I’ve been everywhere, man, but did I like being there? Barbados-June 22, 2021

My wife and I are both from islands within Caricom, but never lived on another one besides our homeland. I nearly went to live in Barbados when I was ready to leave the Bank of England in the late-1980s, but the offer to join the Caribbean Development Bank as an economist didn’t make financial sense. The interview visit had been an eye opener because I had assumed all islands were like Jamaica, not least with significant high points. Barbados is relatively flat, and you can see almost all of the island from its high points. But, some good things hit me on that brief weekend visit. Barbados has monkeys: I saw them on the beach. It’s visually appealling, especially seeing pretty sandy coastlines from almost every high point. I was also struck by the Bajan accent. 🙂 It was ironic that my wife’s job took us there, nearly two decades later. What did living there show me better?

Likes

Bus service island-wise: You never really had an excuse for taking a bus in the wrong direction because bus signs were marked ‘Into city’ and ‘Out of city’. Good thing, too, that the island is small enough to make a round trip by mistake no bad thing 🙂

Pudding and souse: I’d never give Bim’s food high marks compared to the rest of Caricom, but pudding and souse is worth the try and has its important place in social activities at weekends, when one could lime happily around eating this cold pickled pork dish, drinking and chatting aimlessly or fulsomely.

History matters: Barbados has a complicated slave history, like all of the Caricom countries, but for me have tried to manage the realities of that by not discarding historic relics. It has many preserved features of slave and plantation life, such as mills and some great houses and enough trappings to let people see how the country once was. You need that to tell the story, properly, in my mind.

Well-run, on the surface: Most things in Barbados appear to work well, and the country’s PR is great at pushing that message. But, it’s got some issues that would make you pull out your hair, in part because despite its progress, it’s still a small island in the Caribbean. It took months to get our new car, which we were told “Is on the water”! Opening a bank account and dealing with public sector agencies is still mired by that Caribbean brand of bureaucracy and redundancy.

Brighton Market: If we were caught in an odd place, it was enjoying going to the farmers’ market at dawn most Saturday mornings. This could have been a trip to an English village field, but it was set in the grounds of a working sugar cane farm. It offered ambience hard to beat and was a safe space for children to roam freely. The best fresh coffee on the island and nice food to go with it, whether fish cutters or occasional yummies of other kinds, and fresh fruit and vegetable to buy, plus some crafts, occasionally. Yes, it was mainly frequented by white Bajans and expats, but it was a great start to any weekend, and we often headed to Lemon Arbor for pudding and souse, after.

Dislikes

‘Little Englanders’: Bajans have a reputation amongst other Caribbean countries for being either ‘Little Englanders’ because of their close historical association with the UK and the constant flow of Brits who decide to take holidays there, bolstered by daily flights provided by British Airways. But, it shows up also in a clear distaste for other black Caricom citizens. We were dissed too many times in favour of British tourists for it not to be noticeable and a chilling ‘welcome’ at the airport was not what we liked.

Bajans love sticking it to Jamaicans how well they’ve done: I think I would have minded less if I had arrived in Barbados at a time when economic signs were pointing in a clearly good direction, in 2007, but I didn’t. Sadly, I pointed out what seemed like a glaring fiscal problem. That came to buck a decade later with (for Bajans, a dreaded IMF program in 2018). But, don’t mention that I told you so. I was not offering popular opinions on the radio call-in programme, ‘Down to brass tacks’. 🙂

Travel: It’s harder to get there than it should from anywhere in the Caribbean. I think that reality might have been worse on another island, but it’s still a major chore to have to duck in and out of a few islands on an air ‘milk bus’.

Polarized politics: I didn’t know it at the time, but living in Barbados was a good primer for life in Jamaica, where many issues are reduced to the colour of the party you’re assumed to support. My points about the economy labelled me as part of the ‘opposition’. What was ridiculous was that my point was valid when Barbados Labour Party (red) were in power and equally valid when they ceded power to the Democratic Labour Party (yellow). So, I was always one of the opposition!

Racial polarization: Black and white people don’t mix that much in Barbados. At a macro level, whites own the economy and blacks own the politics; that’s the ‘devil’s bargain’ that’s been struck. They races sort of co-exists, but the separation is pretty clear, no more so for things like Kadooment, during Crop Over, where there’s a (near) all-white troupe, named ‘Blue Box Cart’, who go out first each year. Nuff said!

Just monkeying around: scenes from a round at Apes Hill

Looking west to the ocean
Sheep grazing
Nice to look at, and better to not hit here 😊👍🏾🏌
View of new clubhouse
Reminders of the past: sugar mill

I saw the recession, Barbados

Barbados is in recession, we are told, but it’s a duck on water: it’s not apparent on the surface. It is not a case of a deep, dark recession, where people are putting everything in hock to make their daily bread. Now, Barbadians have a long history of not exposing their situations, either good or bad fortune. Have a good job? Don’t show it with a big flashy car; that beat-up jalopy is just dandy. Build that house, but keep its design modest: time was when you paid less tax if the house exterior was unpainted, so beware the bare concrete look. By contrast, Jamaicans love to be flash, even when they are facing a financial crash. But, all the talk of weak economic activity has some basis, I figured.

I wanted to explore some real life observations. I met or spoke to some friends, who are all in different circumstances, and I talked to some people I met along the way.

Here’s what some people told me, yesterday.

One friend had lost her job in a telecom company, after they outsourced service work. She tried doing some projects for a year or so, but has been looking for work the last three months. She’s one of the best people I ever met in customer service, so if she is true to form a job won’t be long coming. She has kids to raise, and they are great strains on the budget, usually. Will she find work? Her attitude is all positive, but is that bravado? We will see.

A lady working in a department store: My wages have not risen, but prices keep going up. She was grateful to still have a job, though, and was only just back from vacation, on island.

A friend who owns a small restaurant: We had 27 people in for breakfast, today. We were run off our feet. He and I played golf in the afternoon, once the restaurant had closed. We took the twilight special of two-for-one. Stretch those dollars. I know that he and his wife are going to leave Barbados in coming months, for the UK. Why? Cost of local health care. They’ll take a hit renting in England, but they will have NHS benefits. The other factor is that most close family members are in England.

Financial analyst friend: Have you seen the prices for Kadooment costumes?20140722-070809-25689917.jpgHow fitting (weak pun) that this featured as a cartoon in the Nation, today. He’s working as a regional consultant, and his plate seems full, but that hasn’t stopped him trying some income earning on the side. He wants to replace his car, but said he’ll settle for a paint job.

Restaurant owner and band member: We have been open three months and customers are coming, both locals and tourists, and we need locals, most of whom come for nearby offices. However, he did see lots of signs of an economy that can’t progress because it’s still locked into some old social divisions, that largely focus on race. The yacht club’s doors open for Barbados whites who are members, and for the blacks who work there. The beach is public access, so the exclusive entrance must give way to the many black bodies that can reach the white sand from other points and all mingle in the sea. A bit ludicrous? Maybe, but not trivial. Some people are stuck where they are placed, daring not to challenge the rejection. Some people are busily placing people where they feel they belong. That means a waste of talent. Would that persist if economic conditions were dire?

We get the signs of political struggle over a cake that is not expanding. The government has introduced recently a new solid waste tax. (Ironically, Australia just repealed its environmental taxes.) The opposition are going to walk the talk this coming weekend, if their leader, Mia Mottley’s, proposal gets support. However, the usual bun fight of so-called party MP partners is going on, as Kerry Simmonds says he won’t speak at the proposed event.

People say freely the government is a joke, and those saying so are not opposition partisans. They say the finance minister knows nothing. In combination, they are sinking the SS Bimshire.

The central bank governor has been singing a happy tune that all will be well, by and by, or will it be bye bye? 20140722-071408-26048848.jpg He, too, cannot worm his way out of criticism. Year-end will be an interesting time for reminiscences.

Economist turned into politics for Clyde Mascoll, now an opposition MP, and he’s saying that Barbados cannot avoid putting out its hands for IMF help. Unemployment at 20 percent, more borrowing and higher debt, smaller economy, foreign exchange problems all point this way. The government overspending is at the root of all of this, he contends.

The government has been bolstering the economy, for sure, sometime in partnership with the private sector. On the face of it, that’s resulted in some spruced up public buildings. Where the private sector has had to go it alone, say in some hotels, the signs of dilapidation are clear.

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South coast hotel needing some TLC
I heard that the airport air bridges have been bought, but won’t yet be installed. Some officials think it’s good for tourism to have visitors experience that waft of hot air as they exit the plane.

Run down and seedy would be a good description of a too significant portion of hotels on the south coast.

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Bank branch looking lopped off

Minted people on the west coast may still be helping that side out. Wasn’t that Robin van Persie who just ordered a burger?

The picture is complicated. Many Bajan businesses are run by Trindiad owners, so now a popular chain, formerly ‘Big B’, now spouts the name ‘Massy Stores’. Should that be ‘massa’? Who’s in charge of Neal and Massy marketing? Investors are there wanting to renovate property, but word is that they get caught up in red tape, but that may be pocket filling. What is being done to enhance the image of the island? Little things could go a long way. One person mentioned how appealing Bridgetown could become with a facelift of its waterfront, including making it a pleasant walking area that highlights the attractiveness of its historic buildings.

People are spending. Let’s not pretend, otherwise. Friday night at a very good south coast restaurant showed that fine dining seemed to be doing alright. The place was rammed, upstairs and down. Outside, many took the evening air along the boardwalk. I visited a friend whose husband is a tennis coach. The summer camp was full.i didn’t ask how gate numbers were, but parents had not tried saving money by parking kids at home. Maybe, savings came from bringing lunch instead of buying it. I went to watch a friend’s son play cricket. Admitted, Monday morning during July is not when I’d expect to see a big crowd, but two mums seemed sparce. Where were the other parents? Another friend also runs a tennis coaching business. Kids keep coming. Parents who can are still investing in their little one’s futures. Is it do, got others?

Unlike Jamaica, where poverty stares you in the face in many places, Barbadians who are poor are much less visible. Barbadians are not on the constant hustle, the way Jamaicans seem to be. No begging to see. No windscreen washers. But, you get boys sitting on the corner, looking around in areas where there’s nothing much to see. Barbados has its rough areas, where few tourists tread. The raggedy youths running up roads are not near the hotels.

Barbados is more hanging on than fallen over and struggling to get up. Well, that’s what the eyes see.

Holy roller, Batman?

Let’s try to keep it like the Sunday morning sand on the beach: light and fluffy.

Things that make you go hmmm.

An English priest was invited to preside over a Christening. Sure, he said. So, off he went, to the Caribbean, as the guest of one if the invited. Now, call me old-fashioned, if you like. I know that priests are not all white or all male, certainly not Anglicans. But, somethings I just dot see priests donut and feel that the actions of a man of the cloth. Grabbing a few glasses of Prosseco is one of those. In the circumstances, I’d not deny the young fellow a little taster after he’s wet the babe’s head, but when I saw the second glass go gloop, my eyebrows went pop.

Now, I’m not willfully irreverent, but is wanted my concerns addressed when I saw the lad appear at the party, after the Christening, and in a flash his dog collar popped and his short sleeved black shirt was only missing a disco ball over his head for him to audition for Saturday Night Fever. “Give me a sign that you’re the real deal,” I’d asked. Unlike Jesus, he wasn’t being asked for a miracle, but I figured that priests carried a licence or some proof of professional competence. Otherwise, any jack rabbit could walk in and read a few things pulled from the Internet. That seemed reasonable. Anyway, he just smiled and I was left to wonder. A lot of lawyers were at this shindig, so I know a few ears were tuned in, but lips disused sealed.

When the pan music hot hot, who was up there, hands in the air like you just don’t care? When Earth Wind and Fire were putting on their Fantasy, “…as onnnneeee…”? You got it. I rest my case. In the name of…

But, I asked the Oracle the question this morning. Catholic priests are supposed to have a photo ID, so I read. They used to just carry a letter from their Bishop, called a ‘Celebret’, for person who celebrates the Sacrements. Now, I heard the young man say that he was ‘celibate’, at which point a keen-earned 10 year-old asked “What that’s that mean?” Her nimble-footed mother told her it meant unmarried. Maybe, we’d misheard. Either way, my suspicions are as keen now as yesterday. As they’d say in Jamaica, “Bring me di bway!”
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Hiding its hem: Barbados is in an economic mess? Fooled me.

I like to take note of IMF economic assessments, not because they are the best but because I know that the process of making them involves a certain rigour and consultation that seeks to iron out inconsistencies and internal errors. They also have a historical context in mind, at all times. So, what did the Fund say recently about Barbados? The had a mission there just a few weeks ago, in June. Here are the main points (my highlights):

“The Barbadian economy continues to face major challenges, including low growth, a very large fiscal deficit and a high debt burden. Real GDP is expected to decline by 0.6 percent this year, as slightly stronger tourism activity is offset by the impact of the government’s deficit reduction efforts. Inflation is expected to remain subdued and private sector credit growth weak. The unemployment rate rose to 13.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.”

“The decline in international reserves through most of 2013 was arrested in the first quarter with external borrowing in the December 2013–March 2014 period, and reserves have remained at about US$570 million (3.3 months worth of imports) since.”

“The central government deficit in the fiscal year 2013/14 is estimated at 12 percent of GDP, higher than projected owing mostly to unbudgeted transfers to public enterprises, including to reduce arrears. Central government gross debt, excluding securities held by the National Insurance Scheme, rose to 96 percent of GDP at March 2014.
“The need for fiscal consolidation is urgent. The authorities agree and have implemented most of their announced budget measures. Follow up is essential to ensure that these measures produce material results in the near term to lower the government’s financing needs. Slippages should be met with offsetting actions in order to meet budget targets.”

“While awaiting the findings of a review of domestic taxation by technical experts, consolidation efforts should also focus on the other components of expenditure, including ways to improve the targeting and effectiveness of social services. This should include scaling back some universal programs available to higher income groups to ensure that they reach the most needy.”

“In parallel with deficit reduction, steps to raise growth are equally important. A number of large private and public investment projects in the pipeline should boost capital inflows and productive capacity.”

Put simply, the Barbados economy has seen much better days. The economy is, however, not on its knees. That’s recall what you see. Just driving around, you see signs of a tired tourism sector: hotels and restaurants closed. But, signs of change are there as new structures appear. It’s hard to tell much about visitor numbers. My flight from Miami was full, though mainly of Bajans, by the sound of the voices. My wife’s flight from Jamaica was also full, in part with groups that had been visiting Jamaica, some for a tennis tournament.

It’s low season for tourism, but one sees little clumps of pasty white bodies, wearing shorts and sandals, and looking a bit lost. But, go to a few eating places, and they are far from empty. As usual, money is around, and it’s being spent with discretion, meaning choice is at play.

Go out for a drive and one sees buildings going up. “Government spending,” yells my wife. I see jobs and wages and investment. Fueled by borrowing, maybe. I also see homes going up. In fact, friends took us to see the new house their constructing. We also saw renovations, looking good, not incomplete. Boats were still on the water with kitchen fittings from Miami, such is life on little Caribbean islands. It’s been that way for years. Barbados has been stumbling along.

It’s no basket case, like a war-torn country. It’s now paragon of taking hard economic decisions, like Estonia, another small state in the shadow of a giant neighbour. The fortunes of the USA and UK bear fruit in Barbados. The UK has been doing better than most. As the Fund said in its recent assessment of that economy:

The economy has rebounded strongly and growth is becoming more balanced. Growth has accelerated since the second half of 2013, and leading indicators suggest that the recovery has momentum. Although household expenditures played the driving role in the early stages of the recovery, business investment has picked up more recently. Net exports remain subdued.

Inflation has fallen rapidly.

Good macroeconomic performance is expected to persist. Real GDP growth is projected to remain strong this year, before gradually returning to trend rates, driven by further rebalancing toward business investment and a gradual recovery in productivity. Inflation is expected to revert to target.

That’s good news for Barbados, which depends a lot on Brits wanting to bronze themselves.

I hear educated Barbadians complaining that their current government is full of incompetents. That may be true, but these politicians haven’t wreaked havoc on the place. In fact, it’s so not wrecked that others Caribbean people would want to take their chances here than in their own little rocks.

So, with a whole day of observation, let me say I don’t see the dismantling of the economy, even though I know that 3,000 public servants were ‘sent home’ in December, and free tertiary education is a thing of the past. The jury stays out and a verdict will have to await weekend deliberations.

Maybe, Barbados is a strange example of the duck on the pond: what we see on the surface is nothing to write home about because the real action is going on underneath the surface. Perhaps, the economic dismemberment is going on in places we cannot see. The man feeding chickens in his yard, while trying to watch two boys kick a football, and has a house with breeze blocks added to its wooden frame.
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He’s part of the recession and unemployment, too? I’d better keep eyes open and not blink too fast.

Beautiful Barbados, as it’s advertised

No two places are the same. When you arrive somewhere new, the first impressions are always interesting. When I left Jamaica as a small boy, some 50 plus years ago, the things that struck me as I arrived in new lands were climatic. It was autumn, and Newfoundland felt like the Arctic to my little body, fresh out of the Tropics. When I landed in Endlad, it was less cold,but the damp mist or fog were bizarre new elements. When you travel around the world, climate is a natural difference,but so too are physical structures, languages, how people act, and more.

No two Caribbean islands are alike, and their differences can be all of the above, and more. I lived in Barbados for about three years in the mid-2000s. I enjoyed living there. I’ve been back a few times, but this was the first trip there since going back to Jamaica. The first difference–small, but notable–is that you have to walk down steps onto the tarmac. That brings me back to trips to Jamaica many decades ago, when the first impression was of the hot air hitting lungs that had gotten used to hours of air conditioned breathing.

It was one of my first trips travelling with just hand luggage and I was done with Immigration and Customs within 10 minutes, the longest time taken being for the Customs officer to put on her hygienic gloves. I got my rental car and was in my south coast hotel within one hour of arriving on the island. Admitted, I had landed at night, and traffic was light. But, there too, the differences are striking. Kingston is a hubbub all the time into the wee hours. Barbados is asleep, it seems, after 9pm. I saw one man walking the highway in the dark. I saw no goats or pigs, or pan chicken stands, or even ladies of the night. The sounds of the sea and waves I could hear from my room seemed to sum up the languid feel. I was staying at a place where I used to live for a few months, and it had its familiar feel.

Morning showed me little surprising. I’d decided to not have the waves lull me to sleep, but dawn did its trick and I was up and ready to have a sea bath. Of course, I was not first on the beach. Some people looking like tourists from cooler northern climes were walking. Some men sounding like Bajans were walking to my beach, with snorkels in hand, and they were soon in the sea swimming back from where they had walked. I took a short walk on the soft white sandy beach, then went for my little soak in the salt water.20140718-072920-26960432.jpg

Barbados is small enough to easily drive around in a day. It has few hills of any real steepness or height. It has fabulous beaches, and beautiful sea. It has very good roads, and I never touched a pot hole on my drive from the airport. Lighted neighbourhoods are what you view on approaching at night. Its palm trees are lining the sandy fringe of the land. It’s like paradise. It’s what tourists dream of.