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, November 29, 2007

Shaking all over: Earthquake hits Barbados

At about 3pm I was in my basement office and my rolling chair seemed to move me around and I thought that I had a funny shuddery feeling. I first touched my head as I felt disoriented. Then I thought the sense of movement was due to a pile driver doing something at an adjacent house, which is being rebuilt, but the machinery was still. Then I saw the truck outside my gate shaking! I noticed that my little Suzuki in the porch garage was also shaking and my legs were really wobbly. I went to the street, where I heard a commotion and I saw that almost everyone was outside and asking "Did you feel the shaking?" Yes, I did! It lasted about a minute as far as I could tell, perhaps a little longer. My little daughter felt nothing: she had just finished her lunch after school an was in the "cartoon zone". Her nanny was on the upstairs landing and was initially concerned that she was having a dizzy spell then got scared by the sense of shaking in her legs. I quickly ran to the radio and I heard the first reports that the southern Caribbean had been hit by a quake of 7.3 on the Richter scale, and that Trinidad and Greneda had also been affected (see link for latest reports, and this link for actual details). You can add your experiences of the quake to the related sites that follow such events. I will post my impressions later.

My wife's driver came by shortly after to deliver her car (after she had travelled yesterday) and he needed to have a ride back. He was going to walk to St. Philip. I was reluctant but took him part way, not wanting to get stuck in an quickly thickening body of cars. On the way we heard that Bridgetown was already in gridlock as cars and passengers tried to flee the city centre and head home (inland and higher).

I got back home within 15 minutes and then spent the rest of the late afternoon with neighbours comparing our stories> Some had been driving and could sense the shuddering as they rolled along. Some were in offices and not sure of what was going on till they noticed bookshelves shaking. Some were sleeping and felt nothing!

This is my first time feeling a quake. I was in Tortola a few months ago when a quake of around 4.3 hit the area during the night, but I slept through it (see previous blog). I had visited Mexico City shortly after a major quake there in the 1980s and the devastation was phenomenal. Here no visible signs of damage are so far evident.

Early reports indicate some damage across the island, including a part of Parliament being damaged. More reports will no doubt emerge, as the radio is full of callers. Phone lines were saturated or down but BlackBerry still could send messages and internet was still working.

Tomorrow is Barbados' 41st anniversary of independence and I suspect that many will not want to venture to the beach, fearing a tsunami. Let's hope that it does not arrive. The PM was due to have an independence reception tonight, but so far no word if it will go ahead. I hear that some of tomorrow's celebrations have been cancelled.

Other blogs are following with more technical details, such as Bajan Underground. Here's hoping for a quiet night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

GoGrow: Barbados

One of my regular commentators has started a blog and it fits right in with PM Arthur's encouragement to grow your own. GoGrow Barbados (http://greenbb.wordpress.com/) is fresh and new, and planted only recently. I am sure the blog and the garden will both grow in strength. It has pictures that are good enough to eat! I have added it to my blogroll and plan to see how it matures.

This new blog reminds me of when I owned my first home in London, and started an urban garden. It was planted with potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, rhubarb, peas, flowers and fruit shrubs (blackberries) and trees (apples and pears). Everything tasted wonderful, though the insects often got the first taste. My first daughter wont remember but she and I spent much time there and she learnt at the age of two how to sow seeds and dig; she will find a picture in the albums of her first dog carrying a bucket of potatoes!

My father has always had a garden and in Jamaica he retired to spend hours planting yam, sweet potato, corn, cassava, green ("Congo") peas, and raising chickens. He trained in psychology and believes firmly that connection with the land is essential for good physical and mental health. I agree, if only to have somewhere to go when times get rough inside the house: married men should know what I mean.

In England, this idea of connection to the land has become a national pastime and even extends to the government granting land for people to plant, in the form of "allotments".

Growing your own will not mean that you become self sufficient in food to eat, but it will bring pleasure and relaxation. It can be back-breaking work to dig a lot of soil, but what's wrong with that? It can help work against some of our bug bears like the high price of some fresh produce. It can also be one of the best envirnmental moves one makes. Having land planted is better than having it put to grass in terms of maintenance that requires machines: less mowing, or none at all, and that can mean less petrol consumption (though I always had a push or electric mower). Better to have a garden full of plants than a ard covered in concrete: the rain loves plants and vice versa.

So, wishing the new blogger good luck, and hoping that the new blog inspires a growing audience, I'll leave you to check out the site.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guinea is waiting for change

During my two week return visit to Guinea a lot of people asked me if I noticed any major changes. I said that the first thing that I noticed immediately was the presence of lights as I entered the city by plane. To many travellers this may seem bizarre, but Conakry was known as the "dark capital". For years governments had been unable to provide regular and reliable electricity, even though the country has enormous hydroelectric generating capacity. Now on the road from the airport, which has recently been upgraded, there are solar powered pylons lighting the route.

There were other superficial positive changes that will also bring longer lasting benefits, such as the widening of the market for mobile phones, with four operators and a fifth coming soon. Telecommunication is the modern equivalent of a highway to one's door. Once access has been given, then all other places become accessible. There is also no limit to how people will use telecoms. Many recent stories of developing countries tell of how traders are using mobile phones to make markets; of how public opinion and information are spread by phone calls, etc. Just the fact t hat many people can easily maintain contact with others overseas brings tumbling down many barriers. The capabilities of modern phones also opens up a world of audio and visual knowledge. We have heard stories of how a robbery has been filmed by a cell phone. I know of people taping conversations with phones. Those who travel a lot know that many airports ban the use of cell phones until one has passed through Customs and immigration. And as Orwell wrote, "knowledge is power".

There are also some constants, such as the throngs of people on the main street in Conakry waiting for taxis (see picture above). There are the groups of youths playing football in the street. Future stars? Who knows? I have already written about the daily grind.

Guinea recently went through a major "social upheaval", when in January this year a national strike developed into a major push for political change, resulting in the death of over 30 people (in terms of official figures), and led to a change of government with one built around consensus and largely free of people who had previously held ministerial office. Now, over nice months later, the unspoken cry is for the change expected and promised after those strikes. There is a sense of foreboding as people assess the value of the deaths and social strain.

One area of life that I have seen where change is mixed is in the public administration. Public servants do not have a natural sense of serving the public, and many have been accused of privatizing the public service: only if one pays will one get service, and that payment does not go to the State. A sense of seriousness amongst public officials is something that is often lacking: poor comportment, sloppy dress, attitudes that show little care for those who seek service or make use of public building. This is not unique to Guinea and many will say it is a universal problem of public adminstration. I know many public servants who work so hard it's unimaginable how they keep living as they seem to shoulder every issue and have the ability to resolve many of them with good ideas. The ideas often fall due to lack of commitment on the part of politicians or opposition from other public officials, but dont deny that the ability is there.

How can one motivate most public servants to give that same high percentage to their work? I often talk of "sanctions", meaning that poor work has a harsh consequence with the ultimate being dismissal. Yes, that will bring social problems as a bread winner and family has to do without bread. But getting money on false pretences is theft. Some of the public administration failures are due to an unwillingness to recognize some simple truths, such as this.

In the early-1990s, Guinea suffered a failed coup and one of the symbols is the carcass of a bombarded "palace" (which has been built for African Union conferences and major public meetings etc). That it was never repaired has been for me a symbol of resistance to change; like holding on to old bus tickets. Now, I see that a set of Asian workers (Koreans, I understand) have begun to strip it down and begin refurbishing.
It may all be part of celebrations for Guinea's 50th anniversary of independence, in 2008, but it is a nontrivial development in my mind, and is more than cosmetic. Sometimes new social positions have to be built on new physical structures and this may be one of those cases.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Say cheese, please

I have a passion for cheese. England has many varieties of hard cheese that I like very much. So a visit to London is not complete without a trip to Covent Garden and my favourite cheese shop at Neal's Yard. It's easy to spend near to half an hour sampling, even though your mind may already be made up. Another excellent cheese shop, is Paxton and Whitfield, in Jermyn Street, which if you know London you will recognize as a place for excellent specialities. Both shops also do some excellent jams and condiments, which can make for some of the nicest gifts. At this time of year it's good to get a whole cheese for Christmas; Stilton is usually preferred but this year I have bought a Montogmery Cheddar to share with my Bahamian in-laws. In the Caribbean we rarely see real cheese and live with the processed variety.

I felt very sorry for an American man and his son, who went into Neal's Yard to get bread. They were tempted to sample but stopped by the cry of "Come awn. Let's go!" from him wife. Gladly, the rest of the family pounced on her for being in a hurry to go nowhere, as usual. However, my poor American, brow-beaten and sad-faced trudged out of the shop, bread under arm and not a morsel of cheese to whet his appetite. "Come back alone." I whispered to him. "I will." he replied.

Going back to England is always pleasant for me, having lived there for over 30 years. The place is always familiar, even though the physical changes are now so great that I have a hard time figuring out where I am. I would have a hard time driving around without getting lost, especially around Heathrow, near which I used to live. But London always has bounce, and a skip that I much prefer compared to New York or Paris. This time it was nice to pass through The City [London's main financial district], where I used to work and also St James's Square, near where I went to school.

Friends took me to a great fish (and chips) restaurant in Highgate last night, run by a Georgian family, and this again opened my eyes to how London has changed with the inflow of central and eastern Europeans--seemingly much more numberous now especially in the service sector. Actually, the restaurant offers much more, including wonderful grilled sea bream--part of a healthy meal that comes with just salad. They offer a few bowl of fish soup with each meal. As I have mentioned to restaurant and hotel people in Barbados, you have to give customers a few incentives.

The trip had a nice surprise because I discovered that bus transport between the Heathrow area and nearby Underground stations is free. London has greatly modernised its public transport fares and everyone talks about getting an "Oyster" (a card that has a basic amount of credit and allows travel, but the credit can be increased at will, and using it is cheaper and faster than paying individual fares).

However, "sticker shock" is also the order of the day. The pound has strengthened much against the US dollar (around 2.06 as I write), so those UK prices now sting a lot. Still, things are great value and usually great quality. My daughter, who is studying at a university in the UK this year is suffering that big time. She is normally based in Canada, so with the Canadian dollar also strengthening, she's really only traded one pain for another.

Well, I will head back to New York and then on to Barbados today. I do not relish more cold weather and sandwiching that between tropical climates is not fun. So, another few days of muffling up ahead of getting back to my life in T-shirt and shorts.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Village life in Guinea

A Guinean friend invited me to lunch on Sunday, along with some other foreign friends who have worked in Guinea for some time. We then visited the plantation that my Guinean friend is developing. He started with 2 hectares and has now acquired 20 hectares. He is a true urbanite but has a dream to see his plantation grow to be a major producer of oranges, pineapples, bananas, palm oil seeds, rice, and more. He has managed to get the confidence of villagers, which has allowed him to buy more land. In exchange for their faith in him he has loose arrangements that allow them to farm some areas for their own purposes.

Guinea's president has prided himself on being a peasant and urged his citizens to follow his examples. This is a trend that many Guineans have tried to develop. Not many can take advantage of the possibilities, but it is interesting that both young and old office workers are trying to put down some roots in land, usually in areas where they have family contacts. There are many risks, though mostly minor. The risks involve theft of crops and supplies. They include weather and nature-related threats: Guinea has rain in overabundance during July-September but that can aid and destroy. Access is always a problem, but can also limit unwanted visitors. Managing such plantations from a distance is not a good option, and these new farmers will soon have to made decisions about what are their priorities. Depending on family members is a good way to limit risks, but is no guarantee.

In a country where the daily grind can be really burdensome this return to the land can also be therapeutic, and help keep people sane. That may be a romantic notion but it's in keeping with comments that the new farmers make. It's a return to some basic and important elements of national life. If children can be involved then it's also a good way to keep their lives well focused.

I wish my new farmer friend much success and will be keeping an eye on how his plantation develops.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Getting through a day in Conakry

One of the hard facts of life in a truly poor country is the extent to which most people have to live from day to day. Resolving today's problem of basic needs for food, water, electricity, transport, just gets you to tomorrow and having to resolve them again. And in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the problems are major. For food, most of us in the Caribbean, Europe and North America are not too concerned about having to buy food for today's meal. But we have have lost the habit of having to do that every day: we have storage possibilities like fridges and freezers to deal with perishables, and we can often stock a lot of non-perishables. For water, we turn on the tap and water comes out; it's clean and it's usually plentiful. We have to deal with occasional outages, but we are not used to having to tote buckets of water, or deal with a tap that gives no water at all, perhaps for days, or water that comes out looking like soup. For electricity, we have become used to "always on". We dont really have to deal with outages that last for more than a few hours, and only occasionally. We would find it really shocking to have no electricity most of most days, or at best two days in seven. While we rail (bad pun) against traffic congestion or the lack of good public transport, it's relative. Buses that are only once every 15 minutes, for example. If you have lived in places like London or New York with good bus and subway systems, you think of overcrowding as a regular irritant during rush hour, meaning having to stand with lots of other people for perhaps a 15-30 minute ride. How about sitting in a minivan, full to overflowing, and going along dusty, bumpy roads for about 2 hours and doing that twice a day for five days a week? Those things that we are not accustomed to are part of the daily grind in Guinea, and many poor countries.

What is pitiful is that public adminstrations have not been short of money to deal with these problems, but the money has rarely touched the solutions. More pitiful in the case of Guinea is that you have water in abundance and can generate enough hydroelectricity, but poor management and execution has left the country struggling to give basic services. What serves as transport is often a mix of tired, second hand vehicles that are always full of people and their goods. You have to get used to seeing a small car full of people, with chickens, wood, steel bars, and water drums, scraping the ground in the city or on some country road. When a taxi comes along, it's survival of the fittest, and if you feel like saying "After you" then get ready to wait a long time. Most 5 seater cars used as taxis often carry 7-8 people.

You have to get used to the fact that with little income and usually no savings a day's spending may not get you through the day. Get used to broken down cars, because people have enough money to buy a little petrol, or parts cannot be replaced.

One of the major problems with food is dependence on imported "essentials". We know in the Caribbean how much we love rice. In Guinea, a day starting without rice, and I mean for breakfast, is a day not started. So, huge quantities of rice are imported, even though the country can easily be self-sufficient in rice.
Sounds familiar? Here, it arrives in large 50 kilogram sacks and are loaded and loaded by hand. If a truck breaks down, it takes little time for people to help distribute the contents!

Having a solid income is no guarantee that these things will not affect you. They may hit you less directly, but they may hit your staff and lot, and so affect you indirectly. So, think about some of these things during a normally uneventful Sunday.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Caught off guard...again

Guinea has a reputation for being a country where people lack discipline: lots of laws and rules exist but few are followed or implemented. People also employ some interesting double logic, which is somewhat like a child covering its eyes and saying "You cant see me". The picture is one such example. I wanted to show the gendarmes in the entrance lobby of a government office doing exactly what they were doing: they were eating raw peanuts and the table was piled with the husks. Nothing terrible, except that many would feel that it's not a good image. But as soon as my camera came out they removed the evidence. I pointed out that as I and everyone else passing through the lobby had clearly seen what was going on, removing the trash did not change that fact. But for them it did. If it's not in the picture then it was never there, ne c'est pas?

To go back to my previous blog about security guards (see link), it was comforting to hear from some Guinean friends that sleeping on the job is a common problem (and supports my theory that it's part of the training--the reality is that these guys work other jobs during the daytime and need to catch some sleep). So, is stealing diesel. Again, using the "see no evil" notion. With no evidence of a break-in the guards will swear that they have no idea how the diesel is being reduced at a rate faster than is being used by the generator. I guess that walking off with a gallon a day does not count. Duh!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Working children

When you are poor and have to find money wherever you can you dont focus on things that come high on the agenda of people who are more comfortable and can spend more time thinking about how they can better the world rather than how to get food into their stomach. A lot of people in developed countries rail against "child labour". In places like Guinea, as was the cases in developed countries several decades ago, sending young children out to work is normal. The family, amongst other things, has long been an economic unit, and children need to know how to earn their keep.

The children in this article are also the lucky ones. They can work on a stall instead of walking the streets with trays of food on their heads trying to find customers. They look quite clean and decently fed. Most satisfying, the young Peuhl girl (one of Guinea's ethnic groups, whose women often dress in indigo cloth), who was working nearing a roundabout at Enco 5, was so pleased to see herself on the digital camera. Guinea's people on one level are very simple and easy to please. I wont go beyond that at this stage. This child was pleased just by seeing herself in living colour.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Caught off guard

Anyone who has ever had security guards working for them knows that they go to a well developed training school for sleeping on the job. They usually save their sleeping for the times when they should be working, especially at night.

During my time in Guinea between 2003-2006 I had to wake my guards several times and remind them that they should be awake to be able to at least defend themselves. Their company told me that if this happened I was to take their night stick and radio and then report the incident to the company. I had other ideas. I once doused one guard with water, only to be assured that "I was not sleeping!" My funniest event was one night when I threw stones to wake the guard and then more stones to create noises elsewhere, and while he searched I took his radio and night stick. He searched frantically for these when he got back to his post, so I threw more stones for him to chase then replaced the items. He came back looking very curious and very alert. He did not sleep the rest of the night. But when I asked him in the morning if everything had been quiet in the night he said "Nothing strange to report." My final story to share was of a sleeping guard, whom I photographed, and left him the print of himself sleeping. When asked if he had slept during the night, he said "I was very tired but I never slept."

The picture attached here is of a new standard in sleeping on the job. The guard works in a government ministry and obviously thought nothing of sleeping under the stairs in the entrance lobby of the ministry. I think this behaviour needs no comment.

Where Africa has hope

Guinea and many sub-Saharan African countries have a double-edged sword to play with. Its youths represent both its best hope and its greatest danger. Hope because their energy and vision are needed to take these countries out of the economic and social pit into which many of them have fallen. But they could be the source of massive social explosions if their energies are left unused or underused. As in the Caribbean and many other regions that are developing, young people are in the majority, but they tend to lack economic and political power.

Guinea is apparently growing only slowly yet everywhere there are signs of growing consumption and investment, especially in buildings. Shopping in many African countries is not done in the way that is familiar in the UK, US or Caribbean. Most goods are bought is open air markets. In the Caribbean open air markets are mainly for fruit and vegetables. In Africa, you have to get used to checking out your needs and wants on a street or in a huge organized market. Almost anything you want you will find. Many of these goods are coming from China, from where many goods can be imported at acceptable prices, which are significantly lower than can be found in Europe or North America. Admittedly, many of these goods are being imported in a clandestine manner. They are coming into the countries in suitcases or in containers whose contents have not been truly declared, so they arrive at lower costs (which often means a loss to the government in terms of tax revenue).

Quality services are something that Guinea and many African countries lack. Public services often suffer from government budgets that are so strained that wages (often the first priority for a government) cannot be paid regularly. Thus, other public services are going to be provided in at best sporadic fashion. If the means of supplying the services have never been well established you will see a rapid deterioration in public provision of services such as water and electricity supply. Guinea was notable for many years as a "dark" country, where day or night few areas could rely of electricity and most of the area was in darkness once daylight was gone. That is an aspect that has changed in the past year after a series of national strikes forced changes in how the country is governed. However, where the private sector is allowed to operate services of at least reasonable quality tend to come forward. One area where this has shown spectacular growth is telecommunications. Guinea is just seeing an "explosion" in mobile phone services as Orange (a French company) launched its services on the market this week.
They went on a marketing blitz, which saw the capital plastered with company signs and flags showing where cards could be bought appearing almost every retail space overnight.They added a few "parties" in the capital and were out in force at the weekend trying to encourage more customers. They seem ready to really engage with the market leader, Areeba (part of the MTN telecom group), who started providing services in mid-2006 and has apparently taken some 60 percent of the mobile market. Orange is basically giving away SIM cards (you pay 15,000 Guinea francs [about US$ 4] for a card but it comes with the same value of credit). Orange's service is currently a bit quirky, for instance you get no information about how to activate your SIM or how to know your number, and you have to make calls as if you are calling from abroad. But they are showing that they will aggressively get into the mix. They seem to have taken most of the new buildings that had mushroomed in the capital in the past year.

Areeba had turned the market when it started in 2006 with pay-as-you-talk SIM cards, which they made easily available by having sales outlets almost everywhere and charging relatively little. This was after years of difficulty to get a mobile phone and the scandalous behaviour of the main (national) provider, Sotelgui, who provided poor service but also allowed price gouging whenever new SIMs were put on the market. Both Areeba and Orange will offer aggressive competititon and the support of international companies. In a country of some 9 million people there is enough market for both.

Both Areeba and Orange are basing their services on national coverage. That national image will quickly seem real because the logo of each company is quickly covering every free space, from the walls of football stadiums, to every lamp post, to many minibuses, etc. In quick time most of the country gets reliable mobile services. Some would say that this will probably make a major change in how things will develop. When most of the country can communicate without needing to actually move that is a platform for very fast development. (Another possible twist in the future could be political: in Cote d'Ivoire several years ago it was the existence of such communication that helped cement legitimate election results as people could quickly relay information before polling station officials had time to "change" the outcomes.

Sure, a better life needs more than the ability to make phone calls on mobile telephone, but when you have been denied many trappings of modernity it is a significant step. Isolation is no longer imposed by geographical separation. When you can get such services on a pay-as-you-go basis at very affordable prices, that will change a lot of people's lives. This is not the solution to Guinea's or Africa's problems but it has tended to be an important start in getting past the problems. So, though it's early days I will watch this dust-up over mobile phone services with interest to see if it does provide a solid base for significant social and economic change.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Back to Africa

It is over a year since I left my post in Guinea, west Africa. For those who have no idea where that is, take a line almost due east from between Barbados and Trinidad and you will hit it. Those who know a little of the history of the British slave trade will know that a lot of slaves were shipped from that area of Africa to the Caribbean as part of the infamous "triangular trade", which sold minor goods to African slave traders in exchange for slaves, who were sold in the Caribbean, and rum and sugar bought from there for shipment to Britain.

I have had the opportunity to make the triangular trip both ways myself. I have taken small gifts from England (duty free items or good English cheese and jam), and given (not sold) them in Africa. I have taken a body from Africa (my daughter's nanny), and I have shipped rum, rum cake, jams, pickles and spices from the Caribbean to Britain.

I have done the triangular trip in reverse. too. I have taken goodies directly from the Caribbean to Africa (jerk seasoning was a great hit; reggae music had hit the Continent years ago). I sent bodies from there to Europe (my tennis coaches were given the chance to go and train in France), and then taken goodies from England to the Caribbean (nothing like English beer and cheese). None of this is likely to raise any red flags.

But the rest of the world's interaction with Africa has been fragmented, and tends to be exploitative. Africa has struggled--some would say "failed miserably"--to make things good for itself. It's hard to generalize but Generals have been amongst Africa's major problems, as they have led army revolts that have ended democracies, held on to power too long, transformed themselves into civilian leaders and then held on longer. And what can those militaristic rulers show for it? Very little in terms of improved well being for their populations

Africa is always a fertile ground for new entrepreneurs, home grown or foreign. Good returns are there for those ready to take some risks. Amongst the major investors now in Africa are the Chinese, both the State and private sector. Many African countries, and Guinea is not different, have seen this as bringing short term improvements. Chinese government contracts have built roads and some "feel good" structures such as new Parliament buildings and a lot of sports stadiums (the Caribbean knows this latter from the recent Cricket World Cup). But Chinese goods--any many of them are better than Europe and the US had been prepared to offer--are readily available, and that too makes peoples lives seem better in terms of choices and costs. Certainly, Chinese traders and goods are more common place in African cities that European and particularly American traders (if one excludes major mining and petroleum companies), and are affecting peoples lives at every turn. Africans know a lot about Chinese food now!

So, as I go back to a place where I worked for three years, I am going to try to observe what has changed in the last year of so, and figure out if things are moving ahead, stalling or going backwards. Whatever I find in terms of economic and social changes, I know I will find people who are warm and ready to welcome someone who is prepared to spend time trying to deal with the many problems that exist on this continent.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Peace and tranquility: A weekend at Ottley's

My wife had a brilliant idea recently. Actually, all of my wife's ideas are brilliant by definition. She suggested that whenever she has a business trip to another island we would try to make a long weekend and visit as a family. So, here I am in St. Kitts, at one of my favourite places, Ottley's Plantation Inn (http://www.ottleys.com/, see image of the Great House). So, to put my last two blogs into perspective, I have been on vacation, but of course that is no reason to not blog; in fact it can be easier and there are fewer distractions. Nestled in the shadow of a volcano, it is really easy to write and bliss to feel and be far away from the maddening crowd.
We last visited Ottley's seven years ago, before our latest child was born, and had a truly romantic few days. Now the "little one" (who was not conceived at Ottley's) gets a chance to visit before either of her older sisters. Ottley's is the personification of peace and relaxation. Its vast expanse (35 acres) usually ensures that you are not cheek-by-jowl with other residents. This time we are staying in one of the cottages and that offers even more seclusion.

Ottley's history is well documented on its web site and I only lament that again someone from North America or Europe has come to the Caribbean and put value into things that we were ready to neglect. Not all black people are comfortable with things that make money out of the slavery history. But I believe it is a part of our history and we need to make sure that people understand the context of that time in and make sure that what exists is not just discarded because of painful memories.

Ottley's is famous for its food. Not just the style but also the quality and value for money. Not only is everything beautifully set out but it always tastes very good. The setting of the restaurant in the remnants of the the sugar boiling house works very well.

What we have really enjoyed this trip is being able to take advantage of this tranquility with a young child. We have explored together the rain forest, which is a part of the property. Perhaps we will come back in a few years and see how the coconuts and mango seeds that were sprouting have turned into good sized trees. We did not see any wild hogs this time, but did see a lot of green monkeys. I have enjoyed walking around the property before sunrise, when not a living soul--person or animal is stirring.

Environmental issues are being tackled by the people running Ottley's. They use energy saving bulbs on the property. Solar panels for water heating had been set on roofs but after 18 years needed to be replaced. Now there is the idea of putting them at ground level and disguising them with shrubs. Solar powered air conditioning is being explored and a Peurto Rican company has indicated it could supply units that would halve the cost of providing this amenity. Wind power has been considered but there are noise and aesthetic issues to deal with.

Many of the staff have been at the hotel between 5-19 years and they apparently love working there. They become friends of all the visitors, and love to please and praise the hotel. "What is the food like?" will get a response from them of "It's Ottley's".

The inn keepers are very friendly and always ready to share a quip and even a long conversation. Marty Keusch is a really funny guy and possibly the happiest horticulturalist in the world. He has a plan to plant royal palms all the way from the hotel to the airport. That would be some project.

Ottley's is not for every one and for that I am grateful. I do not seek beach and sun. I love the nature of the Caribbean and love the views and climate we have that is sometimes ideally set in the high 70s Fahrenheit. I love the sound of rain falling on the leaves of red ginger plants. I love to hear the breeze coursing through palms. I love the colours. I love the Caribbean and Ottley's presents it very well.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Boycotting restaurants

I have written several times about the high cost of living in Barbados (see previous blog). Now, I have decided to do more than write about this. As they say, "Put your money where your mouth is." To me one of the scandals of living in Barbados is eating out at the major restaurants. Frankly, I cannot believe what I am expected to pay. I know from recent experience that I can eat more cheaply and with better quality and quantity (though that is not important) in New York, or Washington, or Jamaica, or St. Kitts. I will travel to London soon and I will see how prices are there (remembering that the pound has risen very strongly against the US dollar/Barbadian dollar). So, consistent with this disbelief I have decided to boycott most of the restaurants on the island. There are still many good places to eat and without taking out a new loan.

I mentioned this to a friend this week as we ate at a beach restaurant/bar to which he had invited me. He laughed heartily. "I've done the same too", he said. He mentioned a visit to a well known south coast restaurant and his bill for two of B$600, and for what, he asked? This is a ridiculous amount to pay, he continued. So, he is putting his efforts into eating at home alone or with friends.

Perhaps the British tourist finds Barbados cheap or affordable. I do not and it's not a question of income. Someone has to convince me that this is not another sector in Barbados that is just gouging its prices. Maybe too few Bajans are affected for this to be a major issue to local people. It certainly is affecting the reputation of the island regionally. The PM is probably not in a position to impose price controls on this sector, so let some economics take over. The price can only be supported if supply and demand are in agreement. My withdrawal of my demand may not make much difference but I hope it encourages others to think hard about doing likewise, and then let's see. The money I save from this boycott can certainly pay for a trip to the US and a good meal out in quick, quick time.

As I said several months ago in a previous blog post:

But looking at places like restaurants, I don't understand why meals including local sea food and other local ingredients are priced as if these were coming from Europe. It's hard to find a good restaurant that charges less that B$ 150 (about US$ 75) a person for a two course meal. Only if you eat roti or go to a place like Oistins for fish fry or outdoor BBQ joint like Just Grillin' does a meal come at a reasonable cost, say B$ 15-20 a person. Sure, tourists can deal with these prices over their vacations, especially coming from the UK with the pound very strong...

I am still convinced that there is something not very right going on!

I try to be a logical person and if it makes no sense then there probably is no sense. So, if any restaurant owners are out there and feel that they can put up some convincing arguments I would love to hear them.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Learning to love the roller coaster: Another week as a forex trader

It is Friday afternoon and markets are closing in a few hours for the weekend, and am I glad. Having started on this gig (see blog) I have decided to go along for the ride. This week was due to be huge in terms of recent developments. The US dollar had been hammered merciless for a long time, but the past few weeks were horrible for the greenback, with all time lows or multi decade lows. The Chairman of the US Federal Reserve was due to make a statement on Wednesday afternoon about the decision on rates. The market viewed this as THE news of the week. I thought the week would be calm running up to Wednesday. Forget it! Tie on the straps.

Monday saw new highs against the greenback then a huge buying spree of the US dollar! And it went up and down and at the end of the day, it was hard to know which way the market would turn. I made a few trades and they mostly went bad. Tuesday I decided to just cool out. This is what I had planned to do this week anyway, but when you see and interesting development, well, you trade.

Wednesday, I had little time for trading and in fact I would be away from my platform most of the day. I regretted that as I wanted to witness the action even though I did not have a position open. The statement came around 2.30 pm EST and I got home about 2.40. In the minutes after the statement the market was in love with the decision and statement and many currencies were heading for 100 point shifts. Had I been in with the right position it could have been a cool $1000 in the blinking of a few eyelids. I had to try for catch up. I managed that little by little later in the day.

There is a certain character to the activity of the market, which I find attractive: it is up and down all the time for reasons that are clear and for no apparent reason at all. As a trained economist, it is incredible to witness the power of market forces moving prices, keeping prices unchanged as buyers and sellers tussle to determine the direction of the currency pairs, or sometimes making huge movements (30+ points) in one minute, and then reversing those movements sometime later with equal variation. I have accepted that one I set a stop-loss I can deal with how much I may lose; what I have to then manage is to manage my emotions if the deal is turning positive and especially if the price is rising well. I have learned not to close deals out prematurely, except with Euro/US dollar (which seems to have great difficulty moving past every barrier either up or down, so deals take an age to mature).

It is also important to start understand the rhythm of the market. There are times when the push to new highs or lows is at its strongest; in between there can be a lot of turbulence, even to the extent that huge dips or spikes can occur before the true position emerges at a higher or much lower point. The herd of dealers is pushing hardest at certain times and if a position is to be breached it's as if there is no breathing space and boom the door opens to a new higher or lower position. Then the market takes a breather. Then it pushes again. Once certain key barriers are broken then the market's progress can seem relentless. Seeing the developments on a day's graph is nothing like seeing the price tussle take place especially as you see you position run further into gains. These major pushes are also important in that they trigger responses especially in the form of preset reverse orders, which can make the price shift back sharply before proceeding on its way.

It is also important to sense the inter-relationships between markets. The progress or decline of the stock markets have a major influence on currency pairs, especially in recent times with what is referred to as "carry trade". This refers to buying of cheap currencies to facilitate investment in markets of strong currencies. [check] Stock market rises trigger buying of certain currencies and vice versa. Where a day trader like myself is at a disadvantage is in not seeing the developments in other markets in real time, therefore professional dealers have a major edge.

In the mayhem of prices shooting up and down I initiated one trade totally by mistake (as the deal window was adjacent to the currency pair I wanted) and to my shock and horror bought two lots of Euro/Japanese yen. What should I do with this lemon, I thought as the price started to plummet: I had kept away from things yen as the carry trade was causing havoc. But just in a blink the price turned and within half and hour the trade had gained 20 points. Thank you very much, I will cash that.

But watching a major push is something else, especially when the trend across the board is the same. Then it becomes like a race: which currency can set a new record first. The process is quite exhausting and after a few days of this the weekend is a real pleasure. I have been trading across the whole market, but I am paring back and may decide to just trade London and New York, if only to cut the hours.

I have lost a lot this week but I have also made a lot. This is first week where I have made over US$100 on deals. You have to take risks to get the rewards. That means dealing bigger lots. It also means sitting along the sometimes bumpy ride for a while. I had some large Euro/$ positions and bided out the time. I similarly had large Euro/Yen positions and did similarly. I also realised that, because I am not dealing with technical analysis beforehand the pull back can be deeper than expected. I have found the lower support levels and set a limit below them, which means a bigger potential loss, but just to protect the deal from early closing in all the turbulence. I also learned the hard way about booking profits too early and finding that a pull back closed the deal and so I missed the bigger rise to come. It is not easy to see (as I have done while writing this) a potential profit of $400 fizzle to some $90. But if "panic" says better take it, it is often the case that just after there is the break out and $400 is soon exceeded. This up and down can occur several times, and the "window" of movement could be 30+ points. It's tough on the nerves.

I do not have to go into individual deals. But I know that for professionals judgement and analysis reduce their risks. Amateurs like me have to rely a bit on luck. I have been trading for too short a time to feel some situations quickly. That is why I sometimes hesitate when there are quick movements, though it's also difficult to do all that is needed to not lose the gain, such as setting a new limit for closing the deal and making a bigger profit. That hesitation can lose a tidy $100 in a flash, and in that sense I have left a lot of money on the table. But, whatever. (In passing, I read on the http://www.onlinefxtrading.net/ blog how the guy there realised that he cannot make money with capital of only $250. Well, hello! When you have to put up between $35-100 for a "lot" ($10,000 of money to trade) that means you can maybe buy 1 or 2 lots unless you like risk and if that deal does well, then 1 times whatever is never much. I have found that you need to have around $2000 in the pot to have enough wiggle room to deal larger lots and lose and still be in the game.

I am smiling about what this process is doing. It could become difficult to not do it, but I will stop soon. It's easier when I have plenty of time. I am due to travel to Guinea in west Africa to work for few weeks, and if I do not have a sure internet connection I will not deal. I will also have other things to fill my time such as helping to deal with the issue of world poverty.

What I have discovered is that modern technology means that trading can be done 24 hours/5 days a week. One can trade in blocks and even trade in the morning at home, trade later at an airport, trade again later at a wireless hotspot, and so on. It's helped me move from having long lie-ins to getting up in the very early hours and staying up till late, unless I just close my account and say "No more!"

I'll keep you posted on developments, so to speak.