A piece of the action

You never know what life will throw your way. Yesterday, I took my car to be serviced–a new expierience in Jamaica. I arrived an hour early for my appointment (8.30am), and was glad that I did: it meant my car was early in line. “Half a day,” I was told was the amount of time that would be needed. Would that be half a work day or twelve hours? Either way, I had plans.

I’d arranged with a friend to meet her at a little ‘breakfast club’. The car dealer took me to another part of New Kingston and I settled into my healthy breakfast (herb and fruit tea, aloe drink and shake). It was hard to feel anything but virtuous. I decided to settle into the lounge room and do my daily writing. It was going to be a challenge. The conversation going on around me seemed innocent enough, at first. Then I detected a little touch of innuendo creeping in. People were talking about sex and sexual relations and sexual needs. I tried to focus on the intriguing topic of the PM and the media. Like a child caught between tidying its room or going to play with friends, my mind wandered.

I wont betray anyone by going into too much detail, but the conversations that were going on were really amusing. The double-entendres started to flow–aided and abetted by a writer not directly involved in the chatter 🙂 One of the ladies mentioned that this was supposed to be ‘no panties day’ and wondered who else had remembered. “I didn’t get that memo!” another lady said, with a clear tone of disappointment. “Is it every Friday?” I held back a snigger. In a room of six women and three men, I wondered if this was being too risqué. The other men didn’t seem to be bothered. The ladies joked about how young men needed to “do their thing”, and how it was better to send them out well-protected, so that they didn’t get themselves into too much trouble. “Send him off with a three months supply, sister!” I held my head and tried to focus on the image of security men pushing young reporters.

One of the women noted that I was dangerous and how I was “looking with his ears”. One, younger man, became the focus of the ladies, as they teased him about how he was being so quiet. The ladies started to joke about who was really his favourite. I wondered what this place was going to turn into. Suddenly, one of the women jumped up and plonked herself onto the young man’s lap. “You think he like you better now?” The man smiled. The other women laughed. “Cedric, can I have lunch on you today?” another asked. I suggested that she think again about the preposition she used, or whether she meant it to have the proposition implied. She smiled back knowingly. “‘On him’ is fine!” We all understood that all was understood. By, with, or alongside, were not going to replace ‘on’.

I let the rest of the group get on with their tales of relationships and who needed to be less insecure about their men. I should have had a tape recorder running. I tried to keep writing.

A Jamaican friend of mine had shared with me once his theory about the problem of the Jamaican economy and its low productivity: it’s all because people were too busy having sexual encounters or arranging them.

Fast forward…

I eventually got my car at about 2pm and was due to head home. I decided to try to find an organization, with whom I’d been trying to register for weeks but had been stymied because I could not complete a form online and I did not have opportunity to print it and send it in. Their office was now on my route. I turned into the street and looked for a sign. I forgot. In Jamaica, many businesses don’t have signs. You know the street number or location and then have to look. I got to the gate of a commercial compound, that looked like it housed a restaurant, too. The guard told me to “go round the back”. I drove on slowly and saw men rebuilding the compound and relaying tarmac. I was uneasy and backed out. A man told me that I was in the right place, though. “Just go to the back and up the stairs.” I looked through some small trees and saw another building ahead. I strolled on warily and up the stairs. No sign on the building. I saw four doors in front of me, when I got inside the building. No signs on any of them. I peered through a glass door, behind which I saw a lady working. “Is this the JGA?” I asked. “Next door,” she told me. I went through the adjacent wooden door and found the ‘staff’ hard at work–two ladies, surrounded by paper and cards, and a computer on each desk. They were the JGA. I asked them about a sign. I got a look. I dropped the topic. In no time, I had completed my form and was ready to head out.

I dallied a little in the courtyard, where a picturesque array of buildings made up a little ‘village’ of bars and eating places. I asked whether the place was open and was told that it had been refurbished and reopened a few nights ago. “It’s an adult night spot. We open at 4pm.” I thought back to my friend’s hypothesis. Partying from 4? Well, not everyone works 9-to-5, I thought. I logged the place in my mind to think about exploring sometime. I then headed back to the car and drove out of the compound. My eyes stopped on something I’d noticed before but not really registered.

I’d noticed a few women standing on the street. Not really that odd, except that the area was semi-industrial looking and they were dressed as if they were headed to a night club. The light bulb came on in my head. A few weeks ago, I’d gone to the theatre to see a play–Patrick Brown’s Ladies of the night.

I was now seeing ‘ladies of the day’. One lady, dressed is a very short skirt, then stepped to the kerbside as a car pulled up. I really should have had my video recorder on. I could see her lean down toward the passenger side window and start to talk. She nodded, then shook her head. She then stepped back on the kerb, like a sentry back to position. The car pulled off. No panky for Hanky, today, I thought. My eyes then took in a couple of other ladies, each dressed in neon colours–one wearing several shades of pink, even her hair. The heels were very high; the skirts very tight.  Shades of grey would need to be Shades of pink, if a Jamaican adaptation were written.

Sexual activity is also affected by economic conditions. The Economist produced a piece some months ago, on how sex doesn’t sell in recessionary times. Was Jamaica any different, given that it has been in near permanent recession for decades? A comical article about ‘the trade’ appeared in one of the local papers a few weeks ago, which had me laughing. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if people were really ‘transacting’ for as little as J$50 (that 50 US cents!). Supply and demand working in unison.t-rob-sun-20-oct Some local businessmen in the western part of Jamaica recently proposed that prostitution be legalised and regulated. Was that going to help reduce the government’s financial deficit? Did I want to do a scholarly study on how this particular economic activity had survived in a stagnant economy? People talk about economic conditions remaining soft. Were the ‘value’ shoppers finding things harder to come by? Were the sellers having to come up with bargain offers–buy one, get one free? Some big issues to ponder.

My mind went back a few hours. Those who wanted or needed to ‘pay to play’ are often intriguing when you think that there is plenty of action available for free.

Lilliput, Jamaica: In much need of Gulliver

We are in the midst of Restaurant Week in Jamaica. That’s a great opportunity for eating places across the island to show case their fare, flair, and style. I had no intention on Friday of heading to any restaurants to try all of that. I was headed on a road trip with some friends to play a practice round of golf in Montego Bay, at the beautiful Cinnamon Hill course. While we were there, we had a conversation about caddies. They are a microcosm of many things problematic about Jamaica. Many of them have done their jobs a long time. Many of them are good golfers. Many of them are not good caddies: they may be great bag carriers but they are often average advisers. Many of them do not appear to have been trained in any systematic way, learning on the job. It’s a problem for golfers to work with them and it’s a problem for them because they can’t progress far if they are just average. The whole matter of training staff occupied many minutes of our driving to the north coast and also while we were playing a tricky course–for me, the first time. But, let’s say that the caddies we used did a decent job and would not be rejected out of hand on another round. Final ball in the cup, tired bodies and minds needed refreshment, so we showered and headed back towards Kingston. We had some good food options for ‘road food’ en route: a great jerk spot or a great spot for roast yam and salt fish. But, our driver knew a cool beach-side spot just a few minutes from the course, located near the village of Lilliput.

If you’ve read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, you’ll know it starts with the hero arriving at the island of Lilliput, whose inhabitants are very small people, about 6 inches tall. Gulliver is naturally a giant amongst them. We soon felt like Gulliver after we took our seats at our wooden table in the sand. The sand flies and mosquitoes were quick to come to serve us, biting and setting up itches with minutes. We begged a waiter for some repellant spray. Our waiter was a young man, who seemed keen but very raw. We looked at the menu and saw that the bar was on the list of Restaurant Week participants–offering a three-course meal for J$1700 (about US$17). We asked him about items on the menu. We should have taken our cue from his reaction. He looked around and asked some colleagues about what ‘whole fish’ was being served: snapper he was told. We asked about the appetizers: jerked chicken wings took my interest, but one of my play mates wanted fish tea. We look down the rest of the menu and decided that the seaside demanded we eat sea food. So, one order of brown stew fish, one order of steamed fish, one order of lobster al fredo. Within minutes the manager was with us asking that we come to the kitchen and choose our ‘one pound’ fish. We followed like puppies, excited at the prospect of seeing what we were destined to enjoy. But, again, we should have heard the sirens: none of the one-pounders came up to a pound. We suggested that some of the bigger fish find their way onto our plates. We went back to our seats and ordered our liquid refreshments: coconut water for me, lemonade and light beer for my pals. A good night ahead, we thought. Our driver told us about the great meals he’d had here before. The sea was calm. We did not hear the brewing storm.

Fifteen minutes passed and our drinks had not yet arrived. Antsy, we eyed our server, who was playing with cocktail shakers at the bar: none of our drinks were cocktails. Strange, we thought. We hailed the youth. He came and muttered something, then went away. The drinks came a few minutes later, in unnecessarily elaborate glasses. Half an hour passed and we were now champing at the bit. Our driver signalled for our man, again. “Do you have any peanuts or crackers we can chew on? We’re ravenous.” The youth shook his head and told us “They’re working on your food. It will come soon.” Like snow, we should have thought. He came back in a minute with the soup…alone. Ten minutes later, our orders of chicken wings appeared, with plates of fries (which we’d not seen offered, but we welcomed). Our soup drinker had already finished so helped us eat our hefty appetizers, really a meal in themselves. Hungry bodies fed feverishly on the little leglets and wings. Nice! We sank back and looked forward to our main courses. We should have found hammocks.

Fifteen minutes later out came the brown stew fish dish…alone.Chill out food Fitting? Sort of. Our friend had had his soup earliest, too. Then five minutes later, the al fredo arrived…alone. The scrawny youth started to talk. “We have a problem with the other fish. They served it to another table and are starting to prepare another one…” Steamed fish does not cook quickly. That was a blow to my stomach. We asked how that could be. What kind of system did this restaurant have that meant that food came out of the kitchen and went to the ‘wrong’ table? None, it seemed. We asked the waiter to send the manager to us.  He went away. She did not come to us. Minutes later, the youth came to us again. My driver gave him a lesson in customer service and how to respond to requests to speak to managers. He told us he was new and just a week into the job. He went away.

A man came to our table and he and our driver got into excited talk about a party. Then the visitor explained that the manager was new and was in the process of ‘restructuring’ the staff, firing many and having to hire new people. Things he’d been slow in the kitchen. We agreed that that had not changed. We explained our chaotic situation.

My two friends finished their meals and wanted to wash up, so went to the bathroom. I sat patiently, waiting…. The manager came towards my table, and turned away to take a phone call. She came back towards me and turned away again, for another call. Like waves, I thought. At last, she arrived and explained that things had just been a nightmare. She talked about having to work with her new staff and on top the bathrooms had flooded. I told her bluntly that the meal was “a disaster”. She agreed, and said that she would deal with the meal and the bill accordingly. She mopped a sweaty brow and headed to the kitchen.

My friends returned shaking their heads. “Man, my feet are so wet!” one said. The flooded bathroom had been ankle-deep in water. They were shocked that I was still meal-less. Well over two hours had passed. I explained that the manager and I had had friendly words. But, still no food in sight.

Ten minutes later, a bold striding waiter came my way, with his tray help proudly aloft. “Your fish…” It looked lovely and all of my expectations were about to get their real test in the eating. The fish, dressed with steamed okras, onions, and carrots, looked great, with steamed bammy at the side. I patiently began to work with knife and fork. My friends chilled and talked about how hard they found it to train staff. We were back at our earlier talk about caddies, but this time dealing with restaurant or other staff. “Some of them don’t want to learn…” “Some of them can’t learn…” “Some of them think they know it all because they’ve worked for years…” “Some of their managers just want to pick up their pay…” Problems in training. Problems in attitude. I couldn’t comment on either except that I was suffering from something not working well.

“Man, you’re working that fish!” one of our trio said. I smiled. “It was good. Worth the wait, but that was long,” I replied. Done, we were now focusing on a three-hour drive ahead, over the mountains in the dark, with tired and aching bodies. We had our left over bagged and asked for the desserts to be boxed. We got ready to pay and leave. My meal had been ‘comp-ed’, so we only had to pay for two dinners, plus extras. Paying then took another ten minutes. How else could it be?

Two and a half hours for a slow, lazy, beach-side dinner. Not what we had come for. Tired, but filled with food, we edged back to the car and headed onto the road. Back to discussing how a country with so much potential was losing its way through so many little things that aren’t done well. The little people of this Lilliput needed a few giants to help them out. Situated in the strip that is most traveled by foreign visitors and having a week to showcase their best one restaurant had failed miserably. Did they need Gordon Ramsay? Did they just need something more basic? Was the owner and manager able to tackle the little things that were making them grow in the wrong direction. The food was very good, but the experience is not just about the eating. The meal will be memorable for many wrong reasons. We are due to be back in this area next week to play a tournament, with over a hundred players and supporters in tow. Our idea of trying this place out as a means of suggesting it for a group meal was not going to be more than another idea. Failing where we ought to find it easier to succeed seemed too familiar a tale.

We’re not servile

I not a stickler for good service, but I do get irritated quickly by poor service, whoever delivers it.

Much of the discussion about Jamaica’s economic woes focuses on our evident lack of competitiveness. We saw it upfront and lamentably last week, when the national senior football team squeaked out a draw with Costa Rica in a World Cup Qualifier. Not many local fans went to the match, believing that the team had little chance of qualifying. I was on the road and listened to the commentary on radio. The broadcasters kept on saying how the team was not playing with any fire or sense of urgency and giving no sign that they wanted to win. Any other result would mean the death of our chances, realistically. The draw left us mathematically still able to make it. But, we did not compete well.

The hero for Jamaica, with his goal in added time was “Tuffy” Anderson. He is a battler. In his word he said afterwards that his style was to inflict pain on his opponents and let them know that he was ever present. He has a simple objective–to score goals. Man on a mission. Jamaica now loves “Tuffy”, another symbol of endeavour which we can admire.

Service quality is one of those measures people like to consider when talking about competitiveness, especially for countries that live off tourism or some other activity with a lot of personal contact. A long debate has raged in the Caribbean about whether former colonies, like Jamaica, have a hang up about serving, confusing service with servitude. Of course, the discussion gets complicated when most of the visitors are white and come from the UK or USA. It may not take much for a service worker to bridle and get angry when asked to do something and yell “I’m not a slave!” or “Slavery days done!” Let’s not worry about the ‘N’ word. We dread the ‘S’ word. The legacy of slavery is hard to shift, and it will take much for its bitterness to be drawn out of our blood. However, many Jamaicans love to serve. We have a society filled with people who have to make a living from getting customers to buy from them directly, and that won’t work if service is bad.

I was buying fruit at the weekend, but my regular lady was not at her stall. Yet, the stall was open and ready for my business. I bought and left. I’d been well served. I got what I wanted. Everything was nicely put into bags. My daughter got her jelly coconut and a straw and did not have to move from the back seat of the car. I was about to pay, but noted that the lady had totaled wrongly, too low; she rechecked but then decided to round down the total. Give her an A.

Street traders are usually careful to not offend customers. Often, competition is a mere few steps away. Poor value for money usually ends with fewer sales.

I also went to a pharmacy over the weekend. One of the staff asked me if I was “getting through” and finding what I needed. I told her I was okay. The pharmacist was very funny and helped us get what we needed, checking if we were happy with generic medicines or other brands. I checked with her about getting a senior citizen discount. She laughed, when she looked at me, but went to check. The price she’d quoted dropped like a rock after she came back. “They hadn’t put in the discount because your father’s age wasn’t on the prescription,” she said. I told her that I knew the store manager and would let him know how she and others had been very attentive. By chance, he called me the next morning. I passed on my compliments. He told me he was trying to focus on better customer service, so was pleased it seemed to be working. Give them A+.

On Monday, I had to act as a medical courier, trying to get some nutrition medication for my father, who’s in hospital. I ended up on a mini tour of West Kingston. In the process, I found myself doing battle with companies who would only take cash payments. I argued the case about risks; inefficiencies of their having to handle cash and then make bank deposits; how customers could be inconvenienced at point of sale even when they had ample funds on debit or credit cards. In the end, I made partial payment for one item, could not get another item until I had trekked over town to find a bank and withdraw a load of cash, returned to buy the second item and then went to complete the purchase of the first item. It took me about three hours to do that and a lot of driving around. With cards accepted, I would have been done in about an hour. Going to the bank added an hour to my task, and the time it took to get through in line was long, say 15 minutes. That’s costly, overall. Admitted, the sellers normally dealt with companies or hospitals, but to have no means to take other payments than cash seemed stuck in time. Give the bank a B. Give the pharmaceutical distributors a B-.

20130916-174219.jpgThese were just spontaneous examples of service delivery. Of course, the matter of service delivery is much broader and more complicated. However, I’ve been struck in recent months how few instances of irate customer reactions I’ve seen. I’ve had some very good experiences with companies, big and small, on the phone, and also in person: helpfulness has been very apparent. Good humour has also been quick to appear.

I mentioned to an aunt last week how I had been well treated when I was buying ice cream. She laughed and jabbed that the girls obviously liked me, meaning young men get treated well but older women didn’t get anything special. I couldn’t deny that. But, I know that older people get some extra care, even if it’s just the senior citizen area in the banks, with comfortable chairs, while others have to stand in line.

Our poor competitiveness shows up in the speed with which things get done. It’s slower and
part of that comes from a willingness to engage. Many more things only happen here if you see someone in person, and better if it’s the right person. But some engagement may be inappropriate. I can’t say if it’s too much, but when you overhear chatter about relatives or friends mixed with the business you may feel miffed. That’s part of being a small country. We also tend to be deliberate. It seems that it’s showing extra care, but it means more time. We’re often not too upset if things take time, but worth the wait. This all begs a question about whether this means we are worse at doing things than, say, Americans or Europeans or southeast Asians. Would we be getting much better service with more speed?

My gut feeling is that organizational systems need some serious overhaul. Inertia has dug itself in nicely in many activities. I loved the look on the manager’s face when I went through all the reasons why cash only seemed bad for business. “Thanks for your suggestion,” he’d said. Why do I feel that nothing will change there? Maybe, for the same reason I think he felt comfortable with his feet up talking to a woman in his office.

Be patient with us

“Returning residents” to Jamaica were given special status in 1993, if they fit certain eligibility requirements; that status helps defray some possible financial costs and administrative headaches associated with moving home and family from one country to another. The government now has a unit to deal with the returnees. It’s not easy to measure this group or judge the importance of such persons to Jamaican society or if their influence is growing and positive: data on voluntary returnees were not collected before 1993 and they are incomplete, based on applications for Customs privileges and covering the applicant not the household. (In the raw data, deportees now far outnumber voluntary returnees.)

I visited Rockfort Mineral Baths on Tuesday morning, with my 9 year-old daughter. We’d planned to take her maternal grandparents to sample the waters, but their ailments were hampering them and they decided not to go. How ironic, I thought: the waters should make them feel better. Anyway, we arrived and got ourselves changed and into the main pool in no time. I reminisced about how things had been when I was a boy, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when my father would take my mother and me on his motorcycle. I have a vivid memory of being ‘taught’ to swim at Rockfort, when my father threw me into the pool. You sink or swim 🙂

The bath water was cool and refreshing compared to regular Kingston heat of over 32 degrees C. As I waded and she did hand stands and splits, a man nearby started a conversation, after he overheard one of my daughter’s remarks. We ended up talking quite a while. He and his wife live in the southern US and his wife wants to return to Jamaica; he’s reluctant. We talked about the pros and cons. Would his health benefits be transferable? What about the cost of living? He noted that many goods and services are much more expensive in Jamaica (about 50% more, he estimated) and unlikely to be offset by cheaper goods such as local fruit and vegetables. He was especially concerned at how costly housing may be, even though he hoped that his long-time membership of one of the building societies would convey benefits in lower borrowing costs. He hoped that their US home would be paid off before any move, and the proceeds would then cover a large percentage of the cost of buying a home in Jamaica. He talked about how desirable Mandeville seemed, and I told him something about my parents’ return and how they had been very happy to have settled in Mandeville, which has a large population of returning residents. Great climate. Small town, but big enough to meet many needs. Nice pace of life. Not difficult access to most parts of the island, especially with the highway covering most of the journey to Kingston. He had plenty to think about. I joked with his wife and sister-in-law about the ‘burdensome’ decision he was trying to make. They laughed: “Jus’ come, man!”

I explained to this man some of my concerns ahead of our recent move. I’d wondered a lot about the disruption to my daughter’s education and other aspects of child development. I’d thought a lot about the level of crime, and had a firm refusal in my mind regarding living in any barred house. I’d reflected on my father’s experience of coming back to Jamaica and being considered a foreigner: I did not have a long history like him before leaving, but I could understand the possible emotional pain. It’s funny that a dear cousin called me an “alien” the other day. But, my concerns found their place on a shelf and I decided to go with the flow of enthusiasm that my daughter showed and her excitement for a new adventure.

When we came out of the pool and were getting dressed, we met two ladies who’d also been enjoying their baths; they were taking photographs. I asked if they’d take pictures of my daughter and me; they agreed. While we joked around, one of the ladies prompted me to point out that I had just returned to Jamaica to live. “Be patient with us! It’s worth it,” she said. She told how she’d returned in 1973, after living in NW London, and how friends had told her she’d go insane once she returned to Jamaica. “It nah ‘appen yet,” she told me, gleefully. I tried to reassure her that the patience needed here was much the same as anywhere, and the problems were usually people, people and other people 🙂 So far, my need for patience hadn’t really been stretched. She laughed.

Returning residents have no clearly identifiable marks, but that does not mean they cannot be identified. Stories abound about how they have been targeted for robberies: followed from the airport; trailed when they go to banks, building societies or post offices to collect or cash pension payments.

It’s easy to understand that it would be challenging for someone who had left Jamaica when was relatively peaceful and returned to find a social environment that is turbulent or violent, and an economy that is supposedly faltering most of the time. The police, for example, have realised that they have to the needs of the returning community, whose expectations are consistent with the countries from where they are coming.

My experience as someone who has returned to Jamaica–though not necessarily what is defined as a returning resident–leads me to believe that patience is needed, though not necessarily an extraordinary amount. Jamaican natural things happen in their own sweet time: the seasons are different from those in Europe and North America, but they give what they give, be it certain fruit or flowers. But, they are mostly worth the wait–mango season will soon be over and then we’ll miss the smell and taste we’ve enjoyed the past few months. Many local foods grow or can be stored so that they are around all year–I’ve never known yam or sweet potatoes to not be available. As fits a country with strong rural ties, people are also aware of the need to make best use of what is available, so pickling or preserving fruit and vegetables is still very common–I’m looking forward to more of my friend’s chutney. Sure, things like fish may be subject to weather conditions and other seasonal variations. But, nature is mostly kind in Jamaica. Will I feel the same as hurricane season takes hold and if we’re find ourselves buffeted by frighteningly strong wind and rain? The sun shines every day and sometimes it’s hard to remember when it last rained: having had two afternoons of heavy showers in Kingston, we’re blessed with really cool afternoons and grass that was browning and burning has a chance to revive.

But, people will try your patience. Every society has its systems or lack of them. The people working those and how they are constructed have often been the reason why the patience of Job has to be invoked. Jamaica has its special needs in this context. Taxi drivers will test the patience of many: stopping when and where they feel like a fare may be. Some bureaucrats will want to show you that they control your life and making seemingly simple tasks as hard as pushing a rock uphill. Some processes seem to be geared to move backwards not forwards: I’m still amazed at how long and tedious was the process of insuring a car, something I did with a short phone call in the US, but which took some two hours in an office in Kingston. I don’t relish the prospect of visiting a tax office. Things that cannot happen without cash payments, whether that is really to make it easier for the provider in terms of cash flow or procuring materials or if it’s to evade taxes, can test my patience: I’ve lived for decades with a wallet that was not stuffed with cash, knowing that my credit card was easy to use. Now, I ask “Do you take card?”

I went to the famous ‘Gloria’s’ restaurant in Port Royal1012452_10151594456149022_1581100695_n after the mineral baths trip. A friend had warned me that the wait for food would be long, “but it’s worth the wait” she’d added. I can’t remember when I’d last eaten there and I was excited to take my daughter, but gave her the warning. Shock and horror: our food arrived with no real delay–admittedly, the place was quiet, but things seemed to move well for others as it filled up.

Heavy rain seems to slow everything down: traffic leaving town last night was ridiculous at 7-8pm: it didn’t matter much when I was headed in the opposite direction, but I was shocked that it was still there when I was coming back an hour later. Don’t be in a hurry if it rains in Jamaica, whether the delays are caused by potholes or more caution or silly accidents or people just loving the rain.

Yet, by contrast, there are people who want to try to make your life easier and for whom one should have ample patience. On my way to the baths, I stopped at the Gas Products (Gas Pro) depot, which is just nearby. We’d been searching for a cylinder of propane for a barbecue grill. Simple enough in the US: pick one up from a gas station (not any, but many) or even a supermarket at certain times of year. No big thing. In Jamaica, it’s not so. One fruitless Saturday showed me that. When I asked around, none of the suggested places supplied them–hardware store, gas station, etc.. Go to the source, my boy! A very nice lady told me that I had to buy an empty cylinder from Price Mart and then I could have it filled. “A so wi do it!” Solution found.

Not every Jamaican emigrant left on The Empire Windrush in 1948, immigrants_450x300going headlong to help England. Not everyone fled a country that they felt was being pushed into the ground by socialist policies. Many left in calm and collected fashion. Many left to study or work and stayed much longer than they expected–that’s an aspect of migration to which many can relate. The decision to return voluntarily may have many causes, and will pose many challenges. Returning anywhere is not a simple turning back of the clock. We know that from several jaunts in different countries and managing the return to our home in the US. Nothing remained unchanged, and how one deals with that can be the answer to how much patience is needed. I have plenty of experience to draw on in that regard, but that does not mean it will be smooth and easy, but it does not have to be painful.

Dollar, dollar, dollar…

IMF staff include some of the best-trained economists on this planet. So, I am not going to put my head in a noose and say that they don’t know what they are talking about. The latest staff report includes one of those phrases which those who are being trained to write should see in a class called ‘How to not say what you mean’: ‘To support growth, it [the IMF] called for measures to boost competitiveness, including structural reforms as well as greater exchange rate flexibility.’ When most people think about ‘flexibility’, they imagine some lithe body, writhing and being put into positions that sometimes seem to defy physics. When economists use the term, it also means movement, but not necessarily back and forth. In this case, I will call a euphemism a euphemism: flexibility means depreciation or devaluation. It takes a while, but those latter words are actually used in the report: ‘A flexible exchange rate regime should play a central role in Jamaica’s macroeconomic policy framework and its structural agenda going forward. The recent nominal exchange rate depreciation has been useful, by reversing part of the overvaluation of the real exchange rate that has emerged in recent years, thus supporting price competitiveness…’ Now, that we understand what the ‘medicine’ is…

Just as I arrived back in Jamaica, after 50 plus years abroad, I witnessed a new milestone for its currency: it touched a low point against the US dollar of 100. There were no cheers on the street. Thankfully, my arrival was low-key and no one has put together my arrival and this milestone and made cause and effect.

Countries, rightly, feel a sense of pride in the international value of their currency. However, in trying to hold onto a particular value when pressures are building for it to be ‘flexible’ (and I do mean in either direction), resistance may be useless and can be downright dangerous to the health of politicians and central bank governors. I remember one of the famous occasions in UK economic history, when in 1967 the British Pound was devalued from US$2.40 to $2.80: the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (a pretty decent economist and Oxford don), famously said “It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.” (It’s worth listening to the broadcast as a lesson in how a politician may try to tell a population some bitter news.) The British gnashed their teeth. Stiff upper lips quivered. Chips fell where they would (but not out of bags of fish :-)) Now, some 45 years later, Britain has not become annexed to the US, but the pound is worth about US$1.50–much stronger than in Harold’s day. Unfortunately, Britain paid a heavy price of higher inflation along the way, and the pounds in the pocket of most people are now worth much less, and weigh very heavily when you’re standing at the bar waiting to order a pint.

j$Jamaican cartoonists are very good at vivid imagery and the falling Jamaican dollar has not been spared their taunting. I’m not one who believes that the planned depreciation will have a major impact on Jamaica’s root problems of low productivity growth and competitiveness. Those things need to improve but that needs to come from people having a different mindset. Granted, the experience of having the value of their money being worth much less may give them pause for thought. Overall, I don’t believe that Jamaicans don’t want to do better for themselves and their country. My experiences this past week gave me an insight into what is good and not so good about some parts of the economy.

  • I needed a cell phone repaired. On Thursday afternoon, I took it to a store in New Kingston that sells and repairs phones. I’d bought a phone case from them and thought they were very attentive, whatever the situation. The young lady (early 20s) there told me the cost of repair and how long it would take. She also told me that I could trade-in the phone and get another one, paying a difference in price, if needed. I did the sums of cost of repair (and no certainty the damaged phone would work) against cost of new phone (with 30 day guarantee). I went for the trade-in. She gave the damaged phone to a technician to evaluate and meanwhile contacted their warehouse to get the new phone delivered. She told me the process would be about an hour. I waited, hoping that things would move faster. In the meantime, people came in and asked for things, and I noticed how the lady answered crisply and courteously to every question, including “We deal with everything but Blackberry; for that you need to go next door.” She spent about five minutes on the phone with a customer who was apparently not able to get the phone she wanted for her daughter: “It’s the shippers, Miss. We rely on them and if they don’t deliver the product, it’s we and you who suffer.” My kid was at swim practice, so after waiting a while, I left to pick her up. When I got back, the new phone was there, but the lady’s face signalled a problem: “The case is cracked. It must have been damaged in shipping. I don’t want to sell it to you and compromise our business.” We then spent half an hour trying to decide what phone in the shop would be an acceptable substitute. It was now well past 6pm, when the store should have been closed. Eventually, with the help of my 9 year-old, we decided on a new phone and wrapped up the deal. It was now 6:30, and we were late for dinner. I noticed that some other customers were in the store and still dealing with their problems–all happy to spend a bit more time given the prospect that things would work out. On Friday afternoon, just as I got back from a trip to Mandeville, my phone rang; I saw the number and knew it was the lady from the phone store: “Hello, Mr. Jones. I just wanted to check how things were going with the phone and if everything was alright.” We chatted for a few minutes. I was impressed: it was service that went a little further than expected or really needed and it made me (the customer) feel good.
  • On Saturday, I needed to round off the repair by having the SIM card replaced by the phone company: the new phone needed a different size SIM. I took the phone to a LIME store in Half Way Tree, where I was told initially that the change would be a “24 hour process”. Then the representative realised that the account was not in my name, but was for an organization, so I couldn’t make the change there but would have to go to the ‘main office’, which was just a few minutes down the road. Off I went. “Well, to make this change, Mr. Jones, you’ll need a letter from the organization…” I frowned 😦 We talked a little and after a few sentences, and I was asked for some ID. I gave two documents. Moments later, computer keyboards were being tapped, forms were being completed, new SIM card was being processed, phone was in full working order. The man gave me an invoice that showed ‘J$0’, and told me that the normal J$300 fee did not apply. Happy camper.
  • My mother-in-law is visiting from The Bahamas. She’s flabbergasted that the Jamaican currency “gawn don so”. “How can The Bahamian dollar be worth one US and the Jamaican is 100?” she’d asked me when arriving a week ago. She’d studied here in the mid-1980s and remembered better days for the J$. I gave a quick Econ 101 lesson about fixed and floating exchange rates. “I don’t know. It’s a crying shame,” she said after my attempted explanation. She bought green coconuts in Mandeville (for J$125 each) and wanted them chopped to get at the meat so that she could make a coconut cake. “We need a cutliss!” she told me on Saturday morning. She knew I didn’t have one and we’d joked during the car ride that I shouldn’t think bad of my father for never having bought me one earlier in my life :-). I went to a fancy-looking ‘hardware’ store near Manor Park: they really only sell interior fixtures and tiles, but the man there told me to go to a real hardware store just down the road. I asked him where I could get a gas for our grill. He was perplexed that I had asked for ‘a bottle’, and after some head scratching realised I needed ‘a canister’. He suggested the gas station across the road; no joy, as I’d tried there already. He asked a colleague, then another; no joy. He called a friend; no joy, but he got a name and number. He called and spoke for a while, then passed the phone to me. The lady asked where I lived and when I needed the canister, then said she’d call me back. I headed off to get my cutlass. My phone rang as I entered the store. “We have our supplies in Rockfort and Portmore…” I explained that these places were a long way away and I was not going to drive to either today. She told me they would deliver. Good. She told me to call a number and ask for ‘Ramon’. I called; no answer. Voice mail. I left a message. I called again a few hours later; no answer; voice mail, again. Ramon has not called me back. It’s Saturday, maybe he went to the beach. It looks like the grill will not be firing today, but we will have coconut cake.
  • While in the hardware store, I noticed that they had a sign stating ‘Dear customers, we accept US dollars as payment for goods, at an exchange rate of $96.00’. I paid in local currency.

I don’t see where depreciating the exchange rate is going to help make these kind of experiences better (in the cases where something needs changing). The ‘good’ in these stories are things which I would like in most dealings; the ‘bad’ are not terrible (but I have a few of those already and will ‘deal wi dem layta’). Maybe foreign enterprises will see the Jamaican worker as truly superior and want to employ them and invest more here.

My cell phone was certainly much more expensive to buy than it would have been otherwise. My cutlass, too, though it was considerably cheaper–I could have bought 100 for the price of the phone and could have started my own bushing business. I need to see if sales of cell phones get hit by the depreciation: Jamaicans love their phones. Maybe, next time, I buy a cheapie cell phone, like I did for my father-in-law, when we passed a LIME roadside promotion in Mandeville, for the princely sum of J$1250 (including SIM and J$100 credit).

My jelly coconuts don’t seem to have gone up in price much, and drinking one of those on Friday was a good lunch. The J$300 I paid the roadside vendor for my sugarloaf pineapple seems to be money well spent judging by the absence of it in the fruit bowl 🙂 The falling J$ hasn’t affected much the price of local produce and may hopefully keep us away from all of that ‘inferior’ foreign stuff.

It’s hard to measure productivity in services, but ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ have to be there. Willingness to give good service is not always evident in any country–believe me when I say that it’s hard to imagine more service dysfunction than I’ve experienced in the USA. In tourism, can I see a real difference between what The Bahamas offers me at a top-end hotel such as Atlantis versus what I got in Jamaica at the Hilton in Montego Bay? Is my wife ready to back me up on this when we complete the survey about Atlantis? Good service–and often with a laugh and a joke and a nice word, not some sourpuss or phony ‘Is everything ok with your meal’-ism, quickly followed by scowls if the tip is less than 15%–is not a dead art in Jamaica, by any stretch, so for the moment. On that score, I will say I have high hopes. But, how is the exchange rate ‘flexibility’ really going to price Jamaica into a better competitive position world-wide? The question is not rhetorical.