More than stuck in a rut?

I drove from Kingston to Montego Bay early on Saturday morning, and drove back on Sunday afternoon. My ride north was via the new highway and the vistas near Ewarton; the drive back was via Port Maria and the hills of St. Mary. As I often do on such rides, I try to take in my surroundings and think about what I see.

Jamaica is stuck. It’s not made as much progress as seemed likely, given where it was 50 years ago, just after its independence. One clear sign of that is how its older trappings don’t fit well with the modern world.

One challenge of development is blending past with present, harmoniously. If one looks at developed economies that are old societies, one sees the challenge of old structures making way for new ones. Countries like France, Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom work hard to let history sit alongside modernity. It’s costly, but the belief is that culture, as represented by historic things, needs to be preserved. Of course, it’s easy to just tear down and rebuild. We see more of that style in relatively modern societies, such as the U.S., but there, too, strong pressures exist to harness modernity and let history have its place.

But, old ways being replaced by new practices is also part of the big challenge of progress. This is where Jamaica seems to have struggled. That struggle has been harder because our economy has been stagnant for decades. It’s chicken and egg, but the result is that economic change has been slow. But, we’ve also lost sight of, or ignored, the importance of education in helping people understand change.

When you drive around Jamaica, one notable feature is that old things often get cast aside, literally and metaphorically. Old buildings are more likely to be crumbling into ruin than restored. New structures get pressed next to them, in no particular order. Or, new structures are placed apart in selected areas. It all makes for quite a jumbled mess.

We live with tradition so much that it’s notable when it gets confronted by needs that cannot rely on it. One such instance is our roadways–for long, renowned for having many winding ways, but with few signs to help you get anywhere. Now, I notice that helpful signs are beginning to appear, and the need to guess which was is ‘straight’ or ‘up so’ has gone.

On my drive north, I took the highway, then took the road via Chalky Mount. Work to extend the highway–visible alongside the old road–involves rerouting the old road. One consequence is that some new curves and inclines are there; one set got the better of big trucks, which couldn’t pass and were lined up in both directions. I was lucky to be one of the first to find this problem and weave between the two ‘opposing forces’.  The truckers were directing traffic well. The road engineers should know the limitations of that stretch of road, and ensure that it’s monitored or controlled so that such blockages don’t occur. It doesn’t happen because the responsibility for it can be shifted, and fall squarely on users, who have few options but to grin and bear it. Sounds familiar?

A gap between two lines of truck, which cannot pass each other, near Chalky Mount

This reminded me of what driving on many rural roads is like in Jamaica: they’ve outgrown their original uses. Donkeys and carts, or light wagons, or small vans, or people walking, have few problems on such roads. They are narrow country roads, scenic, and tranquil. But, large 16-wheeler trucks are too big, fast, and unwieldy for them. We let that mismatch go on for too long. Many roads are in terrible shape because of it, and ordinary traffic can barely pass because of the extensive damage. We’ve all absorbed that cost–directly on public budgets, but indirectly in the lower quality of life that comes from potholed roads that flood and collapse with rains.

I’d taken my chances earlier to overtake heavily laden trucks simply to allow me to make faster progress; I was so glad to have done that.

Whatever we may think about new highways, the country needs them, not least to get such large vehicles onto roads better suited to them. It may not happen that they switch voluntarily from the old roads, because paying tolls add much to their costs. We’ll have to see if it’s forced on them. Such roads are long overdue, and their benefits won’t remove problems where such construction isn’t possible, but it’s a step.

When I reached MoBay, I was about 30 minutes ahead of my schedule. I then heard that others, headed to my venue were stuck behind the trucks and had turned back to take another route. Luckily, they could do that. They arrived in good time, still, and the event got off only a little late.

I usually stay with friends in MoBay, but they were away. So, I checked into a hotel. I chose the new Hyatt Ziva (formerly Ritz Carlton). My wife had been there on business twice, including during this past week. She’d also known it in its former days. She was impressed by the renovated wing. It’s an all-inclusive hotel. That appealed because I would have little time to worry about meal choices, but also didn’t want that adding to my costs.

When I got there late afternoon, all I wanted was some lunch and rest. There are two hotels on the site, one adults-only, the other for families. I’d gone to the wrong unit, but was able to check in and then walk to the family unit, with a porter helping me with my bags. I got my late lunch in the shape of jerk food and my rest on the sofa in my room. I was soon asleep. 

Sun down and rest time

The hotel food choices are wide at all times of day, with beach locations and more formal restaurants. I didn’t need free drinks all day, but I was glad to have the option. I asked my wife for dinner suggestions and went off to eat in the early evening. The food was fine, and the device attentive.

Evening entertainment wasn’t needed, but it was pleasant to hear live jazz coming from a keyboard played on the roof lounge. Maybe, it sounded better because I’d helped the pianist load and unload his equipment in and out of the elevator. I could also see the stage being set up for a later show. I found the deli and took an ice cream for dessert and walked to my room.

All over the resort people were relaxing and at ease. It’s not hard to see why such resorts are popular. It’s a no-brainer to enjoy the amenities that have already been paid for and are varied enough for most, with a good touch of local highlights. The local offerings outside the hotel are hard pressed to compete with the all-inclusive goods.

But, the quality of such places is not just their physical space, it’s as much, if not more the experience that comes from interacting with service staff. I was struck immediately and repeatedly by the fact that staff at the hotel seemed well-trained, were attentive, knowledgeable, and willing to help visitors and each other; for instance, a security guard was reminding a porter of things to do with the guest. It was ironic that when I got home one of the news items I read was about how Jamaica had slipped to its lowest level on an index of tourism competitiveness. We’re ranked 76 out of 141 countries, leaving us behind other major regional destinations. That position is not unlike many others we’re in–stuck in the middle, but maybe with a tendency to fall lower.

Along the north coast, we have plenty of hotels and resorts. Many of them look tired and run down. The few that are new or refurbished stand out. I’ve stayed in a few and know that looks are not deceiving. When you pass through Ocho Rios, for example, it’s hard to see how it can continue to competed for the modern tourism dollar. What was once modern now looks seedy and downtrodden. It doesn’t have the charm of a rustic setting. Admittedly, the market has many types of visitors. But, as budgets get squeezed, value for money or ‘luxury that doesn’t break the bank’ seems more important.

My notion about education and how we’ve let ignoring its importance trip us up hit me in the face on my drive home. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. The roads were not very busy. Taxis were making good trade. I looked over at them as I passed them or, more often, they passed me. Each was filled to the maximum, if not more. Few had drivers who wore belts. Hardly any passenger wore a belt. I saw one mother in a back seat, cradling her little baby in her arms; no belt. I thought about the road accident figures. People do not understand the risks they take. Those who should know and care, either don’t know or don’t care. When people get in my car and I say “Put on the belt”, they do. So, either people aren’t asked to do so, or when they don’t they are not instructed to do so, either by drivers or other passengers. We wonder that we have nearly one fatal crash a day? But, let’s not lay blame of those whose business is transporting people. I see enough adults with children standing in their cars, often eating or drinking and talking with the driver as they peer through the middle space to get a better view. Not people driving old jalopies, but often people who’s standard of living has allowed them to have a more than decent car.

The National Road Safety Council tells us ‘the seat belt which, if used correctly, can reduce traffic fatalities per one thousand (1000) to one fifteenth of the level in accidents in which the occupants are not wearing seat belts. But, instead of enforcement of that being the thing that police focus on other things. I say that because I see the police, standing on the roadside letting the vehicles go by without batting an eyelid.

I drove past piles of leaves on the roadside in Ocho Rios. raked and left in neat piles. Some of the piles were smouldering; others awaited their ‘treatment’. Sure, the fires looked controlled. But, most do, till they are not. We have a nation raging about the destructiveness of fires that are destroying crops, and pontificating on how we should not burn, yet, it’s daily practice across the island to burn things we don’t want. We’ve not learned that other ways are safer and better, such as composting. We slash, we rake, we dump, we burn. We cry “Fire!” and have too few means to deal with the crisis.

These are just little markers. But, the island is full of them. The messy picture of ignorance piled on top of ineffective or inappropriate actions.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “More than stuck in a rut?”

  1. You observe much in your travels around the island, but it is a shame that you don’t see much to praise. Yes, we need highways but many trucks are not using them because of the cost. Oh, where is Chalky Mount?


    1. There’s plenty to praise and it’s there in this piece, too, but the weight of impression that comes out is inevitably less positive because, sadly, that is the reality.

      Chalky Mount is the area you pass if you take the road to the left off the highway, not via Fern Gully. Passes through Steer Town. It’s mainly rural and will have to figure out its future when the highway is finished.


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