I’m no criminal, and I keep my promise to Bunny

Today, I took the last step in getting a police record–collecting a form that stated I’m not in the police data base. It’s good to confirm what you believešŸ˜ŠšŸ‘šŸ¾

I took the drive to downtown Kingston on one of the strangest recent mornings. I headed out just after 9am, after the morning rush, but all roads were jammed. Part of a major north-south route, Constant Spring Road, had collapsed!

Constant Spring Road: It’s hole, alright

I managed to dodge it all, by opting to go over the hills, and bypassing all the trouble. When I got downtown, I managed to find parking about 30 seconds from the Jamaica Constabulary Force office. I stated my business, and went first left, then right, to the desk. As I got there, the official was explainging patiently to a lady that things might not be working as expected: we’d just had a weekend preparing for a hurricane, and most government offices had been closed for the first two days of this week. Still…TheĀ firstĀ conversation I heard went as follows:

Official: “You paid for 24-hour service?”

Scowling face lady: *glares*

Official: “I explained that I’m just filling in for the regular officer here, so cannot tell you exactly what the situation is. We had disruptions but I hope it is ready.”

Scowling face lady: *glares harder*

Official: “We’re only humans.” (I was tempted to sing the song, and turn the office into a musical.)

Snap out of it!

I handed in my receipt, and quipped, “By the way, I’m an alien.” The young official smiled. She took the paper and told me to take a seat. The room was fuller than last week, perhaps reflecting some backlog. Anyway, after about 30 minutes, I was called, signed for my report and was on my way.

The day had begun strangely, with another dark, cloudy sky. Hurricane Matthew had not wreaked havoc on Jamaica, but was doing so on Haiti and The Bahamas, but we were getting huge thunderstorms and solid short showers. One had hit earlier, on the way to school, and another had hit while I was waiting. When I walked outside, everyone was huddled in the doorway. Thankfully, I just had a few steps back to the car.

But, I had to run another errand: I’d promised ‘Bunny’ that I’d bring him some tee shirts. I headed off into the grid of lanes downtown and found the right street. I knocked on a makeshift door, and a man asked whom I was looking for; I explained. He said he’d go tell Bunny: “Bunny! A elder waan see you!” Moments later, I was stepping into a ‘yard’ that led past some spaces used as rooms.Ā 

It was hard to figure out what the building used to be, but it was now ‘home’ to several people.

I pushed past the washing and met Bunny putting on a shirt as I approached his door. He looked surprised but smiled. “I’m a man of my word,” I said, and handed him two tee shirts. He took them, thankfully. He asked about the car, which was fine. Nothing else to do, I headed back to my car to dodge more rain. My man, who had hailed Bunny asked if I could give him $200 to buy a ‘hurricane rum’; I gave him a friendly lecture in economics šŸ™‚

I glanced at a pile of garbage that looked like it had been washed there over the weekend, when we’d had flash flooding. A few young men stood near the pile. I was curious, but just left that where it was.

Contrasting views: all roads lead to Rio

Our journey back to Jamaica yesterday began with a taxi ride to Gatwick Airport, from the East End of London. Our driver wasĀ born in the Isle of Dogs, once in the heart of the London dockyards and part of the new wave of gentrification and new development. We talked about how the area had changed over the past 20 years. Much of London never had the ‘benefit’ of being destroyed during the Second World War, so massive redevelopment was always hard to do. The decline of the docks opened the way for a new wave of redevelopment, and it was spurred by the area being adjacent to a majorĀ financial centre. Many East Enders had been moving further east for years, and that process continued with the added pressure of new money and social groups wanting to move in. In a few words, the East End has become posh. Places with names such as ‘Leg of Mutton Lane Lane’ and ‘Westferry Road’ had real meaning.

The driver and I talked about how the area had changed physically. He mentioned that he had a book that looked at 500 years of the area’s history, its physical, social and economic make-up. I had been thinking that a great use of technology would be to make an overlay map that showed just that for any area. I had studied for years in the area and commented that I could barely make out where I was except for the trees; almost everything had changed. But, that is what progress means these days. We looked at the tall glass buildings, the wide streets, the fancy signs for new financial and commercial activities; menĀ in suits and women in fashionable dresses–a far cry from the clothes of dock workers and their relatives. I thought of Jamaica, and Kingston’s downtown: progress had passed it by. People now flooded into the East End, after decades of people wanting mainly to flee the area. We continued to the motorway, and I thought about how improved transport links had made this side of London very dynamic: new rail links, new roads, a newĀ small airport, London City Airport. That is what transformation meant.

East London transformed
East London transformed

We got to Gatwick and headed to check-in. (London’s airports are well served by public transport, and a train service runs every 15 minutes to this airport, to the south, but getting thereĀ from the east is trickier, so the roads are often quicker.) We completed the necessaries and sat to cool out in the lounge. Two ladies headed to Jamaica sat opposite us. They first felt miffed that they had not realised that showers and a spa were in the area. “It’s provided by the airport. I wouldn’t have bothered to bathe,” one said. I smiled and told her that it was BA who provided the service, and it’s common for them. She and her friend continued with their breakfasts, as did we.

“Glastonbury! Why do people want to go there, camping? That’s nasty!” My ears bristled. I asked her why she thought camping was nasty (remembering that she’d been prepared to go unbathed to the airport, moments ago). She explained it had to do with having to sleep on the ground. I asked her about her family background, and we had a discussion about life in Jamaica. She’d been born in England and never grew up in Jamaica. I explained that living with a dirt floor was common in Jamaica, and still is the norm in many places. She was not convinced that lying on vinyl would make it not nasty. I teased her more. She really did not like much to do with nature. She would go into the mountains in Jamaica only if she could get everywhere by car; walking was out of the question. I suggested taking a mule: she thought that was cruel šŸ™‚ I suggested she talk to her mother about life in rural Jamaica. We continued and I asked how she’d feel about taking a walk up the Blue Mountains to the coffee fields. Again, she was fine if she could go on wheels. I shook my head. She rounded herself out by explaining how she’d bought Blue Mountain coffee on a previous trip to Jamaica, but had no idea what to do with the ‘granules’. She’d put them into a cup and they were “just swimming around”. She’d given the coffee away. I explained how to brew fresh coffee. The lights that went off in her head were very bright. MY daughter could barely suppress her giggles. She told the lady about staying at Strawberry Hill and going up further to Holywell.

Holywell: too natural; too challenging
Holywell: too natural; too challenging

The idea of staying in the National Park was daunting for her. We almost closed the case. We left them to visualise their trip to Negril and Montego Bay. My daughter could not resist telling the lady and her friend (whose roots were from Ghana) about the dangers of being in the sea, and what some people feel happy to do in the water. Some of that is truly nasty, she pointed out. She is my child! I suggested to the ladies to be less afraid of what nature has to offer.

We headed to the departure gate a little while after, and boarded with little fuss. We then sat on the tarmac for over an hour as ‘ground services’ fouled up, including having no bags loaded. We relaxed and start watching some films. We eventually got flying about 90 minutes late. The already long scheduled flight was already tiring us out. But, what to do? We settled in for a long session of movies.

I asked my daughter along the way how she’d enjoyed her trip to Europe. Very much, she said, but could not wait to get back to Jamaica. She was thinking about sleeping in her own bed and having her own dog chewing her feet, not other people’s pets doing that. She thought about the food she liked: fish and chips were very good, but… We enjoyed our long flight. We did not enjoy the long wait for bags, and I thought back to the problems in London, wondering if all had gone well with the loading. After about 40 minutes our bags arrived, and we cleared Customs fast and headed out to meet the wife/mother. She happened to be standing next to one of her ‘friends’, a government minister, and we exchanged a few stories about our trip, before leaving him to wait for his family. It was very funny once we exited Norman Manley International Airport that my daughter’s eyes were struck by all Ā of Jamaica that she had missed: the views of mountains, the breezes off the sea, the goats in the road, the trash on the road side, men standing in the middle of the road begging, potholes. “It’s so nice to be back,” she said. Within minutes, we saw a car accident, with a small JPS car against a broken light pole. The irony of that struck us all. “Maybe, the driver was hurrying to cut off someone,” my wife quipped. She tried to figure out how the car had wrapped itself against the pole. We were back home.

We got home relatively quickly. My daughter was shocked to see her puppy, who had been shorn and sported his summer look, which was more rat than dog. What a life! She jumped indoors and he bounded after her. I laboured with the suitcases. What a life! The little girl and dog were getting back into touch with each other and I emptied suitcases and started telling a few short tales about the trip. I’d been sharing lots of pictures, so the sights were already familiar. My wife had to head off to a reception with the IMF’s MD, who had arrived earlier in the day. I asked to give my regards. Twenty hours of travel was taking its toll. I needed rest and I urged my child to do likewise: we were both in bed soon after 8pm local time (about 2am London time, so nearly 24 hours being awake). My wife told us that she had a breakfast date with the high and mighty, and that we had a drive to Port Antonio due up later today. Move it, move it!

I started to read the day’s paper and catch up with Wimbledon tennis on TV; that lasted about 15 minutes. Neither was that riveting. We had to get rested fast as we would be on the move again soon. Next stop, Rio, Brazil.

I have a week to learn some useful Portuguese phrases. Thankfully, the day just ending was a rest day in the World Cup; the knockout phase would start in earnest today. Brazil-Chile is on the docket. Serous things a gwaan.

No more need for French politesse. No more need for Cockney slang. Patois was back on the menu.

Good gully!

Somewhere between the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) and theĀ National Works Agency lies responsibility for clearing the corporate area’s gullies. Quite frankly, I do not care who is charged with the work. I just want them to do it, and do it fast. They are more than an eyesore; they are a source of health and hygiene problems. The stench…the stench. The rats and other vermin. Why does the city have to have these as constant features? Because government at all levels has failed? The proximate cause, as with many things in Jamaica, is likely to be ‘lack of funds’. That’s what I have read in a series of articles stretching over the past 15 years.

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A typical Kingston gully: this one in ‘uptown’ Kingston, and used as a regular place for garbage

When heavy rains come, of course, we get excessive flooding in Kingston. I suspect that, like the recent floods in rural areas like St. Mary, we’ll hear a lot of foot shuffling as the finger of blame searches for a target. In the city, we get the additional bonus of seeing lots of debris floating down the streets, as it searches for the quickest route to the sea. Yes, it will go there and cause another environmental problem. But, let’s leave the salubrity of the harbour out of it, for the moment.

KSAC has been pursuing other ‘issues’ with great vigour in recent times, notably, clearing the sidewalks of illegal vendors or vendors operating in undesignated areas. However, I have clearly missed the similarly vigorous campaign to clear gullies. I wonder if the vision that KSAC has is for these to be the basis of a bizarre perverse form of tourism–based on environmental degradation. ‘Brand Jamaica’ has many features, not all of them sweet-smelling and beautiful, but all part of the lasting image people have of this country. But, maybe, we have a new form of eco-tourism waiting to blossom. I wonder how many visitors from the USA, Canada, Great Britain or Germany would pay top dollar to take a tour of ‘the gullies of Kingston’.

Of course, the truly entrepreneurial people would see the enormous potential in this new venture. We could have tours of garbage dumps, official and unofficial. But, all of that is for the future. For now, I would like to think that the stink that should have been caused by the stink that has been caused by the gullies will be addressed. I do not love the visual art that is their array of food boxes, plastic bags, used diapers; rotting fruit and vegetables, tree cuttings, old fridges and washing machines, car parts and a few persons who have not figured out better accommodation. The goats have given up on trying to cope with the flow of rubbish being piled into the gullies. That tells you something.

When Royal visitors come to Kingston next month, I hope that they are taken on a tour of some of these sights of the city. Prince Edward would be thrilled. What? He wont be taken anywhere near them? But, but…Why? They’re part of us. Don’t soft soap the prince. Let him see all that we have to offer.

Touching our sensibilities

The image that we have of any place and its people is built up from the little pieces that we see of them over time. Sometimes, we get only one view, and our image is cemented.

When I move around Jamaica, I try to see as much as I can, knowing that I’ve only glimpsed parts of the whole. With no clear conclusion to be drawn, it’s sometimes all I can do to share the images. I take a lot of pictures of every day activities to help my memory. Sometimes, I cannot record visual images and have to rely on my memory of sounds, tastes, and incidents. Sharing that is sometimes all I can do.

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The boy who did not cry wolf. A few days ago, my daughter was at the National Aquatic Centre in Kingston for one of her regular practice sessions. A boy came into the office, where I happened to be standing. He was holding his goggles and trying to say something, but it was muffled by his sobbing. His eyes were filled with tears. I asked him what was wrong. “I have a cramp, sir,” he told me, “But coach did not believe me. he said I was a liar. I’m not lying, sir.” A lady in the office asked him for which club he swam, and he told her. I took a look at his leg. It was stiff, as if the hamstring had pulled. As I tried to move the leg, the boy screeched in pain. I eased the leg a little to see if the knee was damaged. He yelled. I sat him down and told him to relax. The lady asked the boy for a parent’s number. He gave his mother’s work number, then made a call. “No, Mummy. I’m not lying!” the boy said, through muffled tears. The lady in the office took the phone and spoke to the boy’s mother. She tried to explain what had happened and that the boy was in pain and distress. From what I heard, the mother was not having any of that. However, the office lady said the boy would be in the office for the next hour or so, till he was collected. The office lady then went to speak to the boy’s coach. Suffice to say, she went back the office. The coach never moved. When my daughter had finished her session, I went to the office to see if the boy was still there. He had just left, I was told. Make of all that what you will.

Directions, anyone?Ā People have a lot of fun mocking the way that Jamaicans give directions.

It’s the result of living in a rural society that often has things that don’t change too fast. I was just on the phone with a man with whom I’m due to partner tomorrow in a golf tournament. We’ve never met, and were planning to hit some balls together today. However, he decided to get a jump-start and make the trip today, instead of tomorrow morning. I told him I was not sure about where I needed to go, but would look it up on the Internet. “It’s easy man. Once you go into the town, you’re going to go past a gas station. Look for the fruit vendor, then turn right,” he told me. “Ask anyone, you can’t get lost.” That was a shorter version, but you get the gist. Let’s hope the vendor is not having his day at home, tomorrow.

Home delivery. A friend was very excited when he found out that I really enjoy Jamaican country food–yam, bananas, dumplings, callaloo, salt mackerel, etc. “Next time, my house keeper prepares something, I’ll call you,” he promised. The next day, he sent me a picture with the message “Yours is waiting”. I replied that I would pick mine up later, and if I did not have it for lunch then the next day’s breakfast was set. I set off for my school pickup; he lives adjacent to the school. When I near to his house, I saw his son on the road with a cell phone. He hailed me. I got to the house and my friend asked if I liked curry. I told him yes. He was waiting for some to be delivered and I could grab a bite, too. Meantime, my salt mackerel ‘breakfast’ was packed for me. “What?” I heard my friend shout. “Where? You’re joking!” He then told me that the food delivery man had gotten a puncture and his son was trying to locate where he was–hence, the boy walking with the phone. We figured out where the delivery man was; it was not far. I suggested, I take my friend to find his food, and we jumped in my car. We drove about half a mile and there was the delivery man–so near, but yet so far–on the roadside, with his bike parked and his food box ready for more deliveries. But, no chance of doing that till he got help.MobyDickG20100615CH We collected our food and paid the guy. I have to say the curry goat was a knockout, with some really nice roti. It’s from a restaurant calledĀ Moby Dick, in downtown Kingston, which I understand is famous, and been around since 1900.

Time to end downtown’s downpression

I have a strong belief that Jamaican policy makers have made major development mistakes over the years since Independence. I say this from the comfortable position of someone who has never had to run for elected political office. I was never politically ambitious, but have run to be president in organizations and I’ve been in the position of trying to build an idea into something real and convince other people to back me and that idea. But, that biographical aspect is an aside.

One reason for my view on development policies is the folly that has been the dereliction of downtown Kingston.

I walked briefly around Parade yesterday with a friend, and felt the energy that still surges through what is, in my opinion, the city’s heart. It is a bustling market place. Vendors line the streets with carts and wares laid out on the street and sidewalks.
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People walked in search of ordinary goods to buy: clothes, small electronic items, footwear, stationery. Shoppers headed to Coronation Market for fruit and vegetables.

The physical space is filled with voices and music: some melodious old-time tunes which would have fitted well decades ago, some modern dance hall throbbing and thumping. The smells are mixed: essence of patties, fried chicken and hamburgers tinged with the fragrances of spices and herbs šŸ™‚

The modern economic activity shows plenty of signs of Jamaicans’ love of imports, with ‘made in China’ very evident. Prices seemed cheaper than in either Midtown, say Half Way Tree, or Uptown.

The evidence of human energy and enterprise is clear, even if all that it shows is people’s willingness to survive. Everyone was trying to get by: good value seemed more important than brands. Cash is king: that’s no big thing in Jamaica. Don’t expect a receipt. Grab your goods in their bags and move on.

Decades ago, we might have seen charcoal sellers, people selling fabric to make clothes, tradespeople like shoemakers or seamstresses, sellers in front of shops might have been onselling items provided by shopkeepers who were happy to get sales inside or on the streets.

In many developed countries, this central area would have probably been part of a concerted effort to build an area that was friendly to pedestrians. Such transformations are often seeded by public funds but made viable by large amounts of private financing.

Kingston is not London’s Covent Garden or Manhattan’s Garment District–areas whose main economic purpose was dying out or moved and were given new life with new activities, modernised and cleaned but architecturally mostly unchanged. Nor is Kingston like a European city centre that was destroyed by war and offered opportunities to rebuild.

Downtown Kingston has suffered severe urban blight with characteristics similar to some inner city ghettoes of the USA, where race riots provided the backdrop for looting and arson and the destruction of much of the fabric of areas that were already on the margins. It is also like many urban areas where foreign migtants cluster. It shows clear evidence of flight by the previous residents, with those in stable jobs, with decent income, and aspirations to improve their lives ‘heading to the hills’, literally. The homes and business premises they left behind were inhabited by new entrants to ‘town’, often coming on farm trucks from ‘country’, and trying to build better lives in what seemed like a more vigorous and prosperous economic area.

Public sector priming of downtown activity has failed. By that, I mean it has not been an effective catalyst of sustained change. Bank of Jamaica and the Stock Exchange have been joined by some financial institutions, but they have only created a small buzz.

Nonfinancial private enterprises who have invested in downtown have also not found their efforts successful in building momentum and drawing in other investment, which would transform the larger area.

So, these efforts have produced a waterfront area that looks attractive but feels sterile. I don’t know if that is because somehow the companies there haven’t linked well with the existing economic activities. That would be understandable if the fear of ‘contamination’ leads to real or perceived barriers being created. It reminds me of London’s South Bank, which took a long time to blend the arts and its lovers with the immediate neighbourhoods.

That may be the next challenge for downtown, to get some organic change underway.

I can’t rewrite the development emphases of the past. I wonder how things might have gone if the government had decided on a well-articulated strategic plan for downtown to be financed by a bond flotation. It’s an approach that would have needed more political and public buy-in than Jamaica often has and perhaps would have tested real commitment to development in a way that was never possible given the traditional political tribalism.

I don’t understand the processes that led to the current messy state of affairs in Kingston, but I know that better must come. I know people who want to put their time and energy into reviving the area and that’s a good start.