Be patient with us

“Returning residents” to Jamaica were given special status in 1993, if they fit certain eligibility requirements; that status helps defray some possible financial costs and administrative headaches associated with moving home and family from one country to another. The government now has a unit to deal with the returnees. It’s not easy to measure this group or judge the importance of such persons to Jamaican society or if their influence is growing and positive: data on voluntary returnees were not collected before 1993 and they are incomplete, based on applications for Customs privileges and covering the applicant not the household. (In the raw data, deportees now far outnumber voluntary returnees.)

I visited Rockfort Mineral Baths on Tuesday morning, with my 9 year-old daughter. We’d planned to take her maternal grandparents to sample the waters, but their ailments were hampering them and they decided not to go. How ironic, I thought: the waters should make them feel better. Anyway, we arrived and got ourselves changed and into the main pool in no time. I reminisced about how things had been when I was a boy, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when my father would take my mother and me on his motorcycle. I have a vivid memory of being ‘taught’ to swim at Rockfort, when my father threw me into the pool. You sink or swim 🙂

The bath water was cool and refreshing compared to regular Kingston heat of over 32 degrees C. As I waded and she did hand stands and splits, a man nearby started a conversation, after he overheard one of my daughter’s remarks. We ended up talking quite a while. He and his wife live in the southern US and his wife wants to return to Jamaica; he’s reluctant. We talked about the pros and cons. Would his health benefits be transferable? What about the cost of living? He noted that many goods and services are much more expensive in Jamaica (about 50% more, he estimated) and unlikely to be offset by cheaper goods such as local fruit and vegetables. He was especially concerned at how costly housing may be, even though he hoped that his long-time membership of one of the building societies would convey benefits in lower borrowing costs. He hoped that their US home would be paid off before any move, and the proceeds would then cover a large percentage of the cost of buying a home in Jamaica. He talked about how desirable Mandeville seemed, and I told him something about my parents’ return and how they had been very happy to have settled in Mandeville, which has a large population of returning residents. Great climate. Small town, but big enough to meet many needs. Nice pace of life. Not difficult access to most parts of the island, especially with the highway covering most of the journey to Kingston. He had plenty to think about. I joked with his wife and sister-in-law about the ‘burdensome’ decision he was trying to make. They laughed: “Jus’ come, man!”

I explained to this man some of my concerns ahead of our recent move. I’d wondered a lot about the disruption to my daughter’s education and other aspects of child development. I’d thought a lot about the level of crime, and had a firm refusal in my mind regarding living in any barred house. I’d reflected on my father’s experience of coming back to Jamaica and being considered a foreigner: I did not have a long history like him before leaving, but I could understand the possible emotional pain. It’s funny that a dear cousin called me an “alien” the other day. But, my concerns found their place on a shelf and I decided to go with the flow of enthusiasm that my daughter showed and her excitement for a new adventure.

When we came out of the pool and were getting dressed, we met two ladies who’d also been enjoying their baths; they were taking photographs. I asked if they’d take pictures of my daughter and me; they agreed. While we joked around, one of the ladies prompted me to point out that I had just returned to Jamaica to live. “Be patient with us! It’s worth it,” she said. She told how she’d returned in 1973, after living in NW London, and how friends had told her she’d go insane once she returned to Jamaica. “It nah ‘appen yet,” she told me, gleefully. I tried to reassure her that the patience needed here was much the same as anywhere, and the problems were usually people, people and other people 🙂 So far, my need for patience hadn’t really been stretched. She laughed.

Returning residents have no clearly identifiable marks, but that does not mean they cannot be identified. Stories abound about how they have been targeted for robberies: followed from the airport; trailed when they go to banks, building societies or post offices to collect or cash pension payments.

It’s easy to understand that it would be challenging for someone who had left Jamaica when was relatively peaceful and returned to find a social environment that is turbulent or violent, and an economy that is supposedly faltering most of the time. The police, for example, have realised that they have to the needs of the returning community, whose expectations are consistent with the countries from where they are coming.

My experience as someone who has returned to Jamaica–though not necessarily what is defined as a returning resident–leads me to believe that patience is needed, though not necessarily an extraordinary amount. Jamaican natural things happen in their own sweet time: the seasons are different from those in Europe and North America, but they give what they give, be it certain fruit or flowers. But, they are mostly worth the wait–mango season will soon be over and then we’ll miss the smell and taste we’ve enjoyed the past few months. Many local foods grow or can be stored so that they are around all year–I’ve never known yam or sweet potatoes to not be available. As fits a country with strong rural ties, people are also aware of the need to make best use of what is available, so pickling or preserving fruit and vegetables is still very common–I’m looking forward to more of my friend’s chutney. Sure, things like fish may be subject to weather conditions and other seasonal variations. But, nature is mostly kind in Jamaica. Will I feel the same as hurricane season takes hold and if we’re find ourselves buffeted by frighteningly strong wind and rain? The sun shines every day and sometimes it’s hard to remember when it last rained: having had two afternoons of heavy showers in Kingston, we’re blessed with really cool afternoons and grass that was browning and burning has a chance to revive.

But, people will try your patience. Every society has its systems or lack of them. The people working those and how they are constructed have often been the reason why the patience of Job has to be invoked. Jamaica has its special needs in this context. Taxi drivers will test the patience of many: stopping when and where they feel like a fare may be. Some bureaucrats will want to show you that they control your life and making seemingly simple tasks as hard as pushing a rock uphill. Some processes seem to be geared to move backwards not forwards: I’m still amazed at how long and tedious was the process of insuring a car, something I did with a short phone call in the US, but which took some two hours in an office in Kingston. I don’t relish the prospect of visiting a tax office. Things that cannot happen without cash payments, whether that is really to make it easier for the provider in terms of cash flow or procuring materials or if it’s to evade taxes, can test my patience: I’ve lived for decades with a wallet that was not stuffed with cash, knowing that my credit card was easy to use. Now, I ask “Do you take card?”

I went to the famous ‘Gloria’s’ restaurant in Port Royal1012452_10151594456149022_1581100695_n after the mineral baths trip. A friend had warned me that the wait for food would be long, “but it’s worth the wait” she’d added. I can’t remember when I’d last eaten there and I was excited to take my daughter, but gave her the warning. Shock and horror: our food arrived with no real delay–admittedly, the place was quiet, but things seemed to move well for others as it filled up.

Heavy rain seems to slow everything down: traffic leaving town last night was ridiculous at 7-8pm: it didn’t matter much when I was headed in the opposite direction, but I was shocked that it was still there when I was coming back an hour later. Don’t be in a hurry if it rains in Jamaica, whether the delays are caused by potholes or more caution or silly accidents or people just loving the rain.

Yet, by contrast, there are people who want to try to make your life easier and for whom one should have ample patience. On my way to the baths, I stopped at the Gas Products (Gas Pro) depot, which is just nearby. We’d been searching for a cylinder of propane for a barbecue grill. Simple enough in the US: pick one up from a gas station (not any, but many) or even a supermarket at certain times of year. No big thing. In Jamaica, it’s not so. One fruitless Saturday showed me that. When I asked around, none of the suggested places supplied them–hardware store, gas station, etc.. Go to the source, my boy! A very nice lady told me that I had to buy an empty cylinder from Price Mart and then I could have it filled. “A so wi do it!” Solution found.

Not every Jamaican emigrant left on The Empire Windrush in 1948, immigrants_450x300going headlong to help England. Not everyone fled a country that they felt was being pushed into the ground by socialist policies. Many left in calm and collected fashion. Many left to study or work and stayed much longer than they expected–that’s an aspect of migration to which many can relate. The decision to return voluntarily may have many causes, and will pose many challenges. Returning anywhere is not a simple turning back of the clock. We know that from several jaunts in different countries and managing the return to our home in the US. Nothing remained unchanged, and how one deals with that can be the answer to how much patience is needed. I have plenty of experience to draw on in that regard, but that does not mean it will be smooth and easy, but it does not have to be painful.



It’s always interesting to be ‘inside’ a news story. Jamaicans have been thrust into a very peculiar position for a very long time: they had an international image that seemed much bigger than their country’s physical and population size seemed to warrant. To use the boxing parlance, the country punched well over its weight. But, that would not have surprised many Jamaicans, who live with the notion that “Wi little but wi Tallawah”, meaning we are a small nation but with strong-willed people; we are determined and refuse to be restrained by boundaries. The world has had to accept that this nation regularly does ‘exceptional’ things. The corollary is that the country has had to accept that it’s in the spotlight much more than would seem normal.

The true meaning of words fascinates me. The phrase ‘brand Jamaica’ has been tossed around freely in recent weeks. The definition of ‘brand’ has several connotations, positive and negative, and Jamaica is tasting several of them:

  • quality or to designate ownership
  • characteristic or distinctive kind
  • a mark put on criminals with a hot iron
  • a mark of disgrace
So when the term is used, which definition is coming into play? It may, unwittingly, not be the one the user intended.
The notion of being a proud Jamaican is not new. It has been there for decades, but was perhaps more muted in international eyes before the country gained independence in 1962. It got a huge push during the 1970s with the international success of Bob Marley; his music helped make reggae acceptable and accessible to a very wide population. It was put to the test also in the 1970s, when Michael Manley became Prime Minister and implemented a series of social democratic policies, which started to pitch the country in a direction which some feared but others hailed, and ‘took on America’ in the process. His slogans, such as “Better must come” and “Giving power to the people”, struck a chord of fear or made people jubilant.
Jamaica’s image as a violent country took hold in the wake of Manley’s tenure, as guns and politics became more common a pairing than ‘guns and butter’ or ‘guns and roses’. That the tourism industry was able to flourish with that branding on it is worthy of some serious study. Crime didn’t go away, however, no matter how hard some tried, and Jamaica gained the dubious accolade of ‘murder capital of the world‘ in 2005. That’s one gold medal that would happily be dumped into the sea.
The image got a big international boost with the qualification of the national soccer team for the 1998 World Cup: The ‘Reggae Boyz’ even had the glory of beating Japan–no powerhouse, but no slouch, either. Jamaica began to regain its place as ‘the no problem state’.
The image got a mighty boost when Jamaican athletes did so well in the 2008 Olympics and was pushed further upwards with the continuation of that success at the 2012 Olympics.jamaica_olympics Phrases including words such as ‘dominance’ did not seem out-of-place in the athletics context, but would still have had a shock element, when you put the impact in the context of the barely 3 million national population. No doubt, that boost was fired by the performance of one man, Usain Bolt, but most would accept that he had a very able supporting cast and others are in the wings pushing to take the torch further. Older Jamaicans probably smiled as they remembered track exploits of old, and the names of Wint and McKenley, Quarrie and Miller, Merlene Ottey (still sprinting in her 50s at top-level for her new home, Slovenia!). For this, this would seem like business as usual–a tradition was being continued. The world started to take note of ‘Champs’. TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, radio, and any other media would be abuzz at the mere mention of Jamaican track stars. “Jamaica to the world!”
That notion of pride took a hefty lick as the drama unfolded in Tivoli Gardens in 2010 when the government tried to capture a well-known drug kingpin know as ‘Dudus’ (Christopher Coke), who had been indicted by the US in 2009. It seemed that all hell broke loose. Images of military-style operations and the horrific death toll in the neighbourhood filled TV screens worldwide. The then Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, had tried initially to block extradition, but eventually moved to acquiesce, and paid the ‘ultimate price’ for his judgement and decisions as he departed the stage no longer PM. Last year the world became more acquainted with the term ‘Dudus’ and learnt about Christopher Coke once he was sentenced by US courts. To be a proud Jamaican at that time was HARD.
But, the spotlight burns as well as shines. ‘Brand Jamaica’ is taking it on the chin again–to extend the boxing metaphor. This time, the vaunted heroes are facing the possibility of turning into villains as the dreaded ‘doping scandal’ looms over the heads of several of the top athletes, most noted of which are Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell, both noted for their public humility as well as their running prowess. The chill could be sensed as people thought “No! Not them!”
When you are ‘one of the people’ you carry the fame and shame of the people. I remember travelling in the wake of the recent Olympic triumphs and the looks that sometimes came when people saw my Jamaican passport. “Bolt!” might have been all that an official said, but its implication was clear, sort of “Great to meet you, too”. I was shocked in the wake of the 2008 Games when I met someone (an American, I add) who had not heard about Usain Bolt, and that person was not a hermit. It helped remind me of perspective, and I gladly took the opportunity to do some quick tutoring about Jamaica: each one, teach one.
I don’t know how mature Jamaica has become, approaching 51 years of independent age. But, the public and media reaction in Jamaica to the shine being taken off the image tells me that the country has grown up. Yes, there are those who want to take a totally defensive ‘the world is against us’ attitude, but my sense is that most people believe that the doping incidents are isolated, possibly accidental or careless, but not systemic or systematic. Defensive arguments locally have had a lot of reasonableness about them. I have not seen many reports from abroad that are out to trash the country and its athletes: maybe, the world needs ‘Jack’ to be the good ‘giant killer’.
Did I mention Red Stripe or Appleton or Wray and Nephew? Did I mention ‘jerk’? What about Negril.and Blue Mountain coffee? Brands and branding.

It’s good that a nation has more to hold onto than one or very few dimensions of its character. We may not have many people, but those we have often do very well, and we’re not surprised. We are not a nation of saints, and our sins and sinners do not do us proud, but we will not be defined by them. We may not have much to offer the world but what we have we’ll gladly share and you’ll often find that it’s really very good.

We are a great people

Sir Howard Cooke and I have never met before this morning, when I read a report of his recent comments, in The Jamaica Observer–‘We are a great people‘. Do I hear an “Amen!”? SIr Howard said “You must spend more time telling people about the great work you are doing. We need good stories about Jamaica and Jamaicans to be told.” I have been trying to dig that furrow for more than Jamaica in recent times, but I am happy to put all my digging into that channel.

A video of a recent interview between Usain Bolt and Jonathan Ross in London is going the rounds, and people will see our living legend and think we are all great. People will have read and heard recent stories of the doping infractions of some of Bolt’s fellow athletic starts and think that Jamaicans are just like the rest or worse. The news of violent killings within the country continue to flow on a daily basis and hands will be raised and wailing voices will yell and knees will bend in a ‘why are we so wicked to each other?’ manner. Today’s Gleaner leader column focuses on the need for public sector reforms. While there is much merit in getting the public sector to work better for us all, we should not fall into the trap of thinking or arguing that the private sector does all things better, and we need to bring them also up to mark. None of us have laurels on which to rest.

Another Independence Day is approaching, and it would have been a wonderful thing to have seen or heard ‘great Jamaica’ stories, say every week, coming out of government in some form. That would help raise people’s consciousness to what they can aspire.marley I have my favourites, and so should everyone. My mind always turns to Bob Marley. But, Miss Louise Bennett is always close behind in my heart. But, it could be Marcus Garvey, too. The ‘greatness’ does not have to be limited to big names and those who have had the limelight of public acclaim. I think of the lady who was working the Immigration Desk at the airport several months ago, and was ready to engage in a personal conversation that made me very happy to be entering Jamaica, and gave a smile instead of a sour look. I think of the young man and woman selling me corn soup and boiled corn on the street in Mandeville, to whom I feigned outrage–“Nuh dumplin’?” They each and all make Jamaica a better place.

I’m going add some ‘people’ whom I just ‘met’ on Facebook. I want to take my in-laws to Rockfort Mineral Baths (RMB); they have the aches and pains that get to us all as we age. I sent RMB a message about opening hours at 8am this morning, and by 8.03 I had a reply. We can be the best, and when we say “No wan nuh betta dan wi!” let’s mean it.

I’m heading to Mandeville this morning to see a great Jamaican–my father–who was married to another great Jamaican–my mother.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I have a strong dislike for things that seem easy to fix but go unattended. Not that I’m up and down ladders doing jobs. My dislike focuses on social and economic problems. In the same vein, I look happily on examples of ‘jobs well done’.

I’m going to try to keep my eyes and ears tuned keenly so that I can share examples that fit these ‘bad’ and ‘good’ labels. But I also want to add a category for what I think is just despicable, or ‘ugly’–physically, tonally, morally, I’m open to being appalled.

Each week, on Sundays, I will share my catalogue. That’s my day for the calmest reflections, so my bile from earlier in the week should get tempered.

I was in Miami part of this week, and you’d think that city of excess ought to feature. Let’s see.

The good:
A man named Horace Prince, who is a staff member at the Edna Manley College of the Visual Arts and MC-ed the summer camp show. The man was FUNNY, maybe the best stand-up comic not doing that for a living. I felt for my in-laws, who couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire patois. Added to his routine was the strong and positive messages he gave all the performers.

An honorable mention goes to the official at Miami International Airport, who promptly responded to my Twitter comments about poor signs. Our last exchange yesterday was around midnight and he was clearly doing his job on personal time. Trust me on that.

The bad:
In the realm of justice, the cake goes to the US legal system and the seeming travesty that was the trial and verdict given on George Zimmerman. The pain was worsened this week by the juror who voted to acquit but then stated she thought he “got away with murder”.

The 15 year-old who was in charge of selling tickets to me but did not know how much change to give from J$1000 and selling 3 tickets at J$250 each. Bad for the education system, whichever it was.

Fountainebleau hotel in Miami Beach may be THE place at night but it gets a prize for some of the poorest front desk service I’ve ever seen. Too much going on and slow seemed to be the only gear. After checking out from my room why would I want to join a line of over 30 people to get a copy of my bill. I loved the ‘light bulb’ moment when my wife suggested having an email option on the TV check out. Priceless. I suggest to a manager that they do some serious time and motion studies.

The ugly:
The ugliest was the story about a young man in St. James who was chopped and stabbed to death after party goers discovered he was cross-dressing. Jamaica’s homophobia reaches a new milestone.

The very ugly has to be the latest sexting scandal unleashed on himself by Anthony Weiner. I really couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what does or says as a politician, but as someone who claims to want the public’s trust I ask myself “What is he thinking?”

An honorable mention goes to Jamaican MP, Dayton Campbell, for his unflattering comments about a Miss Jamaica World contestant. Good that he apologized quickly afterwards, but check yourself next time the finger reaches for ‘send’.

Get me back to Jamaica quick!

A day in the life of the international traveller.

  • Wake at 7.30am and head for breakfast. Wife has last day of strategy meetings. I amuse myself wandering hotel and checking in on National Bar Association 88th national convention. Meet a lady whose family hails from Seaford Town, but she’s not blond, blue-eyed, or white. Funny.
  • Check out of hotel and wait for the strategists to finish. Talk more to Miami resident about life in the city, its racial tensions, especially.
  • Leave Miami Beach hotel at 12.45pm, with almost 4 hours to spare before departure; allowing 2 hours ahead for check in at airport, there should be no problem. Right? Let’s see.
  • 30 minutes to go 1/2 mile as traffic blocked from hotel to road leading to airport, all because of one lane blocked by road works. Arrive at Miami International Airport close to 1.30pm. Still plenty of time.
  • Drop off wife and bags, and friends whom we’d taken to airport. I head to ‘rental car center’, following green signs from terminal.
  • Once round airport to same starting point. Another trip round, following signs to go straight but heading down to parking lot, because I thought I had misread the signs. I realise my error and try to back up into traffic, and follow signs again. I end up again at same start point…
  • Once round again and follow signs for airport exit, but ask a cab driver where to go. He tells me a road name and suggests I go through taxi drop-off area. I’m met by a policeman. I explain my quest.
  • “Get off at number 3,” he says. Number 3 what? I ask. “Number 3”. I have visions of The Prisoner. I head off again, looking carefully for ‘Number 3″. I see it!
  • A ramp sign marked ‘3’ pointing to a freeway exit, and below the road name is ‘Rental Car Center’ but well disguised by tree branches. Pure genius!
  • I follow ramp and eventually find rental car lot. I deliver car and head back to terminal on the monorail, where I arrive at 2.15. Still plenty of time. Gate agent hears my story and agrees about the crazy signage, saying it’s been reported many times but no action by local government.
  • My wife tells me that my ticket is booked for tomorrow, not today, but…she’s rebooked me for later flight today at 7.45pm.
  • We go to eat. We buy some essential island wear. If I had not known better, I would have thought this was for ‘comfort’.
  • She heads to her gate; her flights at 4.40. I head to the lounge. I see a family of 6 (3 couples) wanting to enter but without enough privileges for guests. I offer to put two of the guests on my card, stipulating that I will request having my choice of the women to do with as I please. One woman suggests that I take all three of them 🙂 I agree. We laugh and explain the solution to the men, who wish me good luck.
  • My wife sends me message that she has just been given upgrade to 1st class (she has status), as flight was overbooked in economy 🙂 She suggests I get on upgrade list (I have no status :-)).
  • I ask to be put on upgrade list: I’m #1H1lSISABNM5OPpg. Airline assistant tells me that two seats have opened up on the same flight as my wife, but I cannot switch because I have a checked bag. Bah! I visualise getting a bowl of hot nuts for supper on the plane.
  • I decide to go on Twitter and ‘converse’ with @iflymia about airport signage and my tour of airport. I get prompt reply and engage in back and forth on Twitter, then suggest email messages. I notice competition on MIA Twitter page, respond and win a prize! Woo-hoo!
  • I read and write while awaiting flight. I reach gate at 7pm. Plane is delayed arriving. Crew eventually arrives. Plane takes off at 8.15.
  • I have no status so am settled into window seat in economy. I read New York Times and am provoked by article on soccer and statistics; I write a critique.
  • Plane arrives Kingston at 8.45, and am out of airport by 9pm.
  • I see my family and put my daughter to bed at 10pm.
  • I continue dialog with MIA official, who wants more details and promises to drive the route and see the problems; he also asks for input on how to improve services and use of Facebook and Twitter, which are new ventures. He needs my address to deliver my gift.
  • I write this and plan to publish it. It’s 11.30pm.

Jamaica is much cooler on my arrival, after a shower and an approaching weather system. A short flight meant that I’m not exhausted. The plane was jammed full, as my wife’s had been. Tourists outnumbered by returning residents. Jamfest is on this weekend, but I suspect the arrivals for that were earlier in the week. The road is quiet on the drive home. Saturday night leads into Sunday morning and church for many. Have to head the way of all flesh as tiredness hits me.


Problems of assimilation

When I woke at 4.30 this morning, I was thrown by how dark it was. I’d not adjusted to the one hour time difference with Jamaica. I went back to sleep and got up again at 6.30 (my usual 5.30 wake up time). I didn’t hesitate to put on my swim trunks and tee-shirt and head out for a walk. I fancied walking south along the boardwalk to the area near the Lincoln Road shopping and party spots. Before I got out, I met four ‘people of the night’ who were just getting home, not quit doing the ‘walk of shame‘. One young lady was opening and closing her eyes as if they had sand in them. Everyone in the group spoke in a deep voice: the effect of talking over loud music  for hours, I suspected. I laughed to myself and headed on.

I met two acquaintances; the lady soon left me and another man, as she ran ahead and we walked and talked. The man and I had only met a few times before and recently, but we got talking about my early retirement. He asked me for my advice about doing the same. I gave him my take, emphasising that he needed to feel confident in his decision and embracing the new opportunities that would be presented to him. He was planning to take over a business in Europe from his very aged parents, though he knew very little about the business. Interestingly, one of two major concerns was loss of ‘exposure’ and some ‘lifestyle’ changes that may occur as he fell into the world of ‘ordinary people’. Gone privileged access to people and places, etc. I understood. It was easy to envisage him as a very successful businessman in a few years. I told him that he’d get new exposure and may find new doors opening, or interesting or influential new people, in the most unexpected places and ways. If he found that the loss of ‘exposure’ was really bothering him, I suggested that he and his ego go and have a good long talk to each other.

Unexpectedly, I went further into an understanding of Miami. At lunch, I sat with two ladies who were both Miami natives, one black (in her 20s), one white (in her 50s). Both now lived in different cities, and had felt the need to leave Miami to get on with their lives and careers. They shared several similar views about some of the social aspects of the city:

  • The influence of the population of  Cuban origin (about 860,000 in south Florida)–who had much business and political influence in the city, but despite this, had a strong desire to return to Cuba to ‘take over’ from the Castro regime.
  • The capture of culture by large waves of near-refugees from regional civil disruptions and natural disasters (eg, in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti). This mixed with Latin American drug-related funds flowing in to fuel the local economy.
  • Young people of many races living a life of conspicuous consumption, exemplified by driving flashy new cars, where they ‘live large’ and party hearty.
  • People living way beyond their means, or having ‘fallen off the cliff’.

Where do Jamaicans feature in this? I didn’t get a very clear answer and it did not appear that they were sharing fully in this characterisation or benefiting much from the fact that others in the area were making up this picture. But, there was some support for the idea that they did not mingle fully with the area’s population, living in ‘their’ areas in Miami-Dade county (and shifting increasingly northward to neighbouring Broward county.

I was struck even more today by what appears to be an absence of English-speaking Caribbean people present in the Miami Beach area. They may be hidden inside hotels doing various jobs, but judging by the hotel in which I’m staying that’s not the case. So, if they have been ‘shut out’ of what should be a vibrant part of the Florida economy, what is happening to them?

Welcome to Miami!

There’s a simple logic behind many episodes of voluntary migration: a search for better opportunities. My parents sought the same when they left Jamaica for England just before Independence. Before that and since, Jamaicans have traveled far and wide; they and their offspring can now be found in many different places. Jamaica has lost much human capital through emigration, and it’s hard to see that drain of people and their intellectual and physical talent as being an overall positive for Jamaica’s development, even if in cash terms it could be shown that remittances have become the largest source of funds to the economy and provided immense support to families all over the island.imageI find myself in a location to which Jamaicans have flocked–south Florida. Here I am in Miami. I acknowledge openly that, after all the travel I have done through Miami International Airport over two decades, I had never set foot outside of those hallowed concourses. Today, that changed.

It does not take much to understand the attraction of this area for Caribbean people: sun, sand, sea, hot temperatures, jobs, jobs and more jobs, nice places to live and work, and more jobs. Don’t get me wrong: the place was not immune from the general downturn in the US economy, but by comparison with the Caribbean, things look very good for employment seekers most of the time. True, it’s America and its attitudes and ethos are different to those of the Caribbean, but it’s relatively laid back, in an industrialised way.

It is hard to verify the exact number of people of Jamaican descent living in the USA because most of them assimilate into the wider so-called ‘African-American’ communities. US census data suggest that documented Americans of Jamaican descent and (the high number of) Jamaican “illegal aliens” total close to 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ living in the United States.

Jamaicans refer colloquially to the Miami metropolitan area as “Kingston 21”.

I haven’t seen enough of the Miami Beach area to support that title, but I won’t challenge it. Maybe, as I move around Dade County in coming days, that view will change.

The early morning flight from Kingston today was full–and I understand it’s almost always that way. Makes sense: you pay about US$300 to fly from Kingston to MoBay, but about US$600 to get to Miami. You can do a lot here, even in a day, and if you’ve shopping at affordable prices on your mind, then the US consumer is your friend by needing to change with the seasons, when Jamaicans don’t have the same reasons. Autumn fashions are coming out and the sales are on to move those summer clothes. Buy yuh tikit!

Jamaica’s loss of citizens to other countries has meant considerable gains to those countries. As I walked around this afternoon, I could hear a distinct Jamaican lilt, but not as often as I heard a trace of Haiti or some Spanish. Whatever the Jamaicans here are achieving, it’s on a crowded playground, and some parts Jamaicans just aren’t touching: I only heard Haitian creole amongst the corps of taxi drivers who were standing and hoping most of the day. I heard only Spanish in the shops I entered in a nearby retail area. For that matter, what is striking about Miami is that it feels and sounds like a non-English speaking part of the USA. So, I’m left pondering, after a few hours here, how Jamaicans are faring and how they are maneuvering around this landscape.
Continue reading “Welcome to Miami!”

Done to a tee

Jamaica is full of ingenious people, and many of them are humble in every sense, may have little formal education, may not have anything that would class as much wealth, but they have a rich education in the art of survival at the University of Life.

I was out playing golf this morning, with a lady neighbour and her caddy. We’d spoken a few days ago about the dearth of sponsorship that the sport attracts, in large part because it’s seen as elitist and for people with ample means. I told her that the golf community perhaps needed to put that image back at the detractors by flagging at least the humble origins of the latest winner of the Jamaica’s Seafreight National Amateur Golf Championships: Paul Thompson hails from Cassava Piece, dubbed one of Jamaica’s crudest ‘garrisons’, but ironically, adjacent to Constant Spring Golf Course. That same day, and since, we’ve seen some of the ‘elite’ golfers on the course: one was about 4, using a borrowed glove and club that was his height, with his father teaching him, neither of them had anything elite about them except the possibility of one day beating the world’s best. Four caddies teed off ahead of us the other morning: one was wearing water boots; another had a shirt that had so many big holes it was a surprise he knew where to put his neck. None of them hit a tee shot that was less than 280 yards. A brute dem! I drooled as one took a driver shot through a narrow passage and found the green, 300 yards away. Elite? Tek weh yuself!

As happens too often, some little thing (literally, sometimes) throws you off your game. Today, my partner and I needed to hit a tee shot that required a short (not regular or long) tee; players often just pick up a broken tee for this purpose. As luck would have it, none could be found on the ground. I happened to have one in my pocket and passed it to my playing partner. She and the caddy then lamented the recent death of a man who used to scour the course for broken tees, sharpen them, teesand then sell them to players for the very purpose we sought. I don’t know his prices but it’s a viable business: during the course of the next few holes played we needed four more such tees. I suggested to the caddy that he should think about resurrecting the dead man’s business, it could do more than add chump change to his caddy fees.

That’s the latest in the litany of ideas that make so much sense and need little by way of material. Jamaica is famous for its push carts, which see their heydays in a national derby each August and are credited with inspiring the creation of a national bobsled team, made famous in the film ‘Cool Runnings’. cart1Anyone taking a road trip will see many vendors along the roadside. Jamaica recycles, but not the way they do in the USA or UK, perhaps. Used white rum bottles seem to be the choice for refilling with home-made honey: maybe tourists have been fooled into thinking that some other substance is in those bottles. With a little extra dressing up, those people who like to see everything with a label and want to go goggle-eyed at the ‘creativity of artisans’ would be soon pulling out more dollar bills for some of that stuff. The Rasta I met the other day comes back to mind, who was roasting his peanuts in a drum made from a used cooking gas cylinder. The man who’s making a concoction of noni and prickly pear, and claims that it will help cure my father-in-law’s knee joint problems, deserves his mention, too. The ‘system’ may have no means to help these people do more than they do now, but they shouldn’t be ignored when we look for ideas and marvel and the latest high-tech solution that someone proposes, forgetting that basic and low-tech are still very much in need.

True enough, that same ingenuity is not always used in ways that seem so socially responsible: raiding the electricity grid with drop cords, for example; tapping off a neighbours water supply, for another example; using used and worn tyres to make footwear, etc. But, we don’t want to stifle it. Nurture it. Tap it. Use it. 

Weh wi a go?

The optimistic tone I left in yesterday’s post, by writing ‘Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things’ should not be taken as a mark of complacency. Remember, I started out by stating that there are many problems. Dinner conversation last night with some Jamaican friends who are visiting from abroad brought up some of those problems–though the problems did not overshadow or outweigh the many good things people also noted. The group included people who have been living for a long while in two of the Caribbean region’s countries, which have had relatively more success than Jamaica–The Bahamas and Barbados–so, in some respects had a perspective of what should be possible for a Caribbean middle-income country. The visitors still have strong family and friendship ties here, and visit often. All of us have much experience and knowledge of the economic and social circumstances of many other countries. The conversations never focused on Jamaica needing to be like other countries (which prompts me to think about recent suggestions to follow the Singapore model). Among the big problems that surfaced were:

  • A perceived lack of vision by national political leaders: I say ‘perceived’ because no doubt leaders such as Edward Seaga and Micheal Manley had a big vision of the Jamaica they wanted to see, but neither managed to mobilise most of the nation behind their views and policies and left a nation deeply divided along political lines, which have left deep scars on the body national. We struggled to discern easily what was the vision held by other leaders.
  • Government inaction and wrong action: this has plagued many aspects of national life, and showed itself in big and small ways–unfilled potholes (which has allowed the mushrooming of business in road repairs by citizens); unfinished road repairs; incomplete repairs of phyiscal structures; poor services across many fields of government operation; skewed distribution of services (maybe reflecting political favouritism); public servants who are not really vested in serving the public; inefficiencies coming from the need to pass many ‘gatekeepers’; inefficiencies coming from unwillingness to change practices (please do not ask me to go to a tax office).
  • Political tribalism: at its worst, this left a trail of bitterness coming from a ‘victor takes the spoils’ mentality (“A fi wi time now!”) that punished those who supported the losing political party in national elections.
  • Lowering the bar on expectations as a means of dealing with serious national problems: this could perhaps be seen as apathy, or resignation, in the face of seemingly intractable economic and social problems, the worst of which were a constantly faltering economy with persistent foreign exchange shortages and ballooning debt burden, and intolerable levels of violent (especially, homicidal) crimes (“Is only 3 dem kill dis time”).
  • Weak commitment to work together: the well-know ‘crabs in a barrel’ mentality is still prevalent. That may be simply an indication of an immature nation: it’s always hard to be willing to ‘share’ when the resources are evidently scarce. (My young daughter reminded me this morning that ‘There is no I in TEAM” :-))

To solve any problem, you need to make sure you can identify what is really the issue. The list above is not meant to cover comprehensively what needs to be fixed. But, it puts plenty of grist into the mill of things that need to be made better. Jamaica has come a long way from the depths to which it sank in the mid-1970s, when many shop shelves were bare and many people wanted to flee. By contrast, it’s hard to distinguish today the stock of a Jamaican supermarket from those of its North American neighbours, and there is plenty of evidence that Jamaica is attractive as a home for returning residents or foreigners who feel that they can make a good future for themselves, their families and their businesses. Sure, Jamaica has real problems, but how should we approach trying to solve them?

Yesterday, I was with my kid at swim practice at the UWI Mona Bowl, and she was working on some techniques and cooling off before the coaches arrived. Some young men marvelled at how she was treading water: “How yu do dat? Yu is like a fish,” one of the men said. She started to show them how to do the arm and leg movements; they then tried but did not make much progress immediately. I sidled up to them and made a few suggestions about what they needed to try: relax and believe that they would float not sink; move slowly, not frantically; try to breathe regularly; remember that it’s easier to swim under the water than on top, so embrace going down a little, knowing that you can come up again. They tried again, and within 15 minutes were able to swim under water for half the width of the pool, and then to swim on top of the water about 15 metres. Progress. “Yu is a coach?” one of the men asked me. I smiled and replied that “I try to teach all the time.”

My kid and I left them and she headed to her group for practice. I started talking to the pool supervisor. I gently took him to task about a water cooler, whose dispenser had been broken and was now ‘functioning’ with a key ring as a pulley–it had now opened and offered two sharp points on which to hold. I’d tried to get a drink and nearly had my finger sliced. I was afraid that a child would try the same and end up badly hurt. The supervisor lamented how he had tried to get the UWI maintenance department to help repair the cooler, to no avail. He told me that it was a matter of money. I disagreed: “It’s a lack of application!” I told him. Money would be found if a child had a serious injury and some parent of lawyer started screaming about “Yu rekless peeple” He agreed and decided that the best thing to do immediately was to lock the cooler and to try to see if he could find an old one to get a replacement part.

Did we identify the real problems in these cases? Did we find solutions that were sustainable (and also simple)? I don’t think Jamaica’s problems are so intractable that we ought not try to play a part in finding solutions.

As we tucked into our jerk dinner, my mind turned to an issue that could fit into the problem bag we had identified. Jamaica has a huge food import bill (US1 billion–about 15 percent of all imports, ranking second after oil (about 40 percent)).  Tourism must be a large contributor to that bill, so any measures to try to reduce that bill should look at how that sector can raise its level of local foods and drinks. I personally lament that one of the pillars of Jamaica’s recent economic development, tourism, appears to have not been a driver for integrating economic activity. For example, local agriculture and manufacturing could have been boosted greatly by being brought more into the supply chain for the ‘sun, sea and sand’ tourism that Jamaica offers. That could have offered an important spur to setting high standards for the quality and presentation of local goods, in the face of the strong temptation to import. I was interested to read a report that the government now wants to push for better such linkages. The reports noted that the ‘tourism sector’s current overall consumption of local fresh produce, fruits and meats is at 10 per cent’. A task force has been set up to work on this issue and a unit will be established within the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment that will facilitate the linkages. Jamaica Agricultural Society, President, Senator Norman Grant has proposed an incentive to the hotels that use locally grown produce. One important change which would help any plan work would be a sharp reduction in the 60 days waiting period that farmers pay to receive payments from hotels, which poses sharp cash flow problems. The challenge will be to attempt this without seriously impairing the real or perceived quality of what is offered to foreign tourists. It will be worth watching if the recent pronouncements are followed by action and what results emerge. We can try to do our part, too, on the import bill. We don’t have to boycott imported food, but really should give a hard thought to buying it instead of ‘local’ (I know the local label needs to be checked, as many items common on the island and now supplemented by imports).

I know that Jamaica is not the best at all things, even if we want to say “Nuh wun no betta dan wi!” The challenge I see now is to take that idea and make it real in every way possible. Jamaica may need to be more like a new swimmer and embrace the essence of a famous qoute from the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu (who is credited with the founding of Taoism): “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand” (often translated as ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’).

Jumayka, nuff prablem…but wi ‘appy tu rahtid…

I imagine that many people think of Jamaica as a happy and wonderful place. The images of smiling, laughing, dancing, singing, “Nuh prablem, man!” people attract foreign tourists. It would seem that these images are not wholly a myth. The UN commissioned Gallup to poll people and construct a World Happiness Report: Jamaica ranked 40th out 0f 156 countries, after the negative effects of corruption and lacklustre growth were discounted–not trivial impediments, but let’s leave that alone for the moment. Northern European countries took the top three spots (though given the high suicide rate usually associated with Finland, I find their 2nd position a bit suspect).happy

Is this high happiness something the country should exploit further? Those who try to market health and wellness tourism know that such environments may represent future boom areas. It could draw in more tourists, but also a particular breed of entrepreneurs. Look at the recent story of Randolph Cheeks, who returned to Jamaica, after studying and working abroad, to help with its development and who is ‘happy with his decision to return home,… he believes that Jamaica’s future lies in its ability to attract back and retain its human talent’. VW recently tried to exploit this happiness image in one of its adverts. “Chill, Winston!” could be a catchphrase for the ages.

But, being fair, consider Mark Wignall’s counter arguments that Jamaicans may be happy for the wrong reasons. The country has a litany of problems, and while my own philosophy is to see ‘problems’ as opportunities or challenges to be overcome, there’s no doubting the weight these put on people. I always thought, when I was working and living in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, that despite the beauty and natural richness of the land, life was often so hard that it just wore people down. Limited access to safe running water for many. Limited access to stable and regular electricity for many. A political regime that made many capricious decisions. Corruption in many walks of life. Growth that had been faltering for years. A plummeting exchange rate. Roads that sometimes turned into open pits, and which could be the scene of some horrific accidents. A growing sense of tension between ethnic groups (‘tribes’ in some senses). What Guineans suffer is not so different from what many experience in Jamaica, though I sense that government actions do not have anything resembling a similar level of capriciousness. But, Jamaicans do not seem worn down in any similar way, even though you’ll often hear “Mi a suffa!”

Income inequality in Jamaica is not much different from for many middle-income countries. Many Jamaicans have a quality of life that would be the envy of many people, with the generally great climate, abundant local foods and plenty more imported, whether raw or cooked, and a picturesque vista from almost anywhere on the island. I’m not trying to lack sensitivity for those whose plight is dire–of which there are too many, in shanty towns, gully communities, or just indigent on the road.1004097_10151574688934022_2029884106_n-1 Is the country too tolerant of beggars? No country or its citizens can feel happy with the kind of abject poverty that can sometimes be seen on a street in Kingston, whatever its cause. But, for what it’s worth and whatever the individual motivations, many Jamaicans are ready and willing to address such situations as they see best. They don’t seek to institutionalize such people. They often offer direct help, and that may be a few dollars in the hand, or some food, or some clothes, or the offer of some ‘work’–help. It may get rejected, which may seem surprising, but it’s a free country.

Many families remain close and support each other, whether with the help of remittances (in-cash or in-kind) from abroad or without. People still seem to have a great regard for rest and recreation: evenings and weekends can form important down time, and when chance comes to leave the city and head ‘to country’, it’s taken. Some anachronistic things seem in keeping with the slower pace: movies still have an intermission, when people go to get their drinks and snacks. Church and religion are important in the life balance for most people: after church in the morning comes family lunch, before or after a nap. This Sunday, we had friends and some family over for lunch in the mid-afternoon, and by about 7.30pm, the last guests were slowly leaving. Kids had played all the time, when they were not eating. Adults talked or just cooled out. We’d done the same the week before, but as guests not hosts.  Most business places are closed and roads are very quiet on Sundays.

Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things.

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