I spent part of the weekend pondering a wholly different Jamaica. It looked like Zürich or Geneva or another western European city, that has a reputation for style and grace. Everything was squeaky clean and orderly. Noise was limited. People walked along in a carefree manner. It did not seem like Jamaica. But, that reaction reflect what I’m accustomed to see. We are what we live.
As far as most tourists are concerned, what makes their visits to the Caribbean fun and interesting and worth the money spent is that they go to places where things are not like home. People are not so ‘buttoned down’; life is lived at a slower pace; things are done with a lot of informality. “Relax, man. Chill, Winston.” Sunshine, nice, spicy food, strong drinks, exotic fruit and vegetable, all go into making this somewhere that visitors feel that they are somewhere very different. Locals love most of these things too, after all, they should be part of our lives. The attitudes and manners of the people also go into the mix. But, are the things that make Jamaica Jamaica things that have to change to make Jamaica a better Jamaica?
When I drive to church on Sunday mornings, it’s always a revelation to see Half Way Tree (HWT), that otherwise bustling hub of commercial activity in Kingston, virtually empty and quiet. Regular businesses fill the various plazas that line the main thoroughfare. But, we know that much of the buzz in HWT and in many places in Jamaica comes from the vendors and informal selling and buying that people take for granted. Jamaica is not unlike many developing countries in that informal activities are a very important part of every day life. It may take on the image that things are haphazard and chaotic. But, it’s often not that way at all. In many places, vendors have their pitches, which they occupy daily and are lothe to give up. They are prime positions: time and experience have shown sellers that they have located at a great place to meet and satisfy buyers. You don’t see vendors on every corner for some simple reasons–not all corners are made equal. You also see vendors outside designated vending areas for a similar reason: buyers can be found more easily by being elsewhere, even just outside such areas or the official markets.
One of the tricky developments that’s going on at the moment in Jamaica is the ‘cleaning up’ of business areas. It’s happening in Kingston, where the municipal authorities are trying register and license handcart operators (for a fee) and move vendors to designated places. It’s been tried before and did not work, or only for a short time. At coastal resorts in Montego Bay and Negril, a boisterous campaign has been waged against unlicensed jet ski operators, albeit that new licences have not been issued for decades even though the volume of tourists has increased greatly.
These changes wont be easy, not least because they are uprooting practices that have gone on for years. They may involve a lot of hurt feelings and tough talking and arrests before it happens fully, if indeed it does. We know all the cries that will come about the ‘small man’ and how it’s hard to get a job, and how any little piece of entrepreneurship gets stifled by ‘big people’. Doing things within formal structures usually cost more, and that may well be the difference in terms of staying viable. But, let’s see.
Jamaican taxi and minibus drivers often encapsulate many aspects of the ‘just do it’ culture that is very evident in Jamaica. Nike should really have thought to set up a factory here: we could have been as icon as their motto. Driving like madmen sometimes, putting passengers and other road users at real risk is inappropriate, and most people understand that. But, then they quieten down when they think of how they manage to get around, especially in rural areas, where there is no public transport system, and they think what lucky people they are to have the options. Minibuses competing illegally on routes with public buses eats into the public revenues, sure. But, what Jamaican taxi and minibus drivers are guilty of is not that different from what happens or happened in many well-ordered places. In the UK, for instance, the wars between competing private bus operators were legendary, into the 1930s, when regulation was introduced, and then most small operators went out of business. In San Francisco, there is a battle raging as large businesses and organizations put on free shuttle buses for employees, but also for other riders: the buses often use spaces designated for municipal buses. Google, Apple, etc. are seen as leaders in so-called ‘disruptive technologies’, but they are also disrupting other social order. But, right now, they may be a godsend as BART train drivers go on strike. Complicated.
Jamaica’s seeming disorder on many occasions is not chaos in action. Things have developed in a way that meets many people’s needs. It’s just that things are done differently. When you go to the bank or post office, people stand in line, waiting their turns patiently after taking their numbered ticket or aware of who was in front. When you are at the cinema, people await the intermission, then go for their snack refills or use the restrooms, or check phone messages. They don’t run riot out of boredom. They leave in an slow, deliberate manner. When people are dealing with vendors you rarely see a melee for items, often because there are many sellers or the flow of buyers is slow. I’ve seen worse behaviour at a yard sale in Virginia and for sure at sales in London or New York.
Tidiness may be driving some administrators to move sellers and try to ensure that only those legally endorsed have rights to operate. It may be easier to regulate and then deal with criminals who use the current situation as a cover. But, this push for a certain ‘order’ will impose a cost and it’s not trivial.