Friday, April 27, 2012

Change for the people

An old friend arrived from England this week, it is his third trip here in as many months. He is not here to visit with family, or see friends, nor is he here for a relaxing vacation. Sadly, he's had to make multiple visits because of attempts by a stranger to fraudulently sell a property that belongs to him. His journey navigating through the waters of bureaucracy has been an education for us all. 

The first salvo started late last year, the phone rang and his voice which had been a daily part of life for many years before he left, crackled across the miles. It was a long, convoluted story that stood out for the bold facedness of the perpetrator and the incompetence in the existing system that makes it easy for this type of crime to occur.  He'd called me because he needed information and having to call long distance, was racking up huge phone bills with little to show for it.  I won't go into the details, they are long and painful involving many trips to government offices, the police, the court etc. He has once again had to take time off from work to come here and sit and wait while his court dates are moved arbitrarily. His employer, though understanding, is getting less tolerant. 

Listening to him there is a sense of shame. For what seems like a lifetime I worked in an organisation that had responsibility for engineering change in the Public Service. In the end, my reason for leaving was that we were committed to talking about change, writing many papers on change management but we didn't in fact want to change anything. A former boss, one day in frustration said to me, to change things, you have to change things. He too, was defeated by the prevailing attitudes and now lives outside of this country. Several of my thinking colleagues, in the end also ground down by the effort and seeing first hand what was possible if someone only had the balls to try, have also fled to places where they feel their contributions would be better appreciated. And lately, I've been understanding that axiom more and more. 

It makes my friend's antipathy to living here real. He asks every time we speak why I live here and do I really think that I can change anything. And the answer is, no. 
One consistent irritation in my long working career has been long it takes to get things done, get information or even get someone to answer the phone. Having spent a week trying to get through to  a government agency, where the phone just rings until the system cuts you off, there is a sense that several generations will have to die before any meaningful change occurs. My friend's trip yesterday underlines the sense of frustration, he had to go to four offices to get one transaction complete. None of the offices were located close to each other requiring driving from one town to another. All I can do is listen and buy him another drink. 

Because as long as we believe that: God is a Trini, that we have oil and gas money flowing, that we can continue throw our hands in the air and say "what yuh go do" while continuing to accept the status quo, we as a country will be stuck right where we are. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Must love dogs 2

Many a difficult morning it is a struggle to get out of bed, my alarm clock however, is persistent. A nudge, sigh, another nudge, when that fails, roll over. Escalation, a cold nose intrudes, blowing heavily and on those mornings when I really can't get up, a hundred and twenty pound rott /shepherd mix digs me out of the bedclothes and whines until I am up. Meet woman's best friend. My dog does not think I am fat, care whether my outfit is cute or whether I am wearing makeup. When I have been out all day he greets me at the dog, tail wagging, pleased. As I have frequently avowed here and elsewhere, my dog is the love of my life, my best friend who unlike my human friends will not judge me, but loves me unconditionally. 

In 2000, after a spate of dog attacks, the then elected Government, in the usual third world knee jerk reaction, to appease the population cringing behind locked doors, declared that something must be done. The something consisted of a piece of legislation "borrowed" almost wholesale from the English. Nothing really new in the colonies. Except the legislation in question had been written specifically to deal with a situation in England in the 1990's, by 2000, it was already somewhat out of date and in any case, was ancillary to existing animal protection laws. In the Trinidad version, it singled out three breeds, the pitbulls and two others that weren't even present here. As per usual, instead of addressing the issues, we sought to put the usual band-aid on a festering sore. 

My family has always had dogs, ranging from little pothounds to large german shepherds and a whole lot in-between. The great love of my life was a Doberman Pinscher who slept at the foot of the bed, went everywhere with me and would be content to rest his head on my shoulder when I lay reading on the couch. In my worst state of depression Gator could get me up and out, when he died my heart broke worse than it did when I got divorced.  Dogs have consistently sacrificed their lives to protect their owners. We constantly attribute human characteristics to them when in actuality, they have their own code of behaviour and hierarchy that is less subjective than ours. As Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer will tell you, there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. 

Pitbull terriers are a cross breed between terriers and bulldogs, bred for their tenacity and later, for their fighting ability. Man made dogs if you will. In truth, pitbulls, like humans, are products of their environment. If you condition any dog to be aggressive, whether a daschund or a russian wolfhound, that's what you'll get. And that's the point really. In Trinidad and Tobago, sixty percent of instances dogs are not much loved family pets, they are acquired with the intention of keeping other people out of yards and houses. The constant crime situation of home invasions, rapes, praedial larceny and petty theft have left a population with one thing on it's mind. To give themselves a sense of security, no burglar alarm or security patrol works as fast as Fido barking at the gate. So with very little training, or often comfort, dogs are our first line of defense. 

Dog lovers in this country do not oppose legislation for the sake of opposition. In fact we would welcome any legislation that would get people to behave more responsibly towards their animals. Legislation that allows for the equitable humane treatment of the animal ensuring that they are properly secured, have access to shade and water during the long hot days, that they are micro-chipped and registered so that they can be traced to their owners when they are lost or worse, they attack someone. Instead, we have a craven piece of legislation being brought back from the legislation graveyard that singles out breeds and that is essentially punitive. 

But then, should I be surprised? Judging from the amount of protest activities on issues ranging from sexual abuse of children to the preservation of our historical patrimony this weekend, perhaps not.  Interestingly enough, in a country where almost every other house has a resident dog their owners seem only to care that it is not theirs that is being targeted. Human nature I guess. At a rally yesterday, in the hot midday sun all without the added lure of food, drink, and loud music, hundreds of people turned out in support of revoking and reconstructing the legislation. And though hundreds came out, in a country where the average carnival band boasts 3000 plus people, what it comes down to is this, we appear to be  fine with we paying someone money to put on a costume, gyrate in the streets for two days in the thousands, drink ourselves silly and have a good time. We are happy to click like on Facebook, sign on-line petitions,some of us will even turn up for the march, so we can say that we did. And there is nothing wrong with that. But when it counts, whether for dogs, or children, or historic buildings and green spaces we are content to let a few do the work. 

But perhaps we should also understand that real change, real development takes place when we the people hold ourselves to higher standards. When we the people demand of our leaders that they think and act with integrity, that they practice governance by reason as opposed to photo op. That they construct rational legislation, they support equitable enforcement across the board. That everyone is responsible for making our country a better place. Instead of reducing every issue, every situation to drama and bacchanal that we educate ourselves on them and then encourage our leaders, businessmen and each other to take note and act responsibly. Perhaps like Don Quixote I am tilting my hat a windmills, but be that as it may, we must get to that point otherwise our country will continue its slide. Ian Alleyne's often vulgar, always self serving antics cannot be our only voice or form of action. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not a Trini to the Bone

About a decade ago, David Rudder and Carl Jacobs released a song entitled "Trini to the Bone", in it, these two veterans of Trinidadian music sang about how they "love up their country". The implication being that they were so marinated in all things Trini that it went to the bone. It is instructive to note that neither of the two are domiciled here, nor have they been for many years. David lives with his wife and children in Canada and Carl has been resident in the US for more than twenty years. 

The song however, brought out the closet Trini in everyone who wished to lay claim. Suddenly it was the most patriotic thing in the world. We, the same people who lose our accent by the time we hit Piarco Airport, were suddenly, TRINI TO THE BONE. We are also the same people who in a sea of red supported a football team, jump, wave and wine in the streets for two days and have the best fetes in the world.  All very well and good.  

Reading the newspapers or watching the media however, you might wonder if it were two different places entirely. Confused yet? Our media constantly point to our murder and crime rate, that nothing seems to work here, every episode is filled with drama, our politicians cannot seem to understand the difference between governance and bacchanal. We, the majority who rave and rhapsodise about all things Trini...usually with emphasis on food, drink and party, are the same people who pollute our environment, flout our laws when it suits us, take a stand only when we can click "like" on Facebook and consider our duty done. For  a place where people are so in love with their country, you have to wonder why we seem not to be interested in real issues and finding solutions to the things that are not right.

I have never made any secret of my desire to flee this place, to shake the dust off my feet, and am generally happy when climbing on a plane for parts elsewhere. Because for all the lovely things about Trinidad and Tobago there are a whole lot of maddening, nerve wracking, annoying things to make you question your sanity every single day. But I understand why two expatriate Trinidadians could sing a song like Trini to the Bone with such feeling, such longing. Because living away from here allows you to appreciate the lovely bits and distance tempers the others. 

This weekend there are marches planned, against the dog act, against the desecration of the Magnificent Seven, against violence and sexual abuse of children. All noble and worthy, yes, this weekend we'll all be getting our exercise. And we will all go home with a sense of accomplishment secure that we have "done something". Well folks, let me explain a little something, the march is the BEGINNING of the work. 

Twenty some odd years ago as a teenager with my older compatriots  standing in front of bulldozers to save the George Brown Building. In the intervening years we have: lobbied governments; given our time and expertise for free on committees; we have done countless presentations; chained ourselves to other places; had gravel poured on us; spent endless hours coming up with strategies; run up our phone bills, abandoned our weekend plans - to sit with manatees, visit historical buildings, plant trees, face down slash and burn farmers and then turn around and try to help them find ways to become sustainable and so many  other thankless activities in order to preserve those very bits of Trinidad and Tobago that make us so wonderful and unique. This weekend, while dog lovers come out to march against an extremely flawed, ill conceived, knee jerk reaction piece of legislation, a few will understand that they will have to continue to pound pavements, call politicians, agitate and find ways to continue to keep up the pressure. They will be the ones asking how they can help find a solution. No one will know their names or even care.

Twenty some odd years after  holding vigil against the bulldozers at George Brown House, my battle scarred colleagues and I will be entreating the public to save the Savannah and the Magnificent Seven as we have done for all these years. Later on, we will also participate in the other marches etc. It is not because we think we are special, or better or that we have some inflated sense of martyrdom, or that we seek recognition, or even thanks. We do it because someone has to, and we chose to live here, so we have a responsibility. That's all there is to it. But the temptation remains, to be a trini to the bone somewhere else.......

Friday, April 20, 2012

Getting older

With very little fanfare, another year has come and gone though I can scarcely understand where it went. Short of quoting '80's pop songs about time slipping through your hands there is not much more to say on the subject. The process of getting older is not about aging, it's about those life lessons that come from the journey, some have been brutal, others filled with love, some happy accidents and others, the culmination of determination, planning and hard work. All in all it's been a good, full life for the most part. 

But I've noticed something about getting older, at least for me, it's become more about allowing myself to really live. Death was a frequent visitor to my family over a a condensed period of time, my mother died at 48 followed in quick succession by several other close family members.  It is a lesson that we have finite time so make the most of it, not that I always payed attention but am still learning. 

So here, having lived almost half a lifetime, I recognise that you cannot make other people responsible for your happiness, only you can make yourself happy. You cannot build your world around someone, they are only human and they will disappoint you. Life is not black and white, it is green and blue, yellow and red and all the shades and hues you can think of. There is no right and wrong, only do the best you can in any situation and hope for the best. Thinking in absolutes never gets you very far. If you are unable to bend, you will break. Know where your line in the sand is, be prepared to defend it and be prepared that out of love, despair or compassion, you may move it. Don't be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes, how else will you learn. Yes, sunscreen is your friend. If he loves you, your cellulite or crows feet will not be an issue. 

There, the accumulated "wisdom" of a lifetime. As I get ready to embark on my next great adventure, which with any luck will see me standing on Macchu Picchu, editing a magazine, speaking fluent portuguese, diving and hopefully, someone to share it with, I'm ready to take the plunge, back into living. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Claro  que Si!

It is the early hours shortly before dawn in (insert war torn country name here), as daylight slowly filters in the scene unfolding.........Several generations of Caribbean people will recognise this opening. Many stories on the BBC began this way, in fact, so much so that you could easily believe that all their stories were posted in the wee hours of the morning. For years, the BBC remained The news organisation, not only for their high standard of journalism, but also, their familiarity, a lingering connection with our colonial heritage that is now, a distant fifty years past. 

It took the advent of CNN, Fox and Sky TV to change the way news was delivered throughout the world. Until Ted Turner launched CNN in June 1980, we were unaware that the hour had a top and bottom. All too quickly the ten second soundbite became a staple, news anchors became "sexy" and the digital age was born. News purveyors quickly understood, keep up or get out of the race but these changes were not confined to the news. The internet, shrinking micro processing chips and a host of other developments ushered in the new age of gadgetry and communications. Everything became quicker, faster, more, well, shiny.  

As Caribbean governments struggle to reinvent themselves in a world where sweeping changes take place on a daily basis, the impetus to upgrade dated systems and provide superior living conditions grows more urgent. In Trinidad,  we are largely failing. While technology has been adopted at a rate, it is strangely superimposed on old systems and processes as people seem loath to remove the things that do not work, whether through sentimentality, apathy or for darker more complex reasons. Trinidad and Tobago boasts a high per capita number of people who have tertiary education. Masters degrees almost grow on trees, the evidence points to a lack of will to apply techniques learnt in a classroom in real world applications. Leading to the thought, if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

Case in point TSTT, the national telecommunications agency jointly owned by the Government and Cable and Wireless. This is a company that went from a waiting list for phones that spanned lifetimes to being a corporate entity  characterised by slick stores, soca star advertising, new products etc. But go into one of those slick stores and you are treated to long lines, a cumbersome ticketing system that promotes inequality of service and long wait times and sometimes, indifferent staff in need of customer service training. These grouses are not limited to TSTT of course, you'll find this in most businesses in the country.

Even the advent of Digicel, though a large player in the game, still did not engender real change. Real change will come when the Government either realises or is pushed to realise that it is the 21st century. Gone are the days when they needed to provide all utilities because no one else would. In most first world countries utilities are provided by private companies who pay hefty license fees and corporate taxes with little burden to the taxpayer. In a country like Trinidad and Tobago where options for competition are limited by geography, the Government as a regulator becomes more important. And that is the role of the Government, to be a regulator, legislator and to provide sound governance structures rather than engaging in retail and thereby competing with the very entities that they are regulating.  In fact, one must wonder if the Government is a competitor in the field, how can they also be an impartial regulator. Food for thought eh. 

Rumour on the ground has it that  South American giant Claro Americas, one of the four largest telecomms networks in the world with over 200 million customers, is going to be the third player in the local market. And it will be duly instructive because they have money, resources, satellites and first world systems, they understand true competition with over 200 million existing consumers. Country pride loyalty be dammed. If they are offering a system that works consistently with fewer outages, faster connectivity, access to new products and better customer service you better believe a lot more people will be saying, "Claro que si!" the minute they open their doors.