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**

Friday, May 30, 2008

French lessons.

Here I am in France. Land of Voltaire and men of great writing and learning. Land of Roquefort and Pont l'Eveque, the cheese that smells so bad yet tastes so good. Land of women of great style and elegance. Land of all the wines I love and men of great learning, accents of romance, et cetera, et cetera. France is for the French and if you are not French or do not speak French, too bad. The French guard their ways and their language ferociously; they have l'Academie Française (the French Academy) for this purpose--the language police. They have rules about what names can legally be giiven to children at birth. So, you cna't just name your child Raswhanda or some such now loved as "super black"; even the simple Megan does not work for the Frnech because it's the name of a Renalut car model. The latest battle to save the language is in the realm of text messaging. Even the president was forced to comment as young and old texters write A2M1 ("à demain"—à-deux-m-un, meaning "see you tomorrow"), or Koi29 ("quoi de neuf?" = "what's new?") on their phones (see others). The French like their language use to be orderly.

But in all that love of order there is often chaos: they are often on strike, for example. Last week the fishermen were on strike: picking bones about something like scales for pay. Next week public sector workers will be on strike. The truck drivers and teachers seem to be on strike very often. Don't be surprised to find the farmers blocking traffic with cow dung heaps in the road. But France functions.

Many other aspects of la vie française demand quite an adjustment. I forget but am quickly reminded that in France it costs (a lot) to go to the toilet, and if you have no money or no change, you had better be carrying spare underwear. So, at le pissoir be accustomed to be told to piss off if you have no euros, and don't be a jackass and ask if they take credit cards.

A lot of France is high-tech, so at the Metro stations there are no people selling tickets only machines. No cash? Too bad. But entrepreneurs are there. They buy the books of 10 tickets at reduced prices and sell them at euro 1.50 each (US$ 3) as for individual tickets from the machine. That way you avoid the queue, and if you are a tourist with pounds or dollars then you can get a ticket without having to find a bank, ATM or exchange bureau. Bajan dollars? Get real. I gave US$ 2 in bills and the seller did not want coins, so I got my ticket at reduced rate. Yes! But high-tech France has old time Paris as its capital, and like London it is largely in the 19th century. So, again, at the underground train stations one has lots of stairs to climb and descend . I am now very strong but my arms are very tired. (I think that's why my tennis had less game this morning, not my inability to slide on clay courts.)

So, when I got off the high train from London at Gare du Nord, I took the Metro to Gare Montparnasse and found my way from the Metro to the grandes lignes (main lines) for the TGV (express train), heavy suitcase rolling alongside like a dog. But after two hours or so on the train I was dying for the toilet. I had tried on the train but a lady had decided to sit and die in the toilet nearest my seat. No, I did not have 50 euro centimes. So, where is the guichet (ATM)? Oh, over there. Found it. Thank goodness for ATM cards; not those from Barbados, which work only in Broad Street or Sheraton, but my US bank card. Cash in hand, I quickly bought un sandwich (sorry for the French language police who have no word for this). Armed with change I hit the stalls. There's no need for too much detail, but I immediately had a moment of fright and regret. I remembered that it was in France that I had first come across “squat box” public toilets, where there is only a hole in the ground, and the fast-running river nearby, was fast-running for good reason. That first experience, in my student days, had been traumatic, not for me but for a friend, who in squatting forgot that she had her purse in her back pocket and down it went into the hole and into the river...all of her money gone. “Oh shit!” she had screamed. Expensive shit, I had thought. A very interesting police report and a story for life. But, we have moved on since. Thankfully, in Paris, WC now means water closets not wallet catcher. But, imagine, in France you pay to drink the beer and you pay to get rid of the beer afterwards--in for a pound out for quite a few pennies. In Barbados you pay for the beer, get rid of it for free afterwards and get a refund on the bottle.

But for all its quirks I love France. I used to go there for holidays often as a boy. I had learned French easily as a boy at secondary school--we don't realize in the Caribbean that speaking patois and stardard langauge makes us effectively bilingual, and learning a third or more language is easy. I love many things French, especially the food. My weakness is French patisserie. But I love things like all the varieties of sausages--both those which are dried and eaten cold, and those that have to be cooked. The regional varieties of wine, especially if I can spend two weeks touring and tasting all day. The sea food--mussels, sardines, oysters. Real French fries. There is a good reason why the French can say "bon appetit" and English does not have a similar phrase.

I love the gentleness of French manners. Do not be surprised to see people greet each other warmly. That means at least a kiss on the cheeks, between everyone, even on first meeting. We in the Caribbean would blink hard to see a father kiss his son as well as his daughters and wife when they meet. It is regarded as very rude to enter a room and not greet people; this is a common thread with Barbados' "you find me here so it's you who should greet me".

So, I will enjoy my next 10 days here enjoying again the quirks (including the many complications of using my friend's French keyboard) and all the things I like.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soothing the thousand cuts just enough to haul more coal.

The travel warrior sometimes gets to have the weary body pampered while trekking across countries. For the few, who are not US Marines, that usually starts with a ticket in one of the "upper" classes--business or first. With that comes what is now privilege, or what used to be near-normal treatment. To start with, you can usually find yourself in a nice lounge, with drinks and food (at least decent snacks and sandwiches, as in Barbados), or the full catering of a buffet meal (as at BA's lounge in JFK's terminal 7). So, you can relax before or during a flight easily enough; and with BA you can have your meal before a night flight and then just go to sleep on the plane. You can even relax on arrival, because BA has an arrivals lounge at Heathrow terminal 4, so that you can take breakfast. The BA lounges also offer massages and showers, so you can get a good stroke down before and after the flight, and freshen up before and after the flight. Well, my years of travel helped me get miles to upgrade so that I could get my privileges.

But, for all that, I had to spend almost the whole of Monday either in the hotel (till early afternoon) or in the lounge. So, I wrote and I watched people and I dozed just a tiny bit. Had supper. Had massage. Had shower. Got on plane at 10pm. Watched movies and then slept for 2 hours--the flight was only about 6 hours. Tiredness was dragging me down but it's still hard to sleep on a plane, even when the seat turns into a full flat bed. I should have appreciated all of that rest and downtime because when you get to London you are in "travel jungle". Having lived in that city for nearly 30 years it's only as a traveller with luggage and or children that you realise that the Underground is like an early pilot for "Survivor". As most of the stations are old and dug deep, it's a long way down and up. But the escalator and elevator are modern inventions. So, to make an interchange between lines, you have to climb and descend a lot of stairs. That's why you should try to travel light. But my one suitcase, which was at the limit of 50 pounds had me huffing and puffing all morning as I moved from Heathrow across the city. Add to that some fool mistake because my brain was frazzled and I went to the wrong line, then had to go back a station. My destination is one of London's real treats for travellers--Arsenal, near the football team's stadium. Yes, it has stairs, two sets of about 15 each. But then it has a long ramp, which even with a case that rolls well makes you feel like Cysiphus pushing the pea up the hill. Lawd!

I was blessed in remembering that a later flight from the US would bring me in at mid-morning so miss the rush hour. Because if you and your luggage are in that stampede, heaven help you.

So, now I am good and tired. Ready to tackle some English bickles. Has to be fish and chips. All of you who have never lived in England don't understand the gnawing irritation of being served perhaps decent battered fried fish, English-style, but then having it messed up with those sorry specimens, called "French fries", which even the Freench would reject. Chips are hand-cut, uneven in shape, and big and fat like a farmer's fingers. French fries (outside France) are the factory-ordained, regular shaped, pieces of wood and air produced by McCain's that have been taking over good food like topsy. If there's a campaign to mount it would be for real chips. Even the French know the difference. Real French fries, that you get in France, are really delicious, wiggly looking strips of potato, which go very well with steak, beer, and more fries. But, let me put the foodie equivalent of road rage aside. I found a good fish and chip shop, where the lady fried the battered haddock freshly for me. She added extra chips because I asked and also loved the fact that I had flown from Barbados for them. So, my belly is now full of that lovely grub, dressed with salt and vinegar. All that was missing was my pint, but that's for later. I am now suffering from 30 or so hours without much sleep, and that's not good.

Saving grace for the past two days has been that the French Open has been largely washed out by rain. I may need energy for a marathon session tomorrow. But I also need strength to prepare me for a lunch of grilled pork chops and sausages, with kidneys, and roast potatoes, to be followed by treacle pudding or Spotted Dick, and one of my favourite haunts in The City. No! I ain't missing the flying fish.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Death by a thousand cuts.

Air travel has become one of the slow, painful forms of modern torture. Nothing happens very quickly except the actual getting between two points. Travel to the airport will take whatever time it does depending on where you live and need to go. Once at the airport, at least two hours ahead of departure, there is the long slow process of checking in: you see 50 people ahead of you, and see how long each passenger takes; you do the maths and figure out you will be in line another hour, without there being lots of high context waffling. Then more waiting in the lounge; a modern human holding pen. Most people now prepare for this: DVD players, Game Boys, iPods, laptops, books, eating, snoozing, watching the TV monitor--playing through the boredom. If you are fortunate to travel business or first class you can minimize some of this delay, with special lines and special lounges, where you can really relax and even eat and drink nice things for free, and have a play room for the children. Either way, by the time you hear "We invite passengers in group one to board" you have probably been NOT travelling anywhere far for about four hours.

Then comes boarding and take off: that can take another sweet hour. On bad days, you can then sit in the plane on the tarmac, going no where as technicians move around the craft, and the in-flight staff mingle together muttering and occasionally talking to the pilot. Worse case scenarios include being told that "We have a technical problem, and hope the engineers can fix it soon" but worse is when nothing much is said--never a good sign--but several hours later you are still in the plane on the tarmac: no food, no drink, no in-flight entertainment, tired, bored, angry. My own worse experience was two hours of that situation, but longer times have been reported. Imagine that too, in the sweltering heat because the AC cannot function until the plane is airborne. You are in one of the middle seats in a row of three or four, and surrounded by the family from Hell whose children are crawling all over you and none of them seems to have a nose that is not oozing a flood of goo. In such cirucmstances you may love it when you hear "We find that the engine has an albtross wedged in it and we will have to deplane while the engineers continue to work". Back to the lounge. That can go on for a day and end up with an unscheduled day in an airport, even followed by an unscheduled night at a hotel or even being sent home and told to come back the next day. Been there; done that.

So, sometime between four and twenty four hours after you left home the first time you may be heading into the air. If you have kids you will have heard "Are we there yet?" about six million times by now and thought that sending the little ones as checked baggage may be the way to go next time, like people do with their pets. Then the "in-flight experience". The American airlines have now put air travel close to being a violation of basic human rights. I remember when you could get a meal no matter where you were in the plane and where-ever you were going, something that required chewing more than five times or sucking on a straw for 10 seconds and saying that you had been fed and watered. Now, you hear "We have a range of snacks for purchase: a high-octane muesli bar for $10, a pretzel chip for $3, or the crumbs from the bag of chips we served in business class for $2. We take cash or credit card, but please have the correct money as we cannot give change." If you have been smart or lucky and got yourself a seat in the front of the plane you will be hearing this while sipping on a cocktail and nibbling some nice snack; even a small bowl of warmed cashew nuts may be more than those in row 35 have to share. It's a painful experience that people now endure.

So let's fast forward. The flight may have a film or some collection of TV shows: "Head sets are available for purchase..." It makes sense to take a course in lip reading, or remember to bring your own DVDs. Even my flight from Barbados to New York yesterday could have been real torture for some. But, I had the cocktail and nuts treatment, plus the choice of meals on a real plate with metal cutlery! For the first time I was on a flight where a major romantic event occurred. Barbados is popular for weddings and honeymoons, so it's not too much of a stretch that a couple would decide to have a public marriage proposal while in-flight. It seemed at first as though there was a competition in the plane as a hostess talked about having a prize to give away. Well the guy proposed. I did not not hear the girl say yes, but there were no angry exchanges and they embraced as they received a bottle of champagne from the crew. So, next time, fake a deal like that and at least have a good drink.

Moving ahead quickly. We are now at the destination airport, in my case after four hours of flying. We taxi toward the airbridge, and...wait, while the crew that should guide the plane in is not in station. And wait.... An hour later, we are able to leave the plane. Thankfully, we had heard "You may now use your cell phones. But please remember to turn them off in the immigration and customs hall." Immigration was fast, as at 10 pm in JFK there are hardly any flights arriving. Then, we head for our bags and wait again...for nearly 30 minutes. At last, escape. Now, to home or in my case, a hotel. My fellow passenger, an American-sounding white lady, who was in fact Bajan but lived in Connecticut, had another two hours driving to do. Not for me, I thought: I was staying at an airport hotel. So, I meander to the AirTran and take the driverless train to another stop and wait...again...for the hotel shuttle bus. After 15 minutes a driver from another hotel came to me and said "Do you want to hang out?" I'm not homophobic but have been in some dicey spots when travelling. "What?" I replied quickly, imaging a night with a man with not an earring in his ear but a Bluetooth receiver, and not even a good looker. In a good New Yawker drawl, he told me "Our hotel ri nex yours, an your driva ain doin mo dan relaxin. Jus memba who gotcha dere now." We had a deal and I sat shotgun up front with him and a busload of Russian students, and were rushed to hotel ville in Jamaica (New York, not Caribbean), in Queens (location not proclivity). By 11 pm I was looking at a huge bed that said "Come here, sweetie." Absolutely knackered after leaving home at 1.30 pm.

Now, I am a hardy and well-seasoned traveller. Done it for years. Done it to many places. Done it for pleasure. Done it for business. Big planes; small planes; even rickety Russian helicopters to get there. Luggage loaded by hefty men and sent on belts; luggage loaded and unloaded myself. Been in a few crises: one passenger dying; one passenger sitting next to me having a panic attack after take off that required we turn back; one engine cutting out. Been with the family from Hell--12 hours on the way to Singapore: my child sleeping; Hellraisers climbing over the seats and jumping and screaming. "Shut the **** up, child!" one passenger yelled. Had the best: caviar, champagne, Concorde. Had the worst: one pilot, one passenger, one Bible--"Oh, Father God, don't leave me." Big airports; dirt covered landing strips. Flying isn't fun. Reaching there is great. But getting there is now a series of frustrating layers of delay, delay, and more delay. Of course, if I had to walk it would be longer. But I would be geared up for a long walk. The train ride, if possible, is better, as you can get up and walk around and not have one stinking blocked toilet to share for 3,000 miles. You can use your phone and your computer; get real food to buy, not reconstituted confetti. I don't know how air travel got to be so bad. 9-11 and terrorism made a lot of problems--and I did not get into the whole security thing. Higher oil prices are making new problems: in a few weeks American Airlines will make us pay to check each bag into the hold. Nut? You pay for your seat now, and may have to pay extra for it to be just for you, as sharing could be standard. Reminds me of travelling to the former Soviet Union, when the organization had booked rooms for 6 people, and we found that we had been given two rooms--sharing a trois. The hotel manager said that no one had told him we each needed separate rooms. It was a two week mission. Hee-hee.

Well, ends justify means? I get to do it all again later today. This time across the Atlantic, though with my favourite airline, British Airways. I hope they don't let me down.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Living in Barbados hits the road.

For the next two weeks I will be travelling through New York, London, and France to enjoy the French Open, at Roland Garros. They say that good things come to those who wait. I have waited several months since I made the initial travel bookings, and a good thing that was too as airfares have soared with the rocketing rise of crude oil prices from under US$100 a barrel at the beginning of January this year to US$ 135 last week. It's shocking for me to remember that when I came to Barbados in January 2007 oil prices were at US$ 50 a barrel. That's a weighty thing that is not so good for many people.

So, during that period I will try to blog as usual. Some people have asked that I blog from the tournament, even play-by-play--my tennis coach, Damien Applewhaite, is of course jealous, so I may have to have my phone line open so that he can hear the grunts of the players and the thumping of the ball. I have promised him that I will try to have an interview with Amelie Mauresmo, which would be a real coup if as we joked that could be in the shower. We could bring new meaning to love-all. My wife just wants me to blog daily. Though unspoken, I suspect that she wants me to blog from just beside her idol "Rafa". But I am a current Federer fan, and there is no ex-Fed for me but more Fed-ex. Another prominent coach in Barbados, Sydney Lopez, has told me that Fed will win this time. I hear you Sydney. Anyway, I have a deal with a young tennis player from UWI that I will get Fed to sign a shirt for him.

It is always interesting to look at an object from afar after seeing it up close for a while. I will enjoy seeing how I see the Barbados and the Caribbean from Europe, and how Europe sees us. For example, I may just ask people every day what they think of Bruce Golding's views on homosexuality and see if anyone gives me any kind of reaction. We're small but think we and our region are big in the eyes of the world. I know from past experience that we are small are we are seen as small and largely irrelevant, except in the realms of reggae music, soca, track and field, cricket and occasionally football, and of course crime and drugs (especially as it concerns Jamaica). Politics? Nah. Economics? Nah. Social issues? Nah. Drugs and crime? Oh yeah.

I hope to have fun and to send back some sense of that, in words and pictures.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Different forms of pain.

I say that everyone has a story. Life is full of common problems, but THE story is about how we each cope with the common problems. This post is based on a conversation I had last night and this morning with a friend in Asia. It's mainly HER story.

My past is flashing back in my face. Weird. I got this email last night from one of the friends I used to go rafting and flying with in the African countryside. He was happily married, at least, so I thought. But his email to me was a lover's letter. I'm still in shock. This guy I really considered a friend.

Then, of course, after that everything about that time in Africa came back and I woke up during the night with a terrible nightmare about THE man in my life at that time, who is now no longer in my life. I thought the pain of the end of our relationship was gone but it is still very much there.

Then, a former colleague and friend of whom I had lost track sends me an email saying he's going to Africa to do the final evaluation of the project I had been working on.

Not a good night.

I think and say: "Phew! Well, there is pain and pain. I'm not sure what to say. The love letter is bizarre enough. I hope all of this won't spoil the weekend."

She replied: "There's nothing to say. I just needed to talk. This pain about my former relationship was real and physical when it woke me up; I was screaming. That man from Africa, who now sends me a love letter ... what was difficult was the realisation that I fostered (again) fantasy from a married man ... against my will, I mean." What a pain.

Me. I remember driving during today with a friend of a friend whom I just met yesterday, whose sister, 7 months pregnant, with a history of miscarriages had to be taken to hospital just as the friend's friend was boarding a plane to travel here. I had said that the baby can live. Different pains.

Me, again. I tell her that my daughter's sobbing: her mother left on a business trip and she wants her back at bedtime. Different pains.

Now, the next day arrives. My friend in Asia tells me she had a good day. There are workers changing windows. She has been trying to read. But, she just spoke to a good friend in Greece, the one who had cancer... more bad news. The Greek friend is in her early 40s and had been diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago after a miscarriage at 3 months pregancy: the baby was highly desired. Had that little girl lived through the 9 months the Greek friend also says, I wouldn't be here. Breast removed; chemotherapy; prosthesis; now under hormone therapy. She is told that she cannot have another baby because that would immediately cause another cancer. The couple both accepted this. They use condoms except on two occasions lately. She just learned she is pregnant. The doctors don't believe it. She will have to terminate the pregnancy. Too much pain.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What's Mr. Golding really saying?

I must admit that I don't find anything startling about the recent revelations about Jamaica's PM, Bruce Golding. When pressed by the inteviewer on BBC's "Hardtalk", he said he would not have gays in his Cabinet, as is his prerogative. It is worth listening carefully to what he says (see link). He prefaced the remark by saying that he wanted in his Cabinet people who could discharge their functions with independence and without being influenced. For him, the political calculus is that an openly gay person is a risk--and it is that way in many countries, even those who proclaim to have more liberal views than Jamaica about homosexuality. In the Caribbean being open about homosexuality is suicidal or an invitation to serious violence, with Jamaica right near the top as places where that is likely to be the case.

Mr. Golding's remarks could easily be extended to a range of sexual preferences, such as pedophilia or bestiality or consorting with prostitutes--the latter being a sexual activity that is indulged in by many heterosexuals but nevertheless seems to send politicians packing their bags hastily when it's exposed. What is Eliot Spitzer doing these days? In fact, open sexual activity is political dynamite. Remember the popular US president who was impeached recently, after claiming "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" and then the political dancing after she produced the semen-stained dress?

So, in that sense, I have no problem with what Mr. Golding says as it pertains to homosexuals. I recently watched a heart-wrenching interview with a senior UK executive, who had to not only handle being a lone female on the board but also had to deal with that after she declared that she was a lesbian. The US congressman, Barney Franks (the first openly gay congressman), is a rarity in having the courage in America to declare his homosexuality. Britain's Peter Mandelson, former Cabinet Minister in Tony Blair's government, now the European Union Commissioner for Trade, who had been cited by another prominent openly gay MP, Matthew Parris as being "certainly gay", now does not stand accused and condemned. Mandelson's has been in more trouble politically for dubious financial dealings--and had to resign from Cabinet twice due to that--and for being part of a so-called "Jewish cabal" that supported PM Blair.

Others, not just politicians, have spoken like Mr. Golding about many groups who now find themselves standing tall in politics, even at its very summit--women, blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc. Some still do, with flourish, such as Italy's "colorful" PM, Silvio Berlusconi and his pejorative remarks about women in his Cabinet. Though, as an aside, what is the normally Alpha-male-ultra-macho PM Berlusconi trying to tell us with him mimicking of anal sex with a female police officer in the video? Italy is used to a lot of swing politics but, come now.

Thinking about how PM Golding reacts when in a closed room with either Mr. Franks or Mr. Mandhelson will make me titter. I laugh out loud till I have a belly cramp at the thought of him and either or both of these politicians having to share a toilet or his being asked by them about the size of his majority. I can see him now hastily cancelling any one-on-one discussions with PM Berlusconi. But, I run ahead of myself!

In the landscape of human progress and development, Jamaica may see changes so that a future PM does not feel that he needs to say what Mr. Golding did.

I am more uneasy about whether he truly believes that gays are equal under the law in Jamaica--that to me is "being economical with the truth", to borrow the words of Britain's former PM, Margaret Thatcher. Finally, on the matter of sexual preferences specifically, though it may not be the preferred option, those who want to go a certain way and find that there is no room to do that where they are have the option of going elsewhere. In this case, there are many more tolerant and accepting places, maybe not in the Caribbean, such as San Francisco or Holland or England. Those who sought religious freedom, for example, have carved out that route many times in Europe, and from Europe.

I am also more uneasy about whether he can craft for me and all Jamaicans a society that is much less prone to murdering each other and one where police brutality is far less common place. I am also more concerned that he may be unable to exercise his functions independently and free from influence because of corruption and the role of organized crime.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The cost of living is not just higher for the individuals.

Another Barbados blog, Bajan Reporter, posted an article on the well-known south coast roti house, Ackee Tree, stating that the restaurant would put on Facebook details of outstanding meal tabs, in a kind of "name and shame" way of getting paid (see link to Facebook). Failure to pay would lead to the debts being passed to a debt collection agency, it was reported. I am not really an investigative journalist, but I thought I would approach the owner of Ackee Tree, Martyn Field, to hear from him what was going on.

Martyn indicated that the report is true, and that over B$10,000 is outstanding. He has decided that rather than name and shame to start discussing with other bars and restaurants on the south and west Coast and to circulate the names of the debtors between them. He is sure that many of the same names are going to pop up. He has also been well informed that many of the culprits have formed a "Boycott the Blue Bench" group, wishing that the establishment suffers the ultimate ill-fate of closing down. Some even boast of owing other bars for well over a year and have no intention of paying their debts. Martyn reports that the circulation of the list has created quite a stir, both whipping up support and drawing wrath, in the middle is the bar with a low customer count at the worst time of the year.
I know how convenient it is to run up a tab with a favoured restaurant, but I also know that I am getting credit, and that prompt payment is essential to help that enterprise stay in business. It's the first time that I have come across this idea of "doing a runner" and not paying for meals.

However, Martyn then went on to discuss a different matter, that is further reaching, that of how small enterprises such as his are coping with increased costs. His restaurant faces a huge challenge with the price increases for flour, gasolene, rice, beef, rum and most everything else and soon to be chicken. He decided that rather than pass the price increases on to the customer at this time that Ackee Tree rotis, which are supposed to be 1lb should be that instead of the near 2lb version that was served before.Now the customer is getting that which is advertised. But wait. Now the complaints are abound that the rotis have gotten small and the prices have gone up. How do we win? he asks. Should he just pass on the price increases and put more pressure on the customer or stick to our advertised product.

He mentions that BS&T, which boast of million in profits is so price sensitive it has already increased the price of milk and other sundry items that has caused the pressure on the wider public. One would think that they are the ones who could absorb the increases for a bit longer than they have. It is indeed a challenge.

I have mentioned before that the prices of so many restaurants in Barbados were absurdly high that I have decided to boycott most of them. Ackee Tree is one where value for money really seems to have been the case. But it's easy to see that they are on a thin thread. It's hard enough to give good quality food and pleasant service. It's really hard to do with some of the price increases recently announced in Barbados. It's doubly hard when customers fail to do their part and just don't pay: it's theft. I look forward to seeing the list circulated, on Facebook or elsewhere, and would gladly help disseminate it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What's in a name?

I have always found Jamaica to be quite special--I will resist the impossible, "relatively unique"--in its love of nicknames. I will start with my self. I have a Christian name--baptized by, officially entitled by, but never used for much of my early life. However, one grandmother wanted me to be named Ricardo, and when that wish was not respected, my nickname was born. So, when I was a boy in Jamaica, I grew up with one name, "Rickey" or "Mas' Rick", and that was the name that everybody used, even my teachers at school. It was only when I went to England and had to enrol in school there that I made the startling discovery that my name was not my name! I then had to get used to hearing and respond to "Dennis". "Is who dat?" would go through my head and I would wander around as this name was called at register time and had to be poked to respond. Of course, over time, people who got to know me at school and at work used my legal name. But not within my family, and not by anyone associated with my family, to this day. Even the later additions to the family, and friends of family in Jamaica, who never knew me till I was grown up call me "cousin Rickey" or "uncle Rickey" or "brodda Rickey".

Jamaicans love nicknames, even for the high, mighty or not. We love familiarity, so PM's have been universally called by their first name, or its diminutive: "Eddie" or "Michael" or "P.J."; former PM, Portia Simpson-Miller is affectionately known as "Sista P". We should perhaps tear a page out of history and call some of the politicians by nicknames once associated with monarchs or other rulers, like "the Accursed" [Genghis Khan], the "Do-Nothing" [France's Louis V], or the "Dung-Named" [Constantive V] (see link).

But the man or woman in the street likes a nickname that is expressive. When you hear the names of some of the DJs or those who are in the public eye, you can see clearly that they are their name: "Yellow Man" (albino), "Pele" (football skills like the Brazilian great), etc. For others, there is also a clear history for their soubriquets, take DJs such as "Elephant Man" (born O'Neil Bryan, but his overly large ears as a child earned him the nickname "Dumbo Elephant" from his classmates) or "Lady Saw" (who apparently took the name of Jamaican DJ, Tenor Saw, whose style she is said to emulate). Others take on stage names to same them from ridicule, I'm sure, in the heady world of Jamaica's dance halls, such as "Dillinger" (born Lester Bullocks) or "Yabby You" (born Vivian Jackson). A so-called don of Tivoli, one of Kingston's crime-ridden inner city areas, Michael Coke, is reportedly nicknamed "the president".

I don't know if it's out of respect or ignorance, but we tend to not give nicknames to things we really revere. So, Jamaican coffee will not be referred to as "Java"; at most it might carry the generic name for the superior quality bean, "Blue Mountain", even if it hails from other regions of the country. We don't mind giving nicknames to places: the National Stadium is known as "The Office" (it used to be taken for granted that Jamaica's footballers would not be beaten there, so just "another day at...").

The nickname, which is more than just a corruption of the given name, is very much a part of the living person, as is clear for some of the DJs. So, if you leave home in the countryside and go to university don't be surprised to be referred to as "College bway" for the rest of your adult life. My father is now endearingly called "English"; he returned to Jamaica from the UK twenty years ago, but he lived in England 30 years. Makes sense. The other returnees from England who are his neighbours have to find their own nicknames. For a long time, I used to be called "Mister Buck" because as a child, my head would buck up and down as I got tired, and insisted that I was not ready for bed. So, people can know a good deal about a part of you from these handles.

As someone wrote on a Jamaican culture website, Jamaica is "where everybody haffi av a nickname, like "Scully", "Smiley" and "Ragga"... and where every reggae song haffi rhyme fi soun good."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"It takes a village to raise a child." So, why do we live like we are all alone?

The meaning of this phrase struck me like a punch on the nose yesterday, when I took my daughter to her regular Saturday morning tennis lesson. I met a "friend" whom I had met playing tennis, and say from time to time when I was doing pick up for a friend at St. Gabriel's School. I asked my friend if he was playing much tennis, and he said no, and that it was just too complicated with the kids, living in St. Philip, and with their mother traveling, there was no where to leave them for a couple of hours. My jaw dropped. This is Barbados. The place is small. People have family within an hour's drive, even if one party lives by Atlantic Shores in the south-east and the other lives up north by St. Lucy. I told him that was crazy. But he insisted that it was not easy. So, as is my wont, I said to him that whenever he wanted to play to give me a bell and drop the kids over by my house. I'm close to the school and have a housekeeper. I even took in vain the good nature of another friend for whom I sometimes do school pick up, or some other kid-sharing deal and said that I'm sure we could work it out to drop the kids by her house. The man's kids are about the same age as ours, between 4 to 8 years old. I saw a relaxed smile start to appear on my soon-to-be tennis partner's face, as we exchanged phone numbers, which we had never needed to do before. Cool.

I retold this little story to the friend whose name I had taken in vain. She laughed and said "Not everyone used to de community livin' t'ing, you know." I really never thought about it. I had figured out, though, that most parents were so busy juggling that they did not realize that other parents were doing the same thing and burning up energy running around with their own kids, and not seeing the opportunities to do things like car-pooling, rotating play dates, etc. Well, over the past year or so since coming to Barbados I have played the community living card, first by accident, then by design. One of my daughter's class mates lives a few doors away, so her mother and I regularly talk about who is doing pick up or drop off or hosting the play date for the two girls. In that parent's case, she also has a two year old, a school-going teenager, another child working, and a new out-of-home job to deal with so can find herself stretched toing and froing just to waste gas moving them and herself around. So, for us, it's no big deal to make or get a phone call to organize the moves of our little ones. The kids learn a lot from having to deal with other adults, and of course from a sense that it's not just parents who can care for them.

Likewise, with my name-taken-in-vain friend. In fact, we three parents have now arranged a good, informal rotation system for various after-school activities. Our children have become great friends during this time, which can cause different problems, but no major issues. My taken-in-vain friend even has this thing going on in a bigger way and at any time could have up to three other children that are not part of the rotation I described running around her house, or in her car. They need feeding? Feed them. They need bathing? Bathe them. They have homework to do? Homework them. But it seems that we are rare as parents go here. Admitted, the parents I am mentioning and I are all foreigners. I see one of the other kids in my neighbourhood at an activity with my child? I call up the parent and ask if they want me to drop the child home. But, it seems that if granny or granpa or a direct family member are not near by, then a lot of local parents are just at a loss.

That really runs against what I thought was typical of life in the Caribbean. "Everyone was family." "Many hands make light work." "Your child is my child, too." These were notions with which I grew up in Jamaica, and their white neighbours as friends to support, or at least to give a watchful eye over, children. I can't believe that it's something that has just died out in Barbados. Is it something Bajans never grew up with? The place is so small that even with its traffic congestion moving around is still a cynch relative to many other places. But, we know that looks are deceiving. I'm going to have to ponder this to see if it's something a little deeper. Is it that being strangers in a strange land we "foreigners" know we need support and seek it out? That would be a strange upside to being an expatriate.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Middleton's BoomBustBlog

I don't often pump up other people's blogs other than by adding them to my blog roll. But a friend recommended a blog to me, which after a very quick read, I would gladly highlight (see link). The blog offers what could be seen as "open source" analyses. It's positions are clear and the presentations unflinching. Like it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Life's options.

I had a great exchange with my friend in Vietnam this morning my time, her evening/night time. Well, it started a few days ago and was then restarted today after she had had a few days of dealing with floods in her apartment and a litany of Intenet connection problems, which meant that my messages went unanswered for hours. But we managed to maintain the thread of our conversation, with only a little "chatting" at cross purposes, as the hours and days passed. By the time that she reads this, she may wonder what happened.

She had read my recent "history of dealing" post as she termed it, and asked me what I was going to do next. I said that I had no plans, but was open to whatever new opportunities presented themselves. Some people had asked me to deal for them. Maybe. Someone has asked me to lead a team of dealers handling a few million US dollars. Tempting but complicated, because I am still under contract to my employer and I don't feel committed to the idea enough to have to bother to "ask permission" from my nanny-ish employer. I was also a bit nervous about the sums involved and how it would be to handle such a large fund. But I am philosophically open to the idea, especially if I get a basic fee and a performance bonus.

All of that led to a remark from her about people in their later years along the lines that it's not very often that one meets people way into their 50s who have other plans and stay open to ideas other than the objective of retiring on a paradise island (a geographical point that she thought I had already reached). That led me to ponder retirement. I am not the retiring type in the shyness sense; nor do I quit easily: I played Barbados' number one tennis player in a tournament last summer and my knee was just about on its last ligaments. But sorry, Michael, you had to beat me for the game. Stubborn? Maybe. Proud? Definitely? I nearly broke his serve and had him at deuce a few times on my own service, and with two good legs, next time buddy, you gone! Big words now that I have come back from six months of rehab on that knee. When I coached kids, we never lost a game; we came second sometimes. It's an important mindset.

I don't know what retirement from work really means, not having officially done it, but also looking at so-called retired people such as my father and my mother- and father-in-law and others of their generation. Younger friends who have taken early retirement are not so different. For most people, retirement means stopping that daily grind of a job that they have been doing for decades, with or without enjoyment, and having time to do other things that they have put off during their working years. Travel. Write. Learn to surf. They often take on new tasks because they are bored or feel that they still have energies, etc. and contributions to make. Some leave an employer and then quickly become consultants so that they can continue doing what they did but presumably for at least the same amount of pay, and perhaps fewer hassles--no organizational ladder to keep scaling. There are few people like Winston Churchill or Roy Jenkins, who while handling the heavy burdens of high political office found time to read regularly and in volumes, but also to write regularly and in volumes. There are others, like the actor Anthony Hopkins, who have talents from childhood that they continued to nurture while pursuing a successful career in another field--in his case, he is a concert-capable pianist, who is now giving that a run for its money now that he is into his 70s.

I went through a period about nine months ago, when my knee injury was really painful, when I took the opportunity to sleep for long hours. It was like hibernation. My body needed to heal. I could not walk easily, and certainly could not run. My daughter was confused. "Play football with me, Daddy." was met with a sad face and a gesture to my knee bandage as I said, "Precious, Daddy can't kick. Let's play heading." Some people thought that I had had it, but I knew that there was not much I could do short of hobble around, and get into the car for school pick-up. Legs elevated for long periods of the day, some yoga stretches daily, and a determined belief that the knee would heal, were all part of the restoration process. So was plenty of sleep. Anyway, I had no job to go to so where would I be rushing, like a headless chicken?

Part of our "conversation" then moved to motivation for work. I've explained some of my interest in and need to trade in financial markets. Over the past month, as I have monitored more closely what I have been doing, it has been interesting to see that I can make money from this activity. I may not be the world's best trader, but making good profits in 5 of 6 months is, I think, good going. I started to scale up my target this month, to 2% a day, and I have met it. I think I could really do about 4% a day, with a certain change of mindset and patience. Do I want to? Not sure. If I had a regular income or got a windfall the need would not be there. Would that change my mind? Let's see.

We agreed that this is a very interesting experience for me, but is it something for the long term? It's not boring, because every day is different, and sometimes there is too much going on that is not making sense, but benefits are rolling in. In such times, I now back off a bit, and play with my practice account as a test of whether I am understanding something. Oil prices change. What is that affecting? Gold prices change. What is that affecting. Equity market prices change what does that affect. New data come out. What will that affect. I have discovered something called the "VIX index" (see link), which is a gauge of investors' confidence or non-confidence in market conditions. It's also used by some as a measure of complacency and panic: the further VIX increases in value, the more panic there is in the market; the further VIX decreases in value, the more complacency there is in the market. I haven't followed this closely yet but it has hit my cerebal buttons a lot this week.

But, as I have said, it's important to stand back from the confusion (in the market or in my mind) sometimes, and try to figure out what is going on without being in the mix. Anyway, I am getting better at reading the market tea leaves. I need to find a VIX index for people, though.

But my friend wondered if I was being "creative". I really had problems with that. Why was it necessary? My most creative periods have been when I renovated an old Victorian house and took it from shabby to really quite exquisite: tearing down walls, putting up paper, redoing plumbing and wiring, redesigning rooms, planting a garden from scratch, etc. Five years of patient renovation and cultivation. I also feel that when I play sport I can be creative; my imagination is always at work trying to get into better situations and avoiding being put into awkward ones. Also, preparing the "get out" for defeat: the sore toe, the bad night before, the wizard opponent, my series of dumb plays. My aged legs but seasoned mind against your youthful greyhound hinds but greenness. I also got creative coaching kids, whose attention spans are very short so new ideas have to flow fast to keep them engaged: close your eyes, here comes the ball, kick, missed, try again. Basic work seemed more lacking in creativity; too much churning. My friend felt that one could argue that however administrative it was, working with an international organization (not for) was working for the people. True but working for such an organization often seemed to be about lots of things where "the people" had been forgotten.

As I've mentioned before, I am now doing a lot of things I always wanted to, like writing and taking photos. They now have taken on some purposes that I did not design, but I like, such as unifying people (even ones who are closely connected but somehow were not in touch with each others, such as some cousins of mine, or friends who somehow find it easier to be out of touch with each other than in touch). I let people have my camera readily and encourage them to use their eyes and other senses to capture images. They seem to get a buzz out of that. Camera sales will rocket this Christmas.

But are the adults into too much navel gazing? My navel big and neat; your navel don't look so nice. Perhaps. A lot of adults have fallen into "Filofaxland", if I can coin that phrase: dealing with agendas. Everything is a competition or needs a plan, is a mystery if you can't find an adversary, fails if it's not in a plan, blah-blah. I have a masters degree in planning, so try to avoid it like the plague--not always, but often. So much of life is about "something for something" that people are really uncomfortable with forms of altruism or "something for nothing (much)". Of course, one has to compete and schedule, otherwise you lay down and get trampled on and that's not good for the ego--that fragile thread--or we do things like miss flights. Sure, many resources are scarce but they can be shared; economists don't have good models for sharing, but do have them for competition. On planning, my elder daughter is mastering that latter thing better, now, and constantly checks time, date, airport, terminal, etc. And if you invite people to an event then you better prepare for their arrival--though I remember many times arriving at a friend's home to see a shocked face, in front of a very unprepared house not ready for the dinner to which I had been invited. Ok. Let's go to the pub and have a pint. Or if you accept an invitation then don't find yourself somewhere else when the people call you and say "Hey, what time you gonna reach?"

I now get to do things in a no- or less-pressure time frame. I haven't worn a watch regularly for about 6 months; but I do keep track of time usually with the help of daylight and a few prompts that come my way like phases of fatigue. I really have enjoyed spending time around kids, whom I have always found more interesting than many adults because they rarely have "agendas"; though they really do compare navels. I think agenda-dom starts around adolescence. They do seem to be more sane than many adults. It's a blessing, so I am enjoying them as much as possible. Not everything has to be perfect for a child. If they say it's chicken even though I know it's beef, it's really not so important for them...they're enjoying it...we'll learn the difference later. If they say that they "readed" the book, yes, I'll tell them that it's "read" (not the colour, darling), but won't get into a tizzy everytime they say "readed".

Maybe it's because I am approaching a time when I may be senile, but I enjoy getting to drive my little daughter to school and trying to read a My Little Pony story to her in Spanish when the traffic is at a standstill: "Era una noche perfecta en Ponylandia..." (Neither of us speaks Spanish much, but so what?) I enjoy watching her make her own decisions about what clothes to wear and do not understand fully (except as her hankering for our home in Maryland) why she wants to wear north American winter gear in Barbados, but she is always happy in her sweater, woollen leggings and Wellington boots while the 30 degree heat is beating us. I enjoy her floating between the cultures that she has to absorb: speaking like a Bay-jan with her class mates; learning to talk Jum-a-kan, man, with her new friends from Kingston; or parlant en francais with me and her French-speaking nanny.

My friend told me that this is exactly the time when communication bewteen children and adults is on the same level. She thought it had been studied extensively. She added that apparently young and old have the same sort of sane reactions to the outside world. They don't need to "show a face", "fit into a mould", etc. Physically, the old go back to a level of dependence and closeness/openess to perception that is quite similar to infants. I got that from spending some weeks with my Dad, recently, so it makes sense to me.

Just on a random search on Google for "young and old" I found an article on the subject on the first listing, and as is often the way with these things it had me painted all over it--it was published on my birthday! Weird. Have a read of "Happiness is being young or old, but middle age is misery" (see link). Of course, I noted "Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period". Oh yeah! But that does not change my view about Obama versus McCain.

As I wrote earlier this week, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world" (which comes from Robert Browning's poem "Pippa Passes"). I have held that quotation in my head from years of studying English Literature. That, along with William Wordsworth's stanzas from "Upon Westminster Bridge" (near where I went to school and upon which I stood many an evening and early morning), are good mantras for thinking about life and its choices:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Don't cry for me?

I have just read today what for me seems to be the perfect justification for a blog. One of the regular contributors to the local press, Ezra Alleyne, appears to be writing his last opinion column for The Nation (see link). He writes:

"THIS COLUMN'S NECK is under a sword, and by the time you reach my final full stop, the blade will have fallen; and for one grisly moment, the pen will not be mightier than the sword. Editorial changes have decreed the execution of this column, and I sincerely regret that the honour of sharing your Fridays will no longer be mine. Future "issues" already conceived will struggle for airspace and may die, while "ideas" waiting to be expressed will be stillborn, as the sword of Damocles separates the nucleus of the word from seminal contact with the written page."

He then writes what for me is one of the few forthright critiques of the local press in the local press that I have read since landing in Bim, even though he does this in defense of partisan political columnists:

"The journalist is the umpire, or ought to be, moderating the issues in a fair and unbiased manner, and calling it as he sees it....But the local Press fails miserably! It swallows and regurgitates the news but avoids digestion and analysis like the plague....Where is the analysis that allows the man and woman in the street, to judge whether there might be a viable alternative approach to managing this problem [of higher diesel prices]..."

Many bloggers have been saying the same for months, and nothing much has changed. Radio call-ins have danced around the subject, and seemed to missed the boat that the problem is within, not without.

Most witheringly, Mr. Alleyne writes, in the context of dismissals by the new government of employees from a public agency:

"Almost three months later, no section of our "wet macaroni" Press has thought 'to analyse' and 'watchdog' the exercise of such executive "power" in the face [of this action]".

As they say in the US, "Well, hello!" What do you expect?

Mr. Alleyne, my suggestion to you, is to forget the pen and pick up the computer keyboard. Take control of your destiny. I know the comfort of holding my favourite fountain pen and seeing the words flow onto the paper, letter by letter, brilliant idea following brilliant idea. I also know the annoyance of seeing those hard-crafted words ditched by "an editor" and lounging in a waste paper basket.

By the end of today I expect to hear that you will have started a blog. You could even call it "Issues and Ideas", which has little or no risk of being called copyright infringment. Start to post your Friday musings online today, and even post them more frequently. Let your partisan juices flow all over the Internet. Monitor your readership and interact with them and their comments, if you wish, in a way that is more direct than through the letters column of the newspapers. You will be the originator, moderator, editor, commentator, as your mood suits. You could even be more partisan depending on your true political leanings. I, for one, look forward to adding this new blog to my blogroll.

But, if you feel that the only medium for floating those opinions that you hold so dear and want to share is through that pen and on the sheets produced by processing wood pulp or reprocessed sheets, then use some of those sheets to dry your tears.

The "honour of sharing your Fridays" can continue. Future "issues" already conceived need not "struggle for airspace" or "die". "Ideas" waiting to be expressed need not be stillborn. The "sword of Damocles" need not fall on your neck. You will, however, have to give up "seminal contact with the written page". Hooo. It's chilly out there. But can the wind that blows into the face of a blogger be colder than that which savagely, and perhaps arbitrarily, cuts down a writer whose works are no longer sought? Take courage, Ezra.

Ah no every body a rub.

My favourite reggae singer of the moment is Jamaica's Queen Ifrica, whose lyrics are so on track (see previous blog post on child abuse). One of her songs from 2007 that is now getting a lot of airplay here touches on that touchy subject of skin bleaching. See and listen to the video:

Sorry if you cannot understand the Jamaican patois; the images should be clear enough.

I have never looked much onto this subject, but have been aware of the practice ever since I was a boy and saw African women searching out the bleaching creams in a west London market, while hunting for the hair straighteners. Not just women bleach, mind you. In Africa, the practice has taken on huge proportions, especially in large countries such as Nigeria (where a staggering 75+ percent of people are reported to do this), and many believe that marriage chances will be greatly helped by the lighter skin. Don't tell people that if most of them lighten up then nothing will change. It's also a major issue in north America and the Caribbean. Some useful background reading is around on the 'net (see link). Black people have been running to be, or seem, white for years so that's not a new issue and I will leave the sociologists and psychologists or apologists to continue penning on that. We've lived through several eras in the Caribbean where lightness has meant bright future, and fair skin led to success in many social, economic and political affairs. But me na go de today. I'm just sharing the song for the moment and waiting for my guest author to send me an article of women and skin shades.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The skinny on alternative investment schemes: If you want a job done, do it yourself.

While legal processes are underway regarding Cash Plus in Jamaica, I won't speak specifically about that entity. For that matter, I won't speak specifically about any of the "alternative investment schemes" operating in Jamaica, or elsewhere in the region. People say that there is no alternative way to make money than through hard work. I agree, up to a point. They say there are no free lunches. That depends: many of my friends give me food without asking anything in return, now or ever, and I reciprocate likewise. When it comes to money matters, though, I would wonder when the bill for a "free lunch" is going to come. They say that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is too good to be true. Not true. There is a question about for how long the good times can roll, but that applies to everything. They say that nothing ventured nothing gain. I second that.

I have been conducting a bit of applied economics research to a particular topic--Jamaica's alternative investment schemes. Whether they state it upfront or not, these have been giving monthly returns in the order of 10 percent to those who were able to open accounts. That means, that within much less than a year, it would be possible to double your initial investment. Now, while I know people investing in OLINT who have been able to take out their original capital and were taking out interest every month, their current gains may now only be on paper as this scheme and others face several problems with banks in Jamaica, and "investors" are not getting their money paid out on time or at all.

Now, I have invested through some of the world's best investment banks and I have benefited from markets doing what markets do well, that is go up and down. Taking a risk with money from the forced sale of a house as part of a divorce, I floated on the dot-com bubble or wave in the late 1990s, got out near the peak and well before the crash. Based on that profitable investment, I bought another real asset rather than more financial assets--another house replaced my paper portfolio, and that too rose in value, by a factor of about 2. For me, that house is not an investment so I am not too concerned at the moment about the US housing market crisis and falling property values there, and I have plenty of positive equity. I have also traded myself equities just for a bit of fun, using an eTrade account, during a period when I had not much time to do so on a continuous basis, but wondered if I could do better than my investment broker. I did, then cashed out as I couldn't sustain the market monitoring and you have to know your companies for equity trading to work well.

Having had a regular job, with regular salary, and regular hours, and feeling that my finances were more or less under control, I had no real need to seek alternative investment options. Also, I had the continuing costs of a wedding and fitting out a new home trailing behind me, so I was more cautious with my finances. Divorcees tend to have to fund their own weddings, as parents probably feel "we paid for this thing once already, now you're on your own dime" or they have moved onto life in retirement and really don't have the dosh available. I also had two older children going through university, and although I did not have to carry all the costs, there was still a lot that needed to be shelled out on them beyond just covering books. Sounding like a cracked record, kids studying in north America have different expectations of higher education including not really accepting that this is a time of financial hardship. All I remember from going to university in England was that I had to eat as cheaply as I could--hence my love now of Indian food; Chinese tasted good but it never seemed to fill the belly. When it came to furnishing, raid from someone's cast offs, and if it smells of cat pee then buy some good deodorant spray. Most students I knew had to put off buying lots of things until they were earning their own pay. Enough said. All being said, I became a conservative investor, looking to have liquidity and a good rate of return, which I got from a mixture of higher yielding bank deposits and some investment in equity indices.

Now, Jamaica's investment schemes are a different set of animals compared to investing with some entity like Merrill Lynch or many other types of conventional investment. The former are not transparent, and how they generate their gains is stated but never verified. It's hard to see how the portfolio is actually generating its returns. With no personal distrust of any of the principals in these schemes, that sort of thing always makes me a bit nervous. Call it occupational skepticism: I worked for a while in financial regulation in a central bank; I worked in an international organization that does a lot of its best work by finding financial inconsistencies in what governments tell you and what their data show. I have had a lot of experience with so-called honourable government officials who swear that "we have done nothing untoward" but the numbers just don't add up. You can't identify specifically what has gone on, but you can see the inconsistencies, and the equivalent of some millions or billions of US dollars of spending has not been properly recorded in the government's books but the figures on transactions through the banking system tell you that a huge bunch of lolly has been spent on something or someone. Sometimes the excess spending is on arms and you can't argue with the need to defend the country. Right. Sometimes it's on glam-gear, like a fleet of vehicles or a jet plane for the president, or the first lady or the "second office" just has to have some diamonds or a new apartment. The man has to cut the right figure, right, and what's a few Mercedes or a Boeing or an apartment in Mayfair between friends when you can't feed your countrymen? And so on. So, with that background, when I can't see the numbers that make the picture make sense, I ask questions.

So, when I asked myself what is the real deal with those Jamaican investment schemes, I floundered. A part of what some of them purport to do seems totally feasible: they are supposedly trading foreign exchange. If you engage in that activity, you can make large gains. But it's a zero-sum game, meaning that someone has to be losing, so it's hard to be winning all the time, and to win big you have to take large risks, and with that can come large losses. But, if you manage losses well, the overall gains can be good. Foreign exchange broking firms, who gain on every deal, as they take the difference between buying and selling prices, tend to make good money from foreign exchange trading. That's in large part how many of the New York banks get their foreign exchange gains, so they told Alan Greenspan and he retells in his autobiography, "The age of turbulence". But the dealing companies or so-called managed funds have problems generating returns over 50 percent in a year. So, 10 percent a month as offered by the Jamaican schemes is pushing it, to put it mildly.

So, let's cut to the chase. I wanted to see how this thing could work and if it could be replicated at least on an individual basis. Well, an idea came to me when my regular salary was a thing of the past and I needed to do some teaching to try to help pay my bills. I was overlooking the beautiful hills and azure waters of Tortola, while passing my days ahead of teaching management students at night. I met some investors with one of the Jamaican investment clubs and got some information about their returns. Sure enough, chunky monkey money every month, not always 10 percent but say between 5-15 percent a month, from those who said they were doing foreign exchange trading and those who said specifically they were not (that really did make me wonder). I did a bit of research and found myself a set of companies who would allow me to become a foreign trader. I preferred the ones whose credentials I could check and those located in the US rather than in Switzerland or some offshore centres in Europe. If this thing could work, then I would prefer to do within a banking system I understood and with which I had relations already. I also wanted to be without any middle man, and know upfront how I was doing.

So even faster forward. I read a little. I played with a few practice accounts and decided which one I liked most, and within a few days I felt I had enough experience to play with real money. Idiot! Let's say that I would have given myself a better chance by knowing what I was doing, but being a bright button I figured "What's so hard, dude?" Prices move, so just get on the bandwagon and giddy up, off we go to the winning line. I began in September--the fall--and did I fall. I traded with a frenzy befitting my freshness, and lost a whole bunch of money faster than ice melts in a volcano. Not five figures but not far off. The money really gone? "Yes, oh wise one" came the voice from the toilet. Was I shocked? Oh yes. Was I depressed? No. Trading is addictive, and though I have never gambled much I knew the symptoms from having spent some hours in a casino with a confirmed gambler. Lose? Spin again and double the bet, etc. It takes a while to avoid this, and also to avoid what is termed "revenge trading": lose on a deal but don't see the trend and go in again for the same deal and of course lose again. Kawabunga! So, I came up for a breath. Christmas was coming. Santa knows I have been good. I should get a present. I did. I traded on and off during December, and took a chance on trading in the illiquid and highly uncertain holiday periods, in between some reading and when the families were all too drunk to notice that they had been eating turkey for five straight days--baked, sauteed, in soup, sandwiches, salad, cold, hot. And I started to get Santa's little helpers on my side. Chunks of change started to roll into my account. Yippee! I recovered one month's loss, and though my intention was not loss recovery, I was on my way. I just wanted to understand what to do to make this thing work.

Holiday over, I resolved that I would be a good boy, and mend my trading ways. Think before you trade; get out of a trade if the conditions were no longer valid. Only put at risk a stake that was a small percent of your overall capital, etc. As my judicial friend says, "Dennis, you so full o' ****!" I could feel my old ways coming back fast. I could take time to adjust but I needed help. Most of all I needed more money to help me trade: with a small base (say US$250-1000) the market's movements knock you off track and you cannot gain by taking larger positions. You just dont have the margin needed to support your trades. They say, plan the trade and trade the plan. I had my mantra, but could I follow it? Like the little engine who could, I chugged into the trading days humming "I think I can..." and hauled my trading train into the station called "Profit" from the sidings called "Big losses". Without the help of the trader's equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous, though, I did slip back and got into a really awful deal, that I regretted after holding a losing position for a week. But I was determined to hold it and not eat a loss bigger than my accumulated total; so I did for nearly the whole month of January, and then I said, the loss has to be eaten, and ate it I did. I had made profits within this losing position so the eventual hit was not so big. But it was a salutory lesson.

Do not just get into a trade without knowing your exit strategy. When you've lost a lot any loss is really painful. You wince and squirm to avoid it. But sometimes it's the only medicine to take. I had a one-on-one session with a trading advisor, who said "That large position you're holding, where is your stop-loss?" I did not have one and like topsy I got deeper and more entangled. But I ended that gig. (I will say in passing, though, that his correct advice in principle did cost me money in practice, when I was a good boy and put in my loss limit, which was just met and then the pair traded off into the sky. I could have made mega-buckaroos on the rise of the euro against the dollar, but I am not grudgeful. Grrrr.)

Well, new year, new dawn. Since February, I have been determinedly watching what markets do, and understanding how they inter-relate most of the time; watching and listening to Bloomberg; taking a view on where I think stock markets are headed; guessing what the US Federal Reserve will do; setting daily and weekly objectives. My main objective was a one percent gain each trading day, on a constant base, which should give me around 20 percent over a month, but I said to myself that I would be happy to show 10 percent a month--that would put me on a par with the investment schemes. The one percent a day was random but it turned out to be a good figure as it allowed me to have the cash needed to cover my alimony payments each month, which in the absence of regular pay and any benefactors is a great motivator.

Some people are inherent bears (markets are going to fall), some are bulls (markets are going to rise). Of course, markets go up and down. But I am currently an inherent bear, with some bullish inclinations. So, off to trading I did go, looking to work with those falling markets. I found that I could meet my daily objective, no matter how the day started, no matter what the market conditions. I traded very few pairs of currencies, and favoured certain, in particular those whose economic basis I could understand. I also decided that 24 hour trading was not necessary. The markets did not need sleep but I did, not least to avoid silly mistakes. I tried to go to bed around the same time as my little daughter, 7.30pm, and wake a bit before dawn; I decided to trade most during those early morning hours, when London and New York overlap. Life could go on as normal: tennis around dawn several days a week; school drop off sometimes, school pick up in the early afternoon; after school activities; evening functions--all could happen. My deals would take care of themselves or I would be a good day trader and just make sure my account was cleared whenever I was not there and for avoid overnight positions.

Trading need not be especially intensive, though sometimes there is a need for nimbleness and opportunistic action. There are trading periods which offer better opportunities, for example between 4am-noon Eastern Standard Time, after which the London traders head home for a few pints of beer and New York traders get to focus on equity markets alone. I try not to put myself into awkward positions when important data are due to be released, after which markets can move dramatically. I watch for reactions then decide if I am going to the party. I see oil prices rise US$ 10 in a week to new record levels, and I see if changes in oil prices affect what they used to. Markets hear bad news and shake it off. I wonder why. If traders are determined to go a certain way they will. Economic logic only has a small part to play. Experienced traders discuss what they see and come to contradictory conclusions. Me, with all my naivete? I make up my own mind. No one really knows what's happening for sure. I have some instincts and a bit of understanding, which seem to be serving me well. I am learning some important technical things, which I put into play a bit at a time.

I checked with the husband of a friend, who runs a managed fund, how I was doing. His eyes popped and he told me don't change what you're doing, those numbers are great. He added that it might be hard to sustain, but go for it. So, five months later--and I did the sums over the weekend and redid them-- I have fully recovered all of my starting capital and some. If I were to look at 2008 alone, I would report a 75 percent gain; if I exclude January, I would report a 100+ gain. So, I'm done with the get-rich quick investment schemes before I even started.

So, what about those investment schemes? They keep saying that they have funds to pay out, at very high monthly rate; but I still don't know what they really do and more people are realising that maybe they are too much smoke and mirrors. They have been averaging 10-ish percent a month in their statements; I averaged 13 percent in touchable wonger. They are falling foul of laws and so far I think I remain totally legal (I have a tax statement that I can submit if needed) and I have details of my deposits and withdrawals). They are middle men and they now face uncertainty about payouts; I know where my money is and it is available when I need it. There were always questions about their sustainability; but there are also questions about whether I can sustain my performance but it's my own business. I can do without the headaches they seem to be causing. But seeing what it takes to generate 10 percent or more a month on a flat base, I really find it hard to see the investment schemes generating the same rate of returns on increasing balances. So, my doubts about them just increase.

For the sake of neatness, I may carry on trading until the end of June (end of calendar quarter) or perhaps September so that I can say I did it for a year, and blog a bit more about it. For the schemes, I would say, show me what you do to do what you do. For me, I will say, like the little train, "I thought I could..." I was brought up to believe that I had ability and it was only my lack of willingness or laziness that would send me toward failure. Thanks Mum and Dad. There is no substitute for hard work: dealing is not arduous like hauling bricks, but it's mentally very demanding, especially accepting red ink on the books. Most people cannot handle the strain of the market gyrations. There are some free lunches (usually accidents), but always be ready to pay the price for the meal; it may not be needed but don't take anything for granted.

For those who want to see their money double in a year, take a course, learn how to trade, practice for a while till you can make a decent return regularly, then play with real money but make sure you have a good sized base. That way your money can work for you. If you cannot handle the pressure of seeing your money dwindle, then it's not your sport. If you cannot turn off the trading platform and let the market figure out where it's going without you (like I have done most of today), then it's not for you. If you can lose one moment but understand where you went wrong, and get back on the trading horse again quickly then it could be for you. One of the professional trading strategists from whom I sometimes get daily trading ideas says "constantly reassesss" and just wrote regarding his failed deal from last night "Eventually there will be a clean break, but for now the direction is unclear, so I must stand aside." He is a multi-year professional so if he is confused then I should be confused: my trading platform has been closed since I dealt this morning and scratched my head about how the markets were responding. When conditions change do not hold on for dear life, or life could become very dear. Like life in general, when confusion reigns just step aside and let things clear themselves.

I will think about what to do next as a "trader". Maybe I will get a licence and manage funds for others and take the fees or teach others to trade. It's less work and perhaps better paying.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A friend in need and a friend indeed.

A good friend from my university days in the mid-1970s sent me an e-mail message yesterday, having lost my address some two years ago; but as he's a sort of office "pack rat" and never gets rid of anything, he managed to find me again on his computer system. He's a scientist, having studied physics, and has spent most of his working life in road contruction and transport projects for the British government. He originates from the north east of England, Newcastle ("new-kasl", as it should be pronounced) to be precise, and fell in love with London and the south east of England, especially the suburbs of Surrey. Having caught up with me he then sent me on a little box of surprises about how his life had been recently. What we see of our lives often makes us unhappy about the choices we made and make. This friend has always been open with his telling of how life has been good, but also how it has dealt him its woes, especially with work, sport, and women. His love life warrants a novel. As he writes in his latest messages, he only manages to find love with women who are already married (not a good situation) and gets rejected by the others.

We take a lot of things for granted, especially the good things we encounter and the good people we meet (Bob Marley said it better: "Good friends we had and good friends we lost, along the way"). But friendships really get ditched too easily.

My friend is a scientist, but not all of science is an open book to him. People who work with computers, especially those who know how they really work, are savvy about all things Internet-ish, right? Wrong. Most people know the difference between the Internet and things you can do on the Internet, right? Wrong. An article I read over the weekend talked about how many people do not know that e-mail and the Internet are completely different things. Let's not even get into what you can do with a Blackberry, and how it sends messages and has no cables.

So, I was more than a little shocked when my friend wrote "You are all technical ! I regret I am making a point of being the only man left on the planet without a computer. I have no idea what a 'blog' is and I certainly would never know one if it passed me. As for 'Facebook', well that's way beyond me. I have no mobile phone, no fax machine and no home computer. M15 will never be able to track me down." I know that I am no geek. I figured out a long time ago that to get so-called labour-saving devices to do their job, you often needed to expend a good amout of labour to understand them, at least initially. After that you could probably surf on the basic knowledge you had acquired. I was forced to understand a lot more about "IP addresses" and "routers" and "modems" and "switch boxes" through getting companies to set up cable TV in my house and then trying to get wireless Internet access working at home. Then, in my last assignment, I had to understand how the machines that provided the "server" facilities worked so that if the engineer could not fly in to help fix it, my junior economist and I could have a good attempt; we drew the line at climbing on the roof to fix the satellite dish. So, there he is, a qualified scientist, but determined to stay on the road-less-travelled by science.

I don't really know if I should applaud him or commiserate. But I will encourage him to open himself up to some of the developments of the past 30 years.

He feels he has let himself down, and sees this as part of a set of bad decisions he has made in life. "I am in despair at how I have wasted my own years and it would never do for me to look back on the good decisions other people made that I did not. I paid a brutal price for my poor degree and yet I worked so hard, I wish now I had done a Civil Engineering degree and I could have worked overseas for awhile in the Middle East." The money might have come from going to Dubai or wherever, but would he really be any happier with where he ended up?

When we were at university, we spent many hours playing squash, especially when exam and study pressures rose. I was new to the sport, only starting at university, but I was a good athlete, and had a great coach (a former five time world champion), who helped get lots of the basics right. My friend had played before, and we had many great, sweaty tussles on court (metaphorically speaking, not like Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in "Women in Love"). Squash was his real love and has been his pillar through many hard times, at work, in love, and so on. But even here, he feels that time just passed him by. He wrote:

"I play on the county veterans squash team (that's over 50s). Now, it's a ranking as low as you can get. This is the third team and I am at number '5'. Over at a local club the other afternoon I faced a big bull of a man and I was sure this match would be a 'steal'. No! Like the other 8 matches I have played over 2 years, he machine gunned me in 3 sets. I did win 3 points. I just wanted to get away back home. I looked up at my pals in the gallery and it was like a scene from 'Gladiator'. I just cannot win any vets matches. I also played at the fabulous RAC club in Epsom last month. This 'old boy ' rolled up late, and I thought this match will be a breeze. But again, I was bullet ridden. I had more holes in me than an Iraqi taxi. He of course was an old champion of the 1970s. Gutted and humiliated we all came away, all of us but one defeated. I just keep playing because if I stop squash I will have nothing in life."

I don't agree with him and said so many times before when a similar set of events occurred. But, I understand that it's hard to have defeat or set-backs face you regularly and feel good about yourself.

But he offered some bright spots:

"In March I went off on my first holiday in 10 years. I was skiing with some pals from the squash club. We stayed in France a place called Samoen, at the chalet owned by my family doctor (the benefit of living in a small knit town). I thought I would give it a try and I booked up tuition when I arrived. I had the time of my life. After Day 3 I was flying. I was whizzing down slopes like Box Hill here. No fear. My legs and joints were black and blue at the finish of it all but I had the time of my life. It was fabulous."

So, he is not afraid to try new things and to get some success quickly transforms his outlook on life.

He mentions that he has a trip coming to a part of London where he used to work, Liverpool Street-Broadgate (near the famous train station), where there will be a glass walled exhibition court for a world class squash tournament. A club friend bought the tickets and asked him along. He will go, reluctantly, because it's also the place where his career in a sense got derailed; he had good days there but made another "wrong choice" in his career. He used to see trips to London as an adventure. I remember well the awe he often had when we visited different places, which for him had just been names representing the high, the mighty, the good and the great. People from the harsh mining and shipbuilding areas of the north east of England could only gasp at the thought of ever seeing them.

He also just won tickets in the Wimbledon lottery draw for ladies finals day. As he muses, "Just think, I could be sitting a few feet away from lovely lean Sharapova in July. Oh heaven." She is single so maybe love will blossom amongst the strawberries and cream. I'll accentuate the positive for him. My friend also plays tennis so I hope he is honing up those skills so that the little Geordie Sharapovs can get lessons from Dad when Mum is touring.

My friend's life has been a bit complex, not more so than many others, but that has weighed on him. What I have always liked about him, and in fact all of the people I call friends, is that when he finds me he has no hesitation in laying himself bare, even though years have passed since words crossed between us. The apologies about not having been in touch for years is not necessary as far as I am concerned. In fact, it should be that I send a complement for having bothered to seek and seek again.

I would love to say more about my friend and identify him but given that he does not even know about this medium for writing and sharing thoughts and opinions, I will spare him that. He did say "publish and be damned", though.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Neighbours can be friends too.

When we moved into the little street that was to become home, about a year ago, I found it strange that none of the residents came to welcome us. Not just on or around the time we moved in but ever since. I should exclude my landlords, who live in the same street. I should also exclude a family whose daughter is in the same class as ours, and we already knew. I should also exclude a colleague of my wife's, who lived down the street. Maybe people don't do that in Barbados, known for its reservedness. Now, the arrival did not come with a big moving van, and lots of boxes being put out on the sidewalk, which often signal new arrivals even for those who are oblivious to all that is around them. So, our coming could have passed by unnoticed. But after some time of driving in and out of this dead-end street I would have expected someone to notice a new set of people. Maybe they did but did not know what to do, or felt that indifference was the order of the day, or just want to keep to themselves.

Even the neighbours on either side kept a distance, which to this day has never been broken by an introduction. Yes, we have met: I hailed one couple and found out what they both do, and since then we wave at each other when we pass. In the case of the other side neighbours, who appear to be two families living in a Taj Mahal style house, the young boys play cricket in the yard almost every day and the ball flies into our yard sometimes. Bing-bong, the bell chimes. "Yes, who is it?" I ask. "Can we get our ball?" comes the reply. "Sure" I say, and open the gate electronically but also walk outside to see who it is; this is a first meeting now. "Thanks" says the boy and saunters through the gate with his brother, I guess, and rummage around the flowers and plants and comes back smiling with his plastic tape-covered tennis ball. "Bye" I said. But that was that. Now, with children I take the view that you do what your parents encourage you to do, and clearly introducing yourself to strangers, even neighbours, is not something they do.

I had another encounter with these neighbours, who don't cause me any general problems. I saw and heard the putting up of a large satellite dish on top of the house. It was massive, and they had opted for a Mac truck in the days when you can get a Suzuki Swift equivalent in TV satellite receivers. Men were on the roof, winching and hauling this thing up in the late afternoon, and I thought, that sun's not nice. They obviously had the same thought, because the next day--Sunday--bright and early, before day break, I hear drilling and banging and whirring. These people are mad, I thought. They are Muslims, so Sunday is not sacrosanct for them. But this is Barbados! You don't make that kind of racket on a Sunday morning, I thought. So, come a decent time in the day, I set out to "meet" my neighbour. I saw two men sitting on the sidewalk outside the house, talking. "Morning. Do you live here?" A kind of bewildered stare met me, and one of the men muttered in poor English "No live here." Drat. My ire was subsiding. "Where is the man who lives here?" I asked slowly. More bewilderment before I got "Big man he not here". Drat and double drat. Well I still had to get my point over. So, I looked sternly at them--a stern stare is universal--"Alright. When he come back, tell Big man that Little man not happy to hear drilling and banging and crashing before dawn on a Sunday morning. Understand?", I said. They nodded. To this day, Big man has never come to see Little man, but noise abatement is under control.

Another set of neighbours--again a Muslim family--almost got the proverbial boot in the rear. Still without a "Howdy", even though I have walked past their house, waved, admired the dangling pomegranates in their front yard, and wondered how many people live in the house, a mother and two daughters came bing-bonging at my door one Saturday. When I got to the gate, without a "Hello, I know that we have never met, but..." I got, "Will you give us some money to sponsor a bus for our school?" I lived in a Muslim country for three years, and my mind whirled with "Eh, Allah!" I blinked, and in my British-learned manner, said "Excuse me? You what?" They proffered a piece of paper and held out their hands. I know that a hand can get chopped off for some crimes in certain Muslim countries. Well, I lost it at that moment. "Listen," I said, "You don't know me. You don't even come to acknowledge me and my family. You see me passing your yard and drop your eyes. Now you come asking me for money? You crazy?" They all understood English very well, and in a mixed Asian-Bajan lilt, the mother quietly said "Sorry for that. But will you sponsor the bus?" I grinned, and pulled out a dollar coin, and said "Good luck" I think the irony was lost on them. I have never seen them since at my gate. They race up and down the street in a little Suzuki van, eyes fixed on the road and barely slow down to pass me if I am in the street.

That said, the good neighbourliness does exist. The family we knew from school are often with us, at least with some children, and I am often at their house. Drop off, pick up, car pooling, play dates, etc, the children make a focal point for getting together almost daiyly. My landlords and us are together about 2-4 times a week, for a regular lime at their house on Thursday evenings, for breakfasts at Brighton on Saturdays, for lunches sometimes on Sundays, and today for breakfast for Mothers' Day, and so on. I even go to work there if the Internet is down at the house we rent from them, and that comes with lunch if I am there long enough. I also see one old man, who is always tending his bouganvillias, many days a week; and there is another family with a small child whom I chat with whenever we cross during a day. So, the lack of welcome is mixed.

But my wife was smoking something special as she took a leap of faith and sought out the neighbourhood association. Well, she found out that the dilapidated signs on some of the telephone poles, mentioning a neighbourhood watch, actually relate to something recent. In the broader neighbourhood there have been signs of neighbourliness spotted. I don't know if they are on a revival kick, but off my wife started to go to meetings. She's a leaderene type and within one meeting had come back with the grin of her new rank, liaison officer. Oh, lord. Everyone in the street signed up quick-a-clock once she started pounding the pavement, and dropping off fliers, and telling of "coming events". I started getting e-mails from people I did not know, but were part of a group saying "Thanks for the form, will be at the BBQ". Must be spam, I thought, and started to delete some of these messages. Well, the assiduousness of the organization was evident. I started getting reminders and other calendar prompts, and a message about what contribution to make. "Be there or be evicted?"

Well, the day arrived for the great neighbourhood block party. See how a little attention can create big things. People from what must be a half mile square were descending on another cul-de-sac to lime and wine and sit under tents and eat burgers and hot dogs, and drink lemonade, and beer and wine, and get to know each other. Whadat last part? My wife was chief name tagger, another non-paying post, and she was assisted by a chief gate prize lottery chit filler inner, as she peeled off tags and slapped them on the new arrivals. Soon, we were all peering at each others' chests--always nice for a guy when it involves looking at a full busom--and trying to read the names. Some one asked my wife if she was a pharmacist because he needed to know how many times a day to take the prescription she had pasted on his shirt. He knew his name but could not recognize it from the label. She pierced him with a squint. As time passed on a few arrivals escaped the formalities and were duly quizzed to ensure they were not gate crashers before they went back to the "waiting area" are were duly tagged.

A bit stiffly at first, people started to circulate and try to get acquainted. The children, with no real need for name tags, were playing tag and having fun with each other from the get-go. One of my neighbours, whom I got to meet first at tennis, found some cousins of hers. "Chile! Go get an umbrella. Rain go come." They all hugged and smiled and wondered why many years had passed without saying boo to a goose and it took a block party for them to meet up. But it did rain later. I met neighbours from my street that I had not seen, in one case I knew the husband and his father and mother, but his wife works late and I had never seen her. I then introduced her to neighbours who lived opposite her! And so it went on. Our MP came to the party; he used to be a resident in the neighbourhood. He could have been accused of looking political in the way he shook hands and cozied with the older set, but I think it was genuine old time friendship. I met him for the first time--I can't vote here so he would have wasted his time being political. I met other people whom I had seen elsewhere but now know are part of my extended neighbourhood.

It got better as we relaxed and the beer and wine took effect. The sugar from the homemade brownies (the universally agreed dessert, it seemed, even in appropriately race neutral brown and white styles) started to kick in. The hamburger grillers got into their groove, and even fired up a second pan. They went a bit excessive with the cutting down of mango branches to put on the grill to add some "local smoke" to the food--mango and hickory don't work the same, bro'. They tried to cater for all. There were some vegetarians waiting patiently for their veggie burgers, and these were popped on the grill right there with the meat patties. They made up their faces, and eye brows rose singly and together. Oops. Guys, next time you have to get a separate grill for the non-carnivores. But what the heck, we being neighbours now. The music, which had been on someone's list but left at home, started to get jammin...She's Royal....Mek me sweat.... I wondered if we were going to see some of the pensioners wuk up. Just party, man.

The "committee" started pulling for the door prizes. People started cheering, and walking off with smiles and a box. I did not see the prizes except a box of chocolates, but I heard one was a toaster oven. The special prize for mothers? Not sure what that was. Maybe it was the Dairy Box selection.

By 7.30 pm, the festivities that had begun at 4 were waning, but not much. Children were still playing on the swings andrunning, and in the case of my daughter, falling splat on her face and cutting her hand, and having a good cry. Then a pair of policemen arrived in one of those huge jeeps and we thought that some neighbours must have complained about the smoke and noise. But, all the neighbours were at the party. Oh, these guys were neighbours. We safe, for sure, as they toted their burgers with their machineguns slungs on their backs.

Safety and friendliness should go hand-in-hand. If I know you I can start to trust you, or at least less wary of you. If I see you now I can say to myself you are from this neighbourhood. We have little crime in the area but knowing who is who and where they're going is part of self-protection. It took an earthquake last year to get a lot of people in my street to come out and meet. But such natural shocks should not be the only reason to put out the welcome mat and the face to go with it.