Problem resolution. Does it register?

A wonderful thing about being a new or nearly new arrival is that you can often see what the long-time ‘residents’ don’t see, or see but don’t challenge. Like arriving late at a party, and sober, you can see that everyone’s happy just because they are all blind drunk and falling over like idiots, but they all think they are acting normally, and that you’re the idiot. By nature or nurture, I am someone who puts up resistance to things that border on the less-than-useful.

Jamaica is one of those places where, to get almost anything started, officially, you need to have someone verify who you are and where you live. Organizations often require you to present a utility bill to show proof of address. In Jamaica, with shanty towns or other dwellings where people may have a ‘cord drop’ to connect to power, and plenty of places where public utilities do not feature as a standard part of life, that sets up a marginalisation or exclusion that can be very counterproductive. If you are new and have access to public utilities, you will have no bills for a while so have to wait at least a month, say, to get such ‘proof’. True, that’s not a long time, but nevertheless, it’s time lost. Then, again, the bills may not come in your name. Then, again, the digital age has done away with the need for paper billing, and online invoices do not always show addresses, only account number, name, amount due, and date by which payment should be made, in many cases. Oh, dear…

You also need someone ‘reputable’ to verify who you are. The list usually includes attorneys, justices of the peace, religious ministers (but anyone can set up a church), etc. You do not have to be known by these persons. The list does not always include doctors, who may well know a person very well. Police officers are included. Their status makes you trustworthy. I offered to commit a crime and then the policeman, having taken my particulars, could verify who I was for the library. Presumably, if you commit a crime, the police don’t wait for you to send them utilities bills to decide where to send the summons. Maybe, you have to go to a station to pick it up, with some trust involved that you will show up and not abscond. The Librarian chuckled at all that. You can even have a librarian verify: she did not immediately warm to that idea in my case, but I felt a gap opening.

Well, when I went to register at the library, I could not meet any of the criteria. I also had a serious problem with the process, which really made no sense, if I could offer two pieces of ID, including the all-too-important TRN. That did not seem to be acceptable, so I said to the librarian, “Why don’t you sign and verify me? After all, I’m here, you can see my ID and we’re getting to know each other.” After some humming and hawing, the lady got a stamp and there we are. Registered! Now, I don’t think that everyone will get the same result, but she got my point. She took it more to heart, perhaps, because she was the boss.Library

Well, with that nearly impossible feat accomplished, we were ready to go to get some books: my daughter could get 1, I could take 3–a stark shift from the 50 we were allowed in Maryland. Off went my little reader, and back she came in a hurry. She was inappropriately dressed for the Junior Library. She was sporting a singlet and shorts in Jamaican colours, proudly still sporting the look she had for Independence. But the shorts were deemed too short. Oh, well. She had to stay in the Adult Library. She came back clutching a James Patterson novel. Take it back! We had a few other false tries. Eventually, I strolled to the shelves and got three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings series. Enough reading for the week, for sure.

I like problem solving. I really do.

This is how we do it

Independence Day came and went yesterday. The positive messages that were sent out by politicians and others prominent in the business of leading the country should prevail for more than a few days. I started writing this several days ago, and feel better about what follows, after seeing a news bulletin last night reporting that PM Portia Simpson-Miller stopped her motorcade on its way to the National Stadium to console a woman driver whose car had overturned not far from Jamaica House. It made for good viewing to see the PM put her arm around the woman, apparently slip a little something into the woman’s hand, and talk to her and hear her story for several minutes before going on to the Gala. Yes, I could be a cynic and say that a good politician would not pass up a prime moment to show a compassionate face, especially when cameras are around, but I wont go there.

For a country that has so many social problems and suffers so much violent crime, Jamaica is a very interesting blend of nice behaviour, rather than constant anger. I travelled roundtrip between Kingston and Mandeville on Monday and a few things caught my eyes and ears.

  • At the Highway 2000 toll booths, the collectors are always cheerful and smiling, with a greeting and a wish for safe travel. There’s not much real need to associate with every driver, so if this is training at work, wonderful; if it is just good manners, even more wonderful. (A friend confirmed my impression by telling a story yesterday of how she’d been helped by the highway staff once when she was lost and headed the wrong way, then needed to turn back and find her way. She got enough help and guidance to maneuver her way even though she still had to pay the tolls in each direction–“Tek di tikit, maybi yu cyan get a refun’,” was the advice she got 🙂
  • In a country known for its high rates of violent crime, an astonishing number of people still stand on the roadside hoping to get a ride from a passing vehicle, and often show displeasure if a lone driver passes without stopping.
  • A Rasta, selling from the back of his van in a Mandeville car park, said to me that “people have money for medicine, and I sell medicine”. He actually sold fresh fruit and vegetables. Buying from street vendors is still big business. Customers expect value for money and good quality and would be very surprised if the vendors were not engaging–which they are, usually. Vendors of food are as popular as vendors of raw produce. Everyone has a licence? I doubt it. Anyone concerned about that? I doubt it.
  • Giving and getting something for nothing is still a big part of social interaction between buyers and sellers. Jamaicans know and love ‘brawta’ – an extra for free (in Jamaica they sometimes offer an extra 1 of something for free if you have already bought something). It can sometimes come with some ‘up selling’ (being urged to buy a little more). Win-win?Choices_BRAWTA_Plan_5x35
  • It’s turning into a little funny tidbit to point out to visitors that the National Anthem is played before public events start, including at plays and films. I went to the Independence Gala at the National Stadium last night and did not bat an eyelid as the National Anthem was played to start the proceedings. (For all its woes, the USA still has this tradition at many sporting venues. I’ve never heard it at the movies.)
  • At the theatre, there is (always) an intermission: during plays, this will be at some halfway point; during films, the breaks do not follow any strict rule. Intermission is time to go to the bathroom, refill drinks, get popcorn and other snacks, or have a chat about whatever. During a play, you may even meet some of the cast also taking a break. Very civilised, I’d say.
  • Hardly surprising in a country that is not really that well-off, money matters. People are very particular about getting the prices correct, and with it the right amount of change. Jamaicans are not really into tipping (tourist areas apart), and you should not be surprised if someone chases you down if you walk off before getting your change so that they can give you your money.
  • I love it that patty shops now have drive-through windows as an option. Even better, the food is often ready to pick-up when you get to the pick-up window, no matter how busy the main shop is.
  • Jamaicans have some funny lack of sensibilities. How else do you describe the selling of bras and panties out of the back of a van or from a black plastic bag on the sidewalk? No time for shyness or modesty.

I may not have travelled around enough yet, and I don’t make a habit of hitting tourist areas, but I also don’t get the impression that people are trying to rip me off, or not too badly. That betrays a certain mindset, which is not being crabs in a barrel. Yes, the man selling me bananas at 5 for J$150 may give me a story that I dont believe, given that I’ve been buying them at 5 for J$100, but after I bought two bags from him, the price for the third changed to J$100. Understood, if he has a little extra in his pocket.

You can still bargain in a number of places, not usually in stores, food outlets, or the supermarket, but in lots of other places: “That is your best price?” is usually a good opener. I know that the tendency to do so was ingrained at an early age, and I gladly admit that I tried it in some unlikely places in the UK and USA and was never surprised when it worked: “Do you do discount for bulk?” is something that often gets a bargain going.

Caring and sharing takes on a new meaning. I meet some ladies selling newspapers at one of the busy road junctions. I never buy and always tell them that I have the paper at home–true. But, one lady always tries to get me to buy the paper, or some of the sweets she’s selling–“Buy the paper for your wife,” was one suggestion that made me chuckle. Come to think of it, maybe harmony can be secured this way.

Being small has many advantages. Caribbean countries, for the most part, are small places and that has allowed much of the community that exists in small places to persist. It is very much the norm to greet people, and woe betide you if you fail to do so. Even hailing someone with the blowing of a car horn as you pass their gate will do. Better still, though, pull up and have a few words: that will save you from a mauling when you mention that you passed but didn’t stop, not to mention losing out on the fruit or vegetables that may come your way for extending a simple courtesy :-).

Yesterday, The Gleaner had a front page that stressed the positives about Jamaica, and inside it was a real ‘feel good’ edition. Yes, Independence Day was a perfect opportunity to do that, and it was noted by some radio commentators, who asked for more of it. I sense that people are yearning for a change for the better and it may start with taking a better view-point of what we do. Change wont come overnight, but let’s try one step at a time.