that allegation to ask about something else. Natural justice says to me "Man, you made your charge. It was bogus. Now you are going digging to find something else. Go long." My attitude changed and therein lies the problems. Irritation at being taken advantage of, or some other kind of disrespect, is now my most compelling emotion. You have overstepped and now you are stepping on me. I feel for Gates, even though I think he too could have done otherwise; that comes from having had time to reflect.

Crowley and the police force should get off the call for the President to apologise. They have dropped the charges (in the glare of media spotlights?) and they should be decent and just say "Sorry".Gates too should apologize to the officer for anything he said that might have caused offence. POTUS does not need to apologize but could do so to show that he is above pettiness. The caller should get an apology too from the police for having been misrepresented and ignored.

I'm going on to mind my business. I will also wonder if I can get to write for the Huffington Post (see their latest take on the Gatesgate, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robin-wells/hard-truths-and-the-teach_b_245856.html).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Let's Skip The Small Talk

Over the course of over half a century, I have had a few run-ins with officers of the law. None of them was over anything very serious. But all of them vivid.

I remember as a teenager in London, walking from the Underground station in Ealing. It was after midnight and I was coming from university. I had had indoor practice with the University football team and then hung around with some friends. I was carrying a backpack with some books and my football kit. I recall being followed by a police 'Panda' car (so called because of the white and colour marking) and then being approached by one of the officers who got out of the car. I was just by a store doorway, and I think he stopped me just there. He asked "Where are you going?". I said "Home." He said, "It's kind of late." I said, "Sure. I've had football practice." Then I asked why he had stopped me. He said a report had come in of a person fitting my description 'acting suspiciously'. This was at a time when there was such an offence ('suss law') and it was often used to stop a lot of black youths. "What did he look like?" I asked. "Tall, bushy hair." I sighed (or similar). I am five feet nine inches, and I had short hair. "But, I don't fit that description," I added. "You're right. Well. Go along and don't get into any trouble."

My heart had been pounding all the time. I was not afraid that they would harm me. I was just plain scared. Stopped. For no real reason. I knew that I was angry but I had a lot of reasons not to let that surface. It was late. I was alone. I had been trained to bottle up the temper as it could be costly on the sports field, and that characteristic kicked in. I felt offended that the officer could say something so utterly stupid. I did not think that I looked like anyone suspicious and I had not done anything but get off a train, head to the street and start to walk home.

It was too late to get a bus and I walked about five miles to my parents' house. I told my Dad the story. My Dad was furious and asked if I had taken the officer's badge number and could identify him, and if I wanted to file a complaint. I said that, for me, it was over. But, it was a lesson that said to me that I was always a potential suspect in some one's eyes.

That was not much really. Since, I have had encounters with the police, in the UK, in the USA, in Jamaica, in Barbados. My attitude has changed a lot. I was a man. I was fully educated. I was also not keen on being disrespected. I was also prepared to argue, not in a 'get out of my face' way but more 'you do your job but help me understand'. It's worked for me in getting off with alleged speeding and illegal parking and a few other nonsense things. No one ever showed me racial preference as the police never uttered words or took a stance that suggested they saw my colour as a factor. In fact, one night driving to Virginia from DC, I was driving too fast on a totally empty road. A white police officer pulled me over and asked if I knew how fast I was driving. I said that I did, about 60 MPH. He asked if I knew the limit. I said I did--35 MPH. He asked why I was driving so fast. I told him that I had had a good night and was really excited about what had happened. He laughed. He did a quick check of my breath for alcohol. He asked me why I had not denied anything. I said that it did not seem to make any sense. He told me to ease off the speed and get home safely. I thanked him and did as he said.

Conversely, in Barbados, I have been pulled over for a couple of traffic infractions (expired licence). Police here are not interested in discussing what you have done. They also do not issue citations, but utter words like "This may go to court" and then a few months later, someone may arrive with a summons. They do not really check for you--looking down all the time or talking to you without any eye contact. Their offishness is a real annoyance as is the air of 'we are the law'. But, you live with it.

A Jamaican policeman once took offence to my photographing his profane assault on another motorist, whose path he had blocked with his vehicle. I also had started to make notes of badge number, time, etc. He went into a rage and started to yell. I asked why he was yelling. He said I had no right to take a picture. I asked why. He went silent. He told me to pull over and show my papers. I did. I asked what was the offence: my car had been stationary at the lights. He gave no answer. He touched his pistol. I raised my eyebrows and pulled at my camera. He looked into the car. I was alone. He told me to stop causing trouble. I drove off. The 'tschoupse' never came out.

No policeman has ever touched me. many people are not keen on authority figures stepping that close. Talk is alright, but do not touch me. Admonish me, but do not yell at me. Ask me for my details but do not point your finger at me. No police officer has ever barred my entry or exit. None has ever sought to enter my home, even when asking questions related to incidents at the house. None has ever threatened me. These are aspects of human interaction that can move a 'normal' situation to an 'dramatic' situation.

But, if ever I were standing in my home and feeling that I was innocent of any crime, and I had not uttered a profanity or touched the officer questioning me, I think I would be terrified if that policeman felt that my interaction with him warranted that he arrest me. What would it mean that he/she was upset with my behaviour and the only solution was to restrain me with handcuffs? I cannot speak for the officer, but with every moment, my level of outrage would be rising, as would my level of fear. Because I am headed to an unknown for doing what I think is nothing at all. Is life really that difficult?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Banana CouCou And Salt Fish

Hunger is a vital reaction that should not be ignored. Even as a metaphor, it is important to follow it where the mental stomach leads. One of things that is most lacking about working at home is the ability to exchange freely with others on whatever topic is at hand. As an office maven, I was not one who spent a lot of time on the phone. From the earliest time, I was more inclined to walk to find my colleague and we would sit and thrash out some issue. It was good not least because in a world where being sedentary is easier than being active, it offered some limited exercise. When at the Bank of England I had to march through several corridors and up three flight of steep marble steps, a day's work was also a day's work out. We also had open plan office set ups, which made it easier to have lots of face-to-face contact. At the IMF, people tended to be more of the Dilbert type, happier in their cubicles and talking at a distance. Why talk to someone when you can leave them a note? That was made worse once the computer and e-mail really took off. We are all still suffering for that.

What I now do does not really require a lot of personal interaction. A high speed Internet connection is all I need to get to the on-ramp of the cyber superhighway. A lot of information that is relevant is right there at my computer screen. At any given time, I have about five different programs running, apart from my trading platform; that platform gives a lot of market information, and I have charts and other information streaming to my computer. Added to that, Twitter has become in vogue. So, many traders now exchange information with Tweets. One of my trading gurus has discovered how to send charts by Twitter so he is updating information on strategies about 2 hours faster than he used to--a huge improvement

But, I also have my literary side to feed. My writing is always on the go, even if it is in contemplative mode. By accident, I got into some exchanges on immigration issues on another blog. What did I do that for? The reception was very hostile, and in some instances downright rude and vehement. I had the temerity to challenge the 'accepted' notions and say that I had not seen one solid figure to back any of the claims. A lot of political dancing with no music ends up looking like something really bizarre.

But, guess what? I'm not someone who was encouraged to be intimidated, least of all if I felt that right was on my side. One of the things I had been pondering since I came to Barbados is the almost ritual defensive posture that comes from a comment that is deemed critical. Some of my reading of slave history and the role of Barbados in that led me to some uncomfortable conclusions about how local character might have taken on certain aspects of the colonizers. Some of the subsequent alignment of Barbados ("Little England") with England proper is interesting in that context. Sometimes, its apparent recent drawing away from an unequivocal alignment to the rest of the Caribbean is perplexing. But, it's a tense relationship, because Barbados is not England, and the English, much as they love the island, know it. Barbados sits firmly within the Caribbean, so any drawing away can only end up as isolation. The island can get stuck between a rock and a hard place, or out to sea without oars, or similar.

So, off came the gloves. My style can be annoying to people who are accustomed to just giving blah-blah (what a Bajan friend calls rum shop logic) or that noise trumps substance; they are not at ease being constantly asked to justify, the sometimes ludicrously wild, claims. This same pattern often appears on call-in programs where the moderators' requests for "What are the facts?" are met with shifting of the ground or subject, some outrage, but for sure, no substance. "Come back when you have the facts," is a familiar sign off to a caller. Outrage does not cut it.

I am not one to rail, especially if I am faced with flaming language, and personal insults. I gladly recite Desiderata as the verbal plates crash against the walls. I move to what I see as the higher ground and try to stay even tempered. Angry people hate that, because they want to have their anger validated by anger in return. Sorry. So, my mother and father were insulted, my country, all I did, the kitchen sink I chose to put into my house, my lifestyle, my former employer, the socks I wore at graduation. A little respect came when I cited Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world". But it was a breather. I was even reeled in today by someone who saw me and my kind (Jamaicans) as responsible for everything that had gone wrong in the western world--The Holocaust? 911? Flooding in Louisiana? Two World Wars? Barney? The re-election of George Bush? Italy beating France in the World Cup? Milli Vanilli? The Macarena? "Rahtid. Jamayka Man powerful fi true!" I said to myself for a second and was ready to pump myself up like Jimmy Cliff as bad boy, Rygin, in 'The Harder They Come'. But, a cooler head prevailed. I took a breath and rolled my eyes. Could someone believe all that froth? At that point I was glad that so far video-enabled blogging is not the vogue.

For serious reasons, I needed a change. So, I let my wife grab me in a sensitive area and draw me along to Villa Road (that's in Britton's Hill) to a little corner shop, run by Miss G. She welcomed us into her foodery. "Do you have soup, today" I asked. "Soup is Tuesday. We have black eye rice and stewed turkey; banana coucou and salt fish; fried snapper and salad." My mind was made up: one or two of these would be fine. She explained that the salt fish was what I would think of as red herring. I would wait to see if that was so as I had eaten a good plateful one weekend in Surinam (St. Joseph). A few moments later, the plates arrived. My missus had the fried snapper and in no time was dealing with it.

We discussed nothing much deliberately, as it was interesting enough to see another slice of life slide in and out for food and drinks (always in brown bags...we know what you're drinking). Why was the first group after us workers from a maintenance truck from BWA? So, we got into it on water rates. "You all need to gi we betta service." Just for that, the green banana coucou was finished. "Wha' else you wan'?" I treasured my last few mouthfuls.I asked Miss G if she had anything sweet for afters. "I got mangers. I grew up with them." I declined, but told her to be ready for me to eat mangers on Friday. In return, I would bring her guavas. "No need for that. I go' bring you mangers anyway. You coming for barbecue tomorra evening?" My calendar was free but her ladyship hinted that plans were in the works. We talked a bit more about how people just seem to be downright unhappy with their lot. I explored an idea I had. "Do you think that if life had stayed simpler things would be better now?" I expanded and argued that people really had not adjusted to office work and government work and helping tourists. But they did not want to stay growing sugar. The mistake had been that agriculture was not developed to break the link with slavery and new and exciting crops grown, so that agriculture could be seen as a lively livelihood. Miss G did not really know. "I run my shop and I happy. I go bring mangers tomorra." I did not want to argue, nor did I need to have a long discussion. She was right.

There you have it. Let Barbadians become small entrepreneurs and national happiness will be assured.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Put On Your Thinking Cap....Now Where Did I Hide Mine?

There's no pleasing people. I have been less present writing on my own blog, but I have been wandering about giving comments hither and yon on some others in the hinter space of Bimshire. "You mad fool!" some friends have said, "Those blogs have some rabid people making comments." I jibed that while sticks and stones could break my bones, the odd (meaning rare) curse word or even the long rant sent via the Internet was not going to make me curl up and whimper "Mummy...". But, like many changes, this walk on the wild side was provoked.

First, I had such a sense of outrage at what I read about immigrants or just foreigners: substantive (yeah) arguments such as a certain group of people were "smelly" or "musty". Second, on the same issue, the evident (to me) lack of any basis laid out by the current government to support its policy change on illegal immigrants. I've been a public servant most of my life and I know that when Ministers say "get me the figures" you jump like a rabbit in heat and put something together. In Barbados, no sirree, Bob. Ministers are left uttering "If I knew you wanted some real evidence, I would have asked my neighbour, or reread Mavis Beckles. So, sorry, let me give you my own anecdotes." Third, was a need to stretch my brain a bit. I felt an equivalent of cobwebs forming. Don't get me wrong. The trading business keeps my head rolling around, especially when it seems that those who've been doing this for longer and much better, also seem to have no clue why things are moving the way they are. But, the adage is "the trend is your friend". Yet, ever wanting to be different, I keep going against trends: markets go up, markets go down. The real experts have tried and failed many times to call the bottom of the stock markets and they failed. They tried to call the top, and again they failed. Markets move in waves and living on an island, I see plenty of those so I am using my sense of the sea's rhythm to help me out. Right.

Anyway, it helped me discover that the greatest threat to Barbados is not from illegal Guyanese running rampant and getting all the lack of service from the QEH that was on offer and living 40,000 to a room and sending all of their money back to Georgetung. The real threat is from the hordes of half naked, or strangely clad, lily white, English tourists walking freely on the island's streets or lolling around on the beaches, flaunting all too clearly their disdain for our more refined ways. They also have deep pocket--with a few holes since the recession, mind you. So, if Bimlanders are concerned that rental homes for the average man are being grabbed up by the chapati munchers, then those Brits who are wining and dining at Sandy Lane and all places westward are buying up land so that nothing might ever be affordable by the same Bimlanders. I also pointed out that the British (and Europeans in general) have a sorry history when it comes to their effects on lands that they colonize (in an imperial or touristic sense). They bring diseases and local life dies off very quickly.Think I am joshing you. Look at Mauritius: where is the Dodo? Look at the Caribbean: where are the Arawaks and Caribs. Look at Latin America: where are the Incas and Mayans? Think I'm joking? Look at the spread of Swine Flu and see who it is that is having the highest incidence and where testing is going to be standard (see today's Mirror): Britain's Chief Medical Officer said "Swine flu poses the biggest challenge for the NHS in a generation." When you see those BA flights, think "Beware. Assassins." I warn you!
But some sad-masochism started to become evident. When I made comments on other blogs--one in particular--I noticed that rather than engage in intelligent discourse, some commentators reverted to what I would call the I Robot method.One would read the word "Jamaican" or sense that a Jamaican was writing and let loose a tirade of profanity. After a while, it was a bit like tickling a dog's buddy to see if his leg would react violently. In the end, I saw that the content would not matter. It was "Yea, man. De eejyat Yardee a write. Mi go rip him wi some lyriks bout how im family warra-warra, an' how fihim lady nah get nuff help an want a real man fi de jab..." The poor fellow (I am guessing that it's a male scribe) would also rant on about how his being a Bajan in England constantly mistaken for a Jamaican was ruining his love life and the racists there would never listen to his explanation of the difference between Barbados and Jamaica long enough to stop beating him up and lining him up to get on the next f***ing boat out of England, with all the other nignogs. Such intolerance! Yes, please.

I wish that I could feel that my musings made others think. I get that impression from some of the interchanges, though. But, it's not on that basis that I will engage. I really have been driven by the words of one of my early bosses: "Speak up during the discussion. You may be the only one who is talking sense." Otherwise, you get a lot of noise, even from just a few voices, and their words become THE words and it's then too late. Wrong is wrong, but the time is gone.

I have also been amused by the dishonesty of some of the discussions, especially by the blatant politicos in the local blogosphere. I'm really wishing in vain that I could read a sensible analysis of a political issue that then did not go to the sexual preference of someone, or a hint at an illicit relation, or the mixing of apples, oranges, mangosteen and cashews. I hope that when these sort of people offer advice to officials and get paid for it, that their written reports don't read the same, or have that nasty sticky feeling that comes from the writer always having his finger in some other pie, or even handling some rotting fish. Yeach!

But, does any of this change anything? I know that the blogs are read by some Big Ups or their Little Ones doing the checking for them. I know that people like to feel that someone has something to say about some of the nonsense going on, and occasionally to applaud good things. But some of the Calypsonians got there before us, and Crop Over reminded me of that. I really like Colin Spencer's political commentary entitled 'Inclusion In Reverse', which has a sharp cutting edge and takes almost everyone to task. So, maybe I should jack in this blogging and get myself organized for the next season. I cannot rival the grin'ers and win'ers with how I an wuk up. I have to perform with tough lyrics. Bob Dylan's been quiet for a long time. Time to dust off the platform heel shoes...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Art For Our Sake

Last December, we went to one of those highfalutin social events at Sandy Lane--a wine tasting. Through the various connections that we had built up, we had received an invitation and given that we like our wines, we took it up and rolled in a few Caribbean friends too. Our view: enough of these events just being the preserve of European expats. We were approached at the entrance by a lady who was on her own and admitted that she knew nothing about wine so wondered if she could tag along with us. Fine, we said, and so we traipsed around tasting, grading and sampling some really good wine, and enjoyed nice tidbits of food (including some very good roast beef). Along the way, the lady let us know that she was a teacher of English and Art, and also an artist. We exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. After a brief confirmation of each other's addresses by message, we exchanged Christmas and New Year's greetings and then had no more contact. That is until she sent an invitation last week for an opening she was due to have at Queen's Park Gallery, scheduled for this evening.

Last night, I was out having dinner hosted some Barbadian friends, along with a Jamaican couple, and two other guests whom I did not know. One of the guests did not make it in the end, but the other did. She mentioned that she was an art historian and we had a great conversation about the meaning of art and reality and interpretation. We did not have a meeting of minds. I could take it that putting paint on canvas does not make art. But I struggled to see the difference between those who practised what they called art, but did not devote their lives to it (like Winston Churchill or Anthony Hopkins, I cited) and those who seemed to 'make art' by flinging tins of paint on canvas or sitting on a plinth, but did so with dedication. Anyway, I mentioned that I was due to go to the art show at Queen's Park: "Oh, Jacqui was one of my students," said the art historian. Well, knock me down with a feather.

So, here is Sunday and I am looking forward to doing something very out of the ordinary for a weekend in Barbados, and for me in general: a trip to an art gallery. My good lady was due to come back from her cruise, but not till night time. I had the day to kill. Well, the day nearly killed me. Barbados Light and Power had decided to become the company of no light and no power, and from 10am till 5pm left me without a single volt of current. Was it hot? Yes! Was there a breeze? But, so feeble. What to do? Cool out and relax and think on the veranda. I melted, and for my sins listen to officials of the Barbados Water Authority demonstrate why that organization is a total shambles. Thankfully, I had had an early coffee and pecan pie (thanks to my dinner host). I also had some ackee, dumplings and roasted breadfruit sitting in my fridge, as well as curried chicken and roti. So, my meals were there, and I did not need electricity to warm them up. I survived the day, thanks to a brief spin to the Hilton so that I could recharge my cell phones. The rain poured intermittently so kept it cooler than otherwise.

So, to the art show. I was pleasantly surprised that it was mainly black Bajans in the audience. In fact, it was the first cultural event other than an Austin Clarke play at Frank Collymore Hall that I could say displayed the majority of this country represented rather than the European tourist/expatriate cohorts. Don't get me wrong, those who support culture are to be praised, I had just wondered where the nationals were with their support. Now, I had seen some.

The Minister of Education, Ronald Jones, was there to make some remarks, as were Jacqui's sister, Patricia, and Jacqui's good friend from childhood, Andrea Wells. On hand to steer the proceedings was a French-Canadian lady, Denyse Menard-Greenidge, acting as the guest curator. We were handed some refreshing drinks (rum punch for me, thanks) and the speeches were thankfully brief, ending with a few words and poems from Jacqui. videoI was wiped out from dealing with the day's heat and wanted also to write as soon as possible, so left after an hour. I will go back during the week to take another look.

The show, sponsored by the National Cultural Foundation, continues until August 8 and I recommend that you visit at least once and even buy a piece or two.

Jacqui's work on display is mainly her paintings,which she prepared over the past two years. Unfortunately, her well-famed work on leather was only displayed in pictures.

I'm not good at interpreting the interpretations of artists (something Jacqui mentioned we needed to do). I try to understand what I see and hear, from artists and others. If I can make sense of it, I can deal with it. I can make sense of Jacqui's work.

Mum, I'm Bored

It's officially the silly season. When the media and even bloggers find very little to write about and some are even tempted to just make up stories to get people interested. But, Barbados is trying to get a handle of some serious silliness.

First, it is heading toward the apex of the Crop Over events. The Calysonians and Socalists have been chanting and win'ing for a few weeks now. The judging has got to the stage where there are the semifinals of Pic-O-De-Crop due on July 25. But, wait. The 18 semifinalists were known before all the acts had finished performing last Friday. Oops. My bad, some must be saying. And it seems that Barbados is getting a real love for investigations: the National Cultural Foundation's CEO has been asked to 'fully investigate" (not partially) the matter (see report). But. we also have the other 'pieces' of Crop Over: Sweet Soca, and Party Monarch, and the pairings are known. You have talent like "Sir Ruel", "Statement", "Khiomal", "Blood", "TC", 'Hee Haw", and "Red Plastic Bag". Like the names? A bit of a mix between a Brazilian football team and a shopping list? Acts with names like "John King" and "Colin Spencer" don't stand a chance. But the best was what I heard about voting for one of the competitions. Voting would be by text message, for a competition sponsored by Digicel (one of the cellular phone companies); texts cost B$1 and multiple voting IS ALLOWED! Well, there were suspicions of vote tampering earlier on, but why bother when you allow people to vote more than once, if they are willing to pay?

For a few days, at least, it seems that immigration has moved well off the front pages, and barely a peep has been heard about those pesky 'illegals'. I'm still waiting for some hard evidence from the government about what the extent of the problem is, but as I really do not expect much from politicians, I'm not really holding my breath. I mean, a good few weeks have gone by now since the revised amnesty was announced and I figure that Senator McLean and Minister Walters have had enough time to tally up the data themselves, rather than wait for the UN-Civil Service to do it. Maybe they should ask all the illegals to text them and get the figures that way: multiple messages are NOT allowed. I had to laugh yesterday as I had breakfast, the curry lunch, then afternoon drinks, then dinner with a groups of Caribbean people around the island. As we talked, it dawned on me that we truly represented the flux of the islands and countries and what the Caribbean was really all about. Of the 20 or so people I crossed, only one was a Bajan whose parents were born in Barbados. The others were a mix, with the following sample: born in Curacao/Vincentian parents (fluent in Dutch); born in Trinidad/Greek parents (fluent in Dutch and Greek); born in Antigua/Antiguan parents; born in Jamaica/Vincentian parents (raised in England and Europe); born in Barbados/Guyanese parents (raised in England); born in England/Jamaican and Chinese parents (raised in Jamaica). Everyone of us had stories about how a different country had a 'special' line for us because of from where we came. Boy, there's solidarity for you. And we wonder why West Indies cricket is struggling?

It's truly party season. I have not gone to any of the Crop Over crop. But, friends went to the Wadadah "Back to School", and the pictures and stories on Facebook are very interesting.Then one of the dinner guests with me last night was wondering what to expect as her teenage daughters had gone to the "Blocko Street Party" (due to be held in the street between TimeOut and the Dover playing field, for a street party from 7pm to 1am; music by Iwer George and others). She left for home nervously at around 11pm and I hope did not spend the night chewing her nails.

Finally, a piece of bureaucratic silliness. I went to Bridgetown for a few business errands after I came back from Boston. I always park near Carlisle House, and drove the car park as usual. The 'operative' at the window told me "We don' have no receipts, so you park for free.' I looked at her quizzically. This was a public car park? Government run? There was another car park just several yards away. Why was it that they had no supply of receipts? Was the world due to end? Budget times are tough, but this was insane. I thanked her and found a spot. Something is very out of order when a government agency that relies of fees cannot get people to pay the fees. I did not suggest that an honour box be used so that people could put in money if they chose--it's a mere B$1 for an hour. The implication of that not being done already might have been that the operatives could not trust themselves to hand over the money? Anyway, I hope that some bright spark does not use this as a pretext to put parking meters in place. Jobs are scarce, so ticket passers and collectors should not fear for their positions. Cheese on bread!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It Really Doesn't Matter Who You Are

When I travel I like to see which, if any, of the issues that are resonating in the region are also sending vibrations elsewhere. My week in Boston was coming to a close, and my elder daughter and I were on the last day of our quality time together, before she headed back to Virginia and her mother. We decided to go to see the Shepard Fairey retrospective at the ICA (see details). That he had created the now iconic poster of Barack Obama was enough to be excited about. That it was the day of the Major League Baseball All Stars Game, with the POTUS due to make the first pitch was also momentous. So, I'm not sure how we were derailed and ended up instead making a tour of Massachusetts State House, on Beacon Hill and then walking the city in the area around Boston Common. I guess that some civic genes were pulling us that way.

The State House tour itself was interesting enough, given by a young intern on holiday from college. Massachusetts had many key roles in the creation of The Union and its history is so rich that a visit focusing on that is warranted. I was also intrigued to be in a state capital whose governor was a black man, and also a close associate of the POTUS, Deval Patrick.

But on to resonance. As I walked through some corridors looking for my offices, I heard the voice of a man clearly making a set of remarks to reporters, and of all things on health reform (see NY Times report). I listened for a few moments and took a few pictures. As the press report notes, "The new state budget in Massachusetts eliminates health care coverage for some 30,000 legal immigrants to help close a growing deficit, reversing progress toward universal coverage just as the US Congress looks to the state as a model for overhauling the nation’s health care system." The critics' main plaint is that the cut, which would save an estimated US$130 million, unfairly targets taxpaying residents.

The Governor now has a fight on. He has proposed restoring US$70 million to the program, which would partly restore the immigrants’ coverage. But legislative leaders wont have it, arguing that vital programs for other groups would have to be cut as a result. The cut, which would affect only non-disabled adults from 18 to 65 years old, would take effect in August unless the legislature approves Mr. Patrick’s proposal. Ding-dong. Round one.

I thought back to the claims circulating in Barbados about the pressures being imposed on critical services by illegal immigrants. Still waiting to hear some figures, but in the Caribbean "soon come" means something. But, I smiled to myself thinking of the ballooning budget deficit the government there has and that it cannot save money by eliminating coverage for illegal immigrants--they are not covered. Would they think of eliminating it for legal immigrants, though?

The policy now in play in Mass. is the kind of thing that makes legal immigrants say "Hey! That's not fair."

I head back to Bimshire today. I wonder if the vibes from up here will find there way down there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Take Me Down To The Ball Game

I have not lived in the USA for a while, but get enough opportunities to visit for more than a few days. I am amazed at myself, however, that I manage to do that after the horror stories I sometimes have to live getting into that country. This trip was a bit worse than usual. Headed to Boston, to see off the 'trouble and strife' on a family cruise to celebrate her parents' 50th wedding anniversary, we headed through the 'hall of horrors', aka Miami Airport. Everything was fine from the time we left Barbados, and everything went wrong as soon as we landed in MIA.

Cut to the chase. We looked forlornly at the baggage belt, which neither moved nor shook. "American Airline regret to announce, the luggage from flight 602 will be delayed...at least 15 minutes...due to a technical problem...the baggage door won't open...the delay will be approximately one hour..." One panicked lady ran to the representative to explain that she would miss her connection and would not reach home today. "I fully understand, madam...." Why did he say that? "I DON'T THINK YOU DO!" she hurled back at him in a flood of tears. We waited patiently, seasoned travellers that we are, and my wife read a magazine. I watched people. With about 10 minutes to spare to boarding time, our bags arrived and off we wheeled toward the gate. My lady loved that, as she wants to exercise whenever she can, and having to hurtle between concourses at MIA was a necessity not a wish. Go Usain! We managed to have an otherwise sour disposition sweetened by the security officer at the concourse: a tall, black man, who looked a little like the comedian, Sinbad. He was cracking jokes and cracking up everyone. "Why y'all touch my rope? Ah-ha. That goin' be trouble....This is Concourse D, smile...If you cannot smile, please go to Concourse C...Raise your hand if you don't have a laptop...Good, Best Buy has a sale on in the city..." I tried to enter the spirit and asked him from what platform our train was leaving: "Oh, a funny man..." he quipped.

Arriving in Boston, we were bathed in balmy sunshine and warmth. "It's been raining for the past 40 days, and now you people bring sun from the Caribbean. Thank you," said one lady. We got into line for a cab, and I'm not sure why it irked me but as soon as the waddling, Armenian-looking driver approached and pointed to the trolley for me to pull it down the curb, I had a Hulk moment brewing. He motioned to me to life the suitcases into the trunk. I asked, "Would you like me to help you?" He smirked, and replied, "No, lift them in." Well, my brain went into a warp drive of irritation: "Would you like me to drive the cab too?" He got furious, and told the dispatcher that he was not going to take these passengers. Fine, I told the dispatcher, and let's have his licence number so that we can have him suspended for refusing the take these (I wanted to say 'black') passengers. He flubbed and said ridiculously to the dispatcher, "I'll take them if you will vouch for them." The dispatcher thumbed his radio and looked at the sidewalk. Downtown bound we were, and the ride was lovely for the silence that came from in front. I did not even bother to look back as we reached the hotel and motioned to the porters to deal with the bags in the cab, with an extra dig that they might need to help the cabbie get them out of the trunk. An Haitian porter looked at me quizzically and laughed "That's our job."

Boston is one of those northeastern cities that I like, not least because it feels to be on a human scale, not like The Big Apple. The lay out of the streets reminds me a little of London, as they meander, and the guides explain that they were laid out from the old cart routes. Makes it also a bit like the roads and streets of Bimshire. I also like that it has a lot of brick facades, also similar to London. The family crew got into full swing and the marauding band of 17 wound its way around shops and eateries for a couple of days. My elder daughter jetted in on the Saturday morning, ahead of the cruise departure, and had a brief love-in. I don't cruise on water, so would chill with her over the weekend. Ahead of that, we linked up very swiftly with a friend of my wife's with whom she had lost touch but whom I had found via her daughter, our god-daughter, on Facebook--naturally. The friend, from Boston originally, but part of our DC church, was now back on home beat and helping to solve problems for the homeless.

We waved off the cruisers, as they were loaded into three minivans and taken to the port. We focused on our plans for a stroll in Quincy Market, and beer at Coogan's Bar that evening. The next day, we had plans to sample America's main religion.

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, is a magnet for baseball fans.
I wont go into the team's history here. I just wanted to make sure that my legacy would have "He visited Fenway, and saw the Sox win." Trust me, I am no fan of the Red Sox. Au contraire, I was raised during my years in America, on the hard road....supporting the Baltimore Orioles, one of the Sox's arch rivals, in the American League East. When I went regularly, the Sox knew their place and were not just running away with games. Times have changed and glory days are back.

What I loved immediately about arriving at the ball park was how it was like those old football grounds in England. Set within a town and having normal things around it, like streets and shops and places to eat. In Britain, that's how it is. Not, the modern American way of mega-stadium surrounded by mega-car park. No, you took the subway ('The T' in Boston...that's a pun, I think) and then walk 10 minutes with the large, swaying crowds.

Food and drink are all so important at a ball game.
"Beer man!" is as popular a chant as "Let's go, Red Sox!" Sadly, I could not do justice to kettle corn, or Fenway franks, or a good ice cold Bud. I had been attacked by that modern virus, the Sunday brunch, and had had a fill of food before the game. Nice enough that I had been able to do so in the shadow of the tall ships that were in the harbour. But, I had to waver and eat one of those onion and pepper-laden Italian sausages, midway through the 4th inning. The Red Sox were on a tear and putting the game to bed. Poor old Kansas, like Dorothy's dog, was being yanked around. They barely did more than send up three batters for a few balls each then were back on the field. The Sox were lashing and getting men on base regularly, keeping Kansas baking. The Royals, though they played like paupers, sent up five pitchers. The Sox, just used one, and he did the full day's work, pitching a complete game (start to finish) and getting a shut out (Sox won 6-0) and doing it with fewer than 100 pitches (94, in fact). That's historic--not 'the most unique' as an American might say.

Satisfied ball fans wound their way back on The T and were in the city again in no time. A bit tired. But contented. All would be back to normal, after a trip to Chinatown to find the place for some very unballpark-like food later in the night. Have to say that we did have a ball.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Sands Of Time Tick Against The Boardwalk

Several months ago I sang the praises of the new boardwalk at Hastings (see On the boardwalk: If you build it we will come). My wife has become one the boardwalk's regular visitors for a midweek stroll with our daughter. I don't go often. I freely admit to not being a regular walker there but had met a film crew from a nearby French-speaking island who were working with the Barbados Tourism Board to make a film of the new attraction.

So, I was saddened to receive yesterday a YouTube video from a friend, which has also been posted on Facebook, and seems to show that the boardwalk is being overtaken by the ravages of nature and a good amount of neglect, for which blame will fall on the Coastal Zone Management Unit.



The video was produced by a Barbadian photographer, Andrew Hulsmeier, who has produced a few other videos about aspects of modern Barbadian life.

Just a few days ago, an article in The Advocate, by Nicholas Cox, praised the boardwalk for "the impact of the Hastings boardwalk, which is attracting hundreds of people on a daily basis" (see Advocate report, June 20, 2009). One of comments about Barbados is an apparent wide gap between what should be and what is. It is very sad that within a year what should have been a pleasant eyecatching addition is now an eyesore.

About the time of last year's US presidential elections I received some enquiries from prospective American tourists about life in Barbados. When they got to the island one of their pastimes was walking the beaches to try to find shells and washed glass. They too had seen the video and sent me comments yesterday that they were appalled at the apparent neglect at the boardwalk.

The concerns I had voiced about the environmental aspects of the boardwalk were more directed at the turtle nesting areas and whether those alongside the boardwalk would help keep it tidy. I never foresaw the sand taking over or waste building up so quickly.

It seems obvious that everything on the island is part of the face of its tourism and obviously those attractions in the areas where tourists are numerous are even more the face that is often seem.

I bumped into the Minister of Tourism last week at a kids' birthday party, and we got talking about how the tourism sector shoots itself in the foot. Then, we talked about how some hotels make prospective guests feel unwanted with a 'take it or leave it' attitude. He commented that he was very aware how negative feedback spreads, and pointed to the comments now easily found on TripAdvisor, which are generated by visitors to the island. Tourists have no need to be kind, and often focus on negative experiences faster than positive ones--the latter being the expectation, and the former being part of the pack of disappointment that they would wish their friends to avoid. I know that the Ministry is monitoring the comments about Barbados, but which they cannot control. Once an image is damaged it stays that way for a long time.

I am going to see for myself how bad things are at the boardwalk as soon as I return next week. I would be pleasantly surprised to find that the situation was much improved by the time that I get there.

When times are tight money needs to be seen to have been spent right. The B$ 18 million is not going to look to have been well spent it this project gets run into the ground within a year of its completion.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I like Shopping...With Your Money

I told them directly what I thought of their service: it was poor and they needed to do better. "Thank you very much," they told me. "Can you help us improve?" Eh? I was not sure if I heard correctly. But, yes, they were asking me, the uber-critic, to give them a kick up the rear at their request. I wondered what was the catch. Would I have to don shirts with their logos? Were they going to get me to hold placards showing ...? None of that, they wanted me to go shopping, with their money, and I could keep what I bought. This was getting to be quite unreal.

Next, was training. I had quickly jumped ahead and figured that they would be taking me on one of those motivational trips to Las Vegas to fully incentivize me, while I played blackjack or .... Instead, I got an e-mail message inviting me to a 'webinar' (a video presentation over the computer). Drat. Not even a spin to St. Kitts and a day hanging around with LIAT in Antigua? I was a bit dismayed, but still excited. Would I have to wear a mask so that I was not recognized? No! So, for one hour I was 'unidentified from Barbados'. I felt nameless and faceless, and that's how it was supposed to be.

They wanted me to shop from the start of April, but I told them that I was due to travel, so would do it after I returned. But, a mix of excitement and a decision to carve out a couple of free mornings, meant that I could do the deeds before I flew. So, scenarios in hand, I was off to the stores. I wanted to be the 'shopper from hell', or the 'young but dense shopper' or the 'shooper who had just one more question'. I could be all of those and stay true to the role of mystery enquirer.

The company has a handful of stores around the south and west of the island and I visited three the first day, then the next day went to two. I was not the same in each of the stores, because the situation was slightly different each time. I was surprised that so many differences were facing me: one store was small, another very large; one was on a main street, two tucked into a mall. I was also on the look out for information about special deals, which had just been launched. Overall, I found that the stores fell into three camps: two very good, one very poor, and two just so-so. I bought the merchandise that I wanted. It was funny that although it is a newish item, it was not in stock in most of the stores: in some, it had been sold out, in one they were still waiting for stock from HQ. None of the stores tried to do any upselling--like accessories. None of the stores mentioned the special promotion! That was a shocker, and when I relayed that back to my contact at regional corporate HQ, they too were dismayed. Why had they bothered to do all the training if the staff were not trying to get people hooked up to the new deals. Lastly, everyone in the stores was supposed to be identifiable, but none of them wore a name badge: the best reason I heard was that "We're waiting for them to be printed." That's better that saying the dog ate it or it was left at home.

My best experience from this whole affair was to see the effect of a previous run-in with this company. I went into what was for me 'the store from hell'. I was asked to wait by a very nice young man, and within seconds was told to go to a counter. No one was there, so I pretend to start my query, talking to the cash register--to make the point that if I were told to go for service I was ready to be served. A lady whom I had met before approached me: "Good morning, Mr. Jones....Mr. Dennis Jones." I was in a dead faint in a flash, as she followed that with a winning smile. "I remember you. We have the same family name." Child, whatever it takes. As I was explaining what I needed to have done, I got a phone call. "I'll be with you as soon as I'm done," I was saying when Miss Winsome chimed up, "There. Finished." Finished? But normally the computer does not work and you don't know how to manually override the system and I am expected to stand patiently for an hour while you speak to a technician and make me miss my next appointment. You cannot be finished yet. It's only been two minutes. I felt cheated, but happily so. "You have a nice day and come again soon." I knew it: she was making a pass and it was my body she wanted...again the sweet smile. I left and glanced back one more time. She was still smiling. Scary. Had I had that effect from the blue light 'spanking' I ahd given the staff a few months ago?

Maybe it will all turn out right. The expectation of good service does not need to be like sucking a lime. There is no need for NISE, just nice people who care for what they do.

Life Is No Tea Party

When I think of Boston, I imagine struggles for independence, a city swelling with academic heads, and jerk food, though not in that order, mind you. So, as I landed at Logan Airport yesterday afternoon, I had to make sure that I was ready to deal with the right Boston. But, jerk food was off the menu, because I was not arriving in Boston, Jamaica, where jerk food was invented. Instead, I was about to set foot for just the third time in Boston, Massachusetts--home of the other Cambridge and seats of learning, such as Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. My disposition was bright, however, because we were told that the balmy sunshine must have come with us from the Caribbean: people mentioned that the previous 40 days had been rain filled.

The first time I visited Boston, it was on a driving tour from my then home in Virginia, and took in many of the sights of the American War of Independence. In particular, I went to Lexington, where I visited friends in a typical American family--the second generation of German immigrants. I got to see many of the landmarks connected with their 'fight for freedom', monuments to Paul Revere, The Minutemen, The Boston Tea Party and "No taxation without representation". The second time I visited Boston, my current wife was attending an executive training course at Harvard, and I went for the weekend. It was the fall, and the temperatures had fallen, not too low, but low enough. I got the chance to visit many of the hallowed seats of learning in the other Cambridge. At that time, my first daughter was just nearing middle school, and naturally my mind flitted to where she would attend university. Note that I said "would": I am now of the generation, having been the first in my family to attend university, that thinks its children will get tertiary education. I loved the campus and its flavours of history. It was not really like those unquestioned seats of English learning, Oxford or the real Cambridge. But, Harvard was my first visit to an American university and I was impressed, with the buildings, the campus, and the sense of calm.

Here I was in Boston, Mass., again. This time to watch my wife's family set sail, when her parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise. I do not do long boat rides, and I have plans to socialize while they set off onto the sea. As luck would have it, I get the chance to reconnect with colleagues from my African sojourn. My local economist in Guinea (a Fulani and Muslim), whom I sponsored to take a masters degree at Williams College, has been asked to stay on as a research assistant. The leader of the IMF missions to Guinea (a Peruvian Jew), who was posted to Ghana at one time and was just finishing a posting in Burundi, has just started Hebrew Studies in Boston. I also hope to reconnect with a white American friend from my church in Washington, whose black adopted daughter I had taught in Sunday school, and had found me on face book. The girl, now well grown up, had told me that she and her mother would be heading to Boston, her mother's home town, for the summer, and they arrived a few days ago.

But, my thoughts. America fought hard to get its independence and its nationhood, a set of struggles that pitted the colonialists against some of those in their native lands, and for me that means mainly the British. America also had its internal struggle for nationhood, with its Civil War, that long set the line between those who were for or against slavery. Those two things are in my mind as I look onto the debates about Caribbean regional integration on the one hand, and the related matter of illegal immigration to Barbados.

I have long wondered if people from the English-speaking Caribbean know what they have gained without much struggle. Haiti fought hard for its independence from France. Many Latin American countries also had to fight mainly Spanish and Portuguese colonial rulers for their independence. We got our independence by administrative fiat; we did not spill much blood. Many Caribbean islands still do not have independence from the colonial rulers, though they have a greater degree of autonomy now than before. Our ancestors, in some cases, did fight, to different degrees, to get freedom from slavery, but in the end it was handed to us again by administrative fiat, rather than as the result of our struggles against our captors and masters.

We are clearly nations made up of relatively recent migrants. Our populations are not made up only of the African slaves' offspring. Countries such as Trinidad and Guyana had their numbers swollen by the introduction of indentured labour/servants. Like slaves, such servants were shipped; could be bought and sold; could not marry without the permission of their owners; were subjected to physical punishment; and saw their obligation to labour enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, indentured servants could look forward to a release from bondage. If they survived their period of indenture, servants would receive a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society. It is easy to forget, or not know at all, that many of the original European settlers in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 16th and 17th centuries were indentured servants (English, Irish, Scottish and German, for example). So, slaves and indentured workers are very much part of the earliest ancestral chains in the region. After the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, the demand for workers in sugar plantations could not be met by shipping more slaves, so was being filled by indentured workers from China and Portugal, and later the Indian subcontinent (mainly from what is now India, but also the current Pakistan--very different places with very different religious and cultural bases). These groups had a clear leg up and once free used that to build an economic base largely as merchants, though also as plantation owners. Some of these indentured workers became numerically and proportionately significant in Trinidad and Guyana, especially those from the Indian subcontinent; this was not the case in Jamaica (except if looked at in some smaller areas).

Out of that mixture has come many things. Think about the names that people have in the region. I love it that I know a true Jamaican called Kevin O'Brien Chang--a one-man melting pot.

Now, we are reaping a bitter harvest from this mixture of seeds. I am not sure how much of the history of the region seeps into people's thinking about issues. Racial and ethnic divisions seem clear in Trinidad and Guyana, and sometimes they are openly hostile in both places. My reading tells me that much of that comes from politicians playing a 'race card' to build support and better identify their opposition. I cannot really say if deep racial animosity exists outside these two countries. The recent discussions in Barbados on illegal immigration have seen the seeping out of some clear racist and ethnic hostility aimed at Indo-Guyanese, but while some of those voices are loud and their words sometimes vehement and laced with violent intent, I do not know if this is a small minority speaking or a much bigger part.

I am not a political analyst, and am still unclear what part of the recent moves against illegal immigration to Barbados is a familiar political play that often surfaces in hard economic times, or if it is really grounded in a firm policy line. My fear that it is too much political gets some support from the limited factual support that has come with the stance, which suggests that things are being plucked out of the air and waved like flags that attract attention. One real event with the glib addition of "this is not isolated" but with no evidence of how widespread it is not what I should hear government ministers saying to underpin a policy. But facts can be brought to support a policy later, by which time much social damage could have been done by the spread of anecdote and conjecture. I am going to try to see if, from a distance, the flurry of discussion in Barbados on this matter is clearer.

I am also going to indulge in a little love for that great American pastime, baseball. When I first went to Washington, I got into a group of baseball fans, one of whom was a Ghanaian who had studied at Boston University. We became great friends, but not fans of the same team: he loved the Red Sox, and I supported Washington's 'home' team, the Baltimore Orioles. We shared many a beer and hot dog and barbecued pork sandwiches while watching home runs batten in an pitches striking people out. I cannot persuade him to come to Boston this weekend, when the Orioles happen to be in town. So, I will have to root for the Os without being able to get into his face. I will root a bit quietly, though, because I am a visitor and due respect is needed for the hosts. The hotel concierge told me that getting to Fenway Park by subway is a cinch. My mind is made up and I am raring to go. Will I be surrounded by my friendly band of black and white Americans, a Peruvian Jew, and a Guinean Muslim? Who knows. Play ball!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Best Headlines I Have Seen

I am not a great follower of Calypso. As a boy, my parents listened to Sparrow a lot and I liked the beat, but other sounds took up the space in my head. As I grew up, I really did not move in groups that were driven by Soca. It was really only after I went to the US that I met a lot of other Caribbean people who had not lived outside the region much, and many more who were from the southern islands. I then got a full dose exposure to Soca. I liked the energetic pace for dancing, but like so much music, I thought the lyrics were weak. I loved social commentary, but Soca did not seem to have much. Fast forward, I move to Barbados. My wife, a totally unreconstructed Bahamian, cannot take two breaths after the mention of the words 'Crop Over' before she starts railing about "That is not culture." Yes, dear. "It's not Junkanoo!" You're right, my honey. "Look at that. Bought costumes. They should be making them at home." Absolutely, my cup cake. There is no fury like that of a Bahamian whose culture norms have been put out of joint.

I have three sets of friends in Barbados who have tried to make up for my Calypso-Soca deficiency. There is a couple from St. Andrew, whom I met in Washington, and now live in and around Barbados. They are true limers and given have a beat will be seen tapping bottle and moving with a sultry rhythm. That one of these is amongst the region's best economists should never be held against this son of the coral. Another couple are a Bajan-Trini combo, which never lose a chance to pump up the volume and bring in friends who know how to win' up de bumper, and tap bottle, get inna conga line. They even had me win'ing up last July at some splash event. Me! I don't do water sports. Then there is the Guyanese couple, who have made Barbados their home and economic base for the past 40 years and host a great Crop Over lime each year, and always manage to arrange for a heavy downpour of rain so that we can have a great wet fete. They have tried to get me to 'chip' (or is it 'trip'?) down the road behind a truck. Nah: wife would not like that. They wanted me to put on mud. Na-ah: wife would really not LIKE THAT. They suggested that I go to a tent. Why would I do that? I loved camping, but also had some of my most traumatic holiday experiences under canvas in Europe, when wind and rain turned what was supposed to be a 'relaxing time' into total chaos. Waking up in cold water is not fun. Coming back to a camp site to see tent hanging from a telegraph pole tends to take your breath away. Tent? No way.

So, as luck makes it happen, another Bajan came up to me and said, "You have to come to Headliners, man. Tuesday....I will be performing. Social commentary." My eyes popped. Performing? What kind of performing? He's going to be the MC or something? I had just dragged this youth out to play tennis with me and a few other fogeys, and I wondered if the build up of lactic acid from not having played for 10 years had fried his brain cells. I looked at my partner and shrugged my shoulder. "Let's go together," he said. Now, this thing was getting out of control.

Conspiracies often happen while you are happily thinking that all in life is normal. An old Scottish friend, with whom I had shared a football field and a few beers, arrived in Bim a few months ago. My wife met him at a meeting and he asked after me. We spoke on the phone and played tag with messages. Three months later, we met again at a diplomatic cocktail affair to celebrate Canada Day. Smiles and a bit of reminiscence followed. "My wife's due to travel, so let's arrange to go and get slammed," I proposed to him. "Greeet edeea," he replied in that distinctive Scottish lilt. "Whe' dya wanna goh? I know nohwhe' hey." I suggested the Carib Bar, where we had once sunk a few bevvies during a Masters football tournament. But, now I had to call him and suggest he go to a Crop Over tent--and I had no idea what I was suggesting.

Arriving at Headliners, at The Plantation, I was of course floored that there was no tent at all.I had envisaged having my body and others pressed together and bound by sweat and a clash of cologne, perfume, and deodorants. Instead, I found neatly laid out chairs. This is a theatre. I looked puzzled at my Bajan bud. "Where's the tent?" I asked. "This is it," he laughingly replied. He had to soothe me with a beer. We found one of the few seats still available: the 'tent' was due to get going at 8pm and here we were at 7.30 and the place was full. I wonder about Bajans: so totally English for timeliness. But, who should be sitting directly in front of us? My Guyanese Calyspo-holics! I laughed with them and asked whether their papers were in order, or if they had had anyone knock on their door at 3am. "Oh, yeah! But we told them to just f**k off." We talked a bit about fete-ing and they again tried to get me to commit to following some truck for a bit of wuk. "I'll get back to you," I stammered.

My Scottie was late--he thinks all of the Caribbean is like Jamaica. The ushers wanted the seat I was trying to save for him.

Then up came the first act. Alvin Toppin screamed "Here on stage, with his social commentary is 'Gungadin'" [changed to name to protect the innocent] "Wuhloss!" There, dressed like Joseph in a technicolour coat and a white cap that looked like a cheap imitation from French Foreign Legion uniform, was my man. The inviter. Mike in hand. Finger in air. Giving me 'lyrics'. I folded in laughter and pride all mixed up. This boy is more talented than I realised. He could sing and he could hold the audience. I don't know what the judges are looking for, but the boy became a man and would get my vote. He was not of the same class as 'Blood', but he could hold his own.

I'll be honest, the spread of talent was clear. But, I was amazed to see one of the young elite boy tennis players, there with some of his group, doing a Kadooment song. Some of the lyricsneeded serious work for better content. Some of the delivery was less than stellar. But, everone should get a chance if they want it and have the courage to get up on the stage. So credit to them all.

I'm always glad to get more of a good thing. So, already, I am convincing friends to make a visit, and as soon as I come back from the US next week, I will be heading to the tents again.