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?
- 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.