Scenes from a day out: Mandeville deals with drought and recession

I wish I did not have to help run a set of errands when I visited Mandeville yesterday, as that would have allowed more exploring with questions than just my eyes. I try to take things in quickly.

The first thing I noticed, as usual, was the coolness. Leaving Kingston at 9am, the temperature was already 35 degrees C; arriving in Mandeville, it was 31. What a relief. The day also had hints of cloudiness, which darkened as the day went on. I prayed to see one drop of rain. Even though I thought it was cool, those living out in the countryside felt the heat, and stretched out on cardboard trying to nap and cool off.

The drought has hit this town just as in the city. But, sitting on the concrete step of a house outside Mandeville town, its effects seemed harsher. The ground was dry and dusty. Running water wasn’t available for everyone. Some hoped that a neighbour with a well or tank would take pity on them and give water. No guarantee. Alpart had built many houses in the area, and they all had big water tanks to catch rainwater. Many houses, also had modern black plastic tanks. Give thanks for tanks.

I’d brought some mangoes from my walk and they were received gladly. One had burst and become soft, so I readied to eat it myself. A jug of water came and I washed hand and mango together. The sweet fruit was nice to take the dustiness from my mouth. I threw the skin onto a pile of drying grass.

Chickens raced to peck at it. Waste not.

Those chickens were adults, but chicks that we want to raise can’t survive without water, and none meant that the little extra income selling them offered was gone, for the moment. But, a new ground had been prepared for sweet potatoes.

The yield looked good, judging by the bucketful that came to go into the car.

While chickens could not be raised, the need for the freezer was less, so it was turned off. That would calm the bill, and keep it around J$3,000 a month. Sounds little? Try that on no regular income. We suggested putting bag juice in the freezer and selling them for a little extra money. Maybe, but the shop up the road might still be preferred.

Children went off to have something to eat. It was well after noon, but the first meal was still not on the table. Such is life. I pondered my excessive eating on a few weeks of holiday. Really!

I’d brought some clothes I no longer wore–shirts and pants. They were well appreciated. Some bars of soap picked up from hotels, also went into the family stock. Thanks, again.

Bare feet kicked back and forth over dry red dirt.
The mining industry had brought many services and a better way of life. But, bauxite mining was done. Yet, the town is not falling to its knees. Money is around. I saw a new set of town houses going up, next to a block that had been started but never finished.
image Doors close, doors open. A man cleared his yard of dry and dying plants. The paint on the house was impeccable, across the road, likewise, and a new colour too. Many people here have foreign income, mainly from time spent working abroad–England, Canada, Cayman Islands–and get protection and gains from the falling exchange rate. Some homes stand vacant, though looking spruce, their owners delayed abroad facing judgement for crimes that allowed them to build their mansions.

But, they have mouths to feed. The hardware store was busy. Pipes to fix, at least, or just top-up cars to buy. The golf course was like a desert, brownish and crisp like toast. Not a soul in sight. Town was quiet too. The market still bustled but not so much. It was Thursday. When pay comes then things would pick up. Taxis hope for rides.

We stopped by the pharmacy before heading back to the furnace of Kingston. I spoke to the manager, a friend and keen observer of the Jamaican scene. He told me that I looked and sounded more Jamaican. I took the compliment as a sign of time well-spent over the year. We talked about the perennial problem: the conundrum of Jamaica. Our views differ in detail, though not much in direction.

Many people know what needs to be done, but have come to a deal: let’s not tamper too much with what gives us the lifestyle. Work just enough. Take few risks. Enjoy the time off and leisure opportunities. Yet, we knew that some people will scratch and try hard to do more than that, yet have little to show for it. Had Madame Lagarde come recently to see how Jamaica had been taking so much bitter medicine and no rioting? Maybe. Once she had a Red Stripe and some jerk chicken, she understood the coping mechanism.

He feels that most Jamaicans don’t want to know what’s going on. They are not like Bruce Golding, curious about why the police commissioner resigned: he’s gone, who’s next? They don’t have much interest in GDP. How could they, after nearly five decades of seeing it putter along at one percent a year? But, of course, that’s a lie: “Cecil, you checked if the barrel reach?” Don’t upset the apple cart.

We headed back to town. I listened to the radio. Reparations Committee discussing the billions of dollars that are due to slaves and their offspring. I was asked about getting a ship to go to Africa. I pressed the gas pedal. Minister Phillips is introducing harsher tax measures, in a country where only half of registered businesses are tax compliant. Fix the leaks, first? Lawyers and politicians railed about our constitutional rights being trampled. I thought about the tax scofflaws. Trampled? Perspective is all.

Arriving in Kingston, at nearly 6pm, the temperature was over 37.5. Yikes! It must have been a scorcher here. So, glad I took a day out in the coolness.

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.

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.

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.

Cut my grass? Take my shirt. Why not more barter in Jamaica?

We shouldn’t be surprised that hard times lead to creative solutions. Several years ago, a spate of articles focused on the development of bartering in developed countries when the recession started to pinch people.

One inventive idea in New York, ‘Art Barter’, was an art exhibition where pieces could be acquired for anything BUT money: art was presented anonymously, only with reference numbers.

Another idea, in Pennsylvania, was ‘time dollars’, where members were credited for services they provide to other members–cooking, housekeeping, car rides, home repairs, etc.. For each hour of work, one ‘time dollar’ is deposited into a member’s account, good for services offered by other membersone-good-turn-a3Time Banks USA, which was formed in 1995,  indicated that well over 100 such schemes existed across the USA in 2011. As its website reports “TimeBanking is a medium of exchange — like money, but having its own qualities. It was designed in 1980 by TimeBanking founder Edgar Cahn to reward “decency, caring, and a passion for justice.” Cahn was a law fellow at the London School of Economics and a famous social justice advocate. Time banks or ‘community exchanges’ have developed worldwide.

While I can find evidence of formalised community exchange or time banking in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, I cannot find any information about such schemes in Jamaica, West Indies. To clarify, Jamaica has a barter exchange, Anbell Trade Exchange Limited, recently created in June 2012, but it’s aim is to trade Jamaican goods internationally. As the government minister said, it was Jamaica bartering to the world.

However, I know that people in Jamaica are bartering. I’ve known of this happening here for decades, well back into the history of the country. People in my family talk about bringing produce up from St. Elizabeth, known as the nation’s bread basket (especially mangoes), to exchange with people in Manchester, well-known for its citrus and Irish potatoes. It was simple and gave people what they needed directly.

More recently, I heard of a Kingston city dweller who could not pay his landscaper so traded some used shoes and shirts for the man’s grass cutting and lawn care services: the ‘seller’ was happy as the clothing and footwear were not much worn by him, and the ‘buyer’ was very happy with his new gears.

Barter in such circumstances is not as sustainable as when you offer time or produce as your assets will be depleted, and when you end up naked or just with the socks you got last Christmas, you may still need to ‘pay’ for things.

I have some hefty medical bills to pay, after my father spent a few weeks at the University hospital in Kingston. I jokingly offered to work off some of the money due by washing dishes. What was funny was that one of the hospital administrators said “Nothing is off the table”. Maybe, I need to take her at her word.

I know that one of Jamaica’s major problems in a high rate of unemployment, especially amongst young people. Bartering for them may not be a cool option, but if it’s about getting food into their bellies. Of course, hunger is only one of the needs to be satisfied, but one step at a time. Working is one of those social actions that make a person aware that they have some significant worth, and if it’s in exchange for some goods instead of money shouldnt make it an unacceptable option.  Europe and other major developed areas also have ‘work for food and accommodation’ schemes are also popular.

Jamaica’s economy and society have been boxed in by many problems, so maybe it’s time for more ‘out of the box’ thinking to get out of some of these problems.