It's that time of the year...the time of year when I fret and worry about how I am to convey the past year. For the unfamiliar, I do not believe in sending the standardized Christmas cards. This letter is my personalized Christmas card. They end up in the trash and just make some company very rich. This letter too will end up in the trash, at some point, but at least it will take some effort on my part to make it and your part to read it. So, go get a cup of coffee...kick up the stereo, sit down, relax, and enjoy.
For my non-email friends, I finished up in Africa, went home for a week, and headed to our job in Jamaica and I've been here since mid-March. The job in Tanzania was, by far, the most successful job I've worked on with my present company. If the company offered another job along the African coast, I wouldn't hesitate in going.
If, by the grace of Microsoft or Netscape, you have e-mail, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. My web page address is http://www.blueloutimes.com . I call it the Bluelou Times. I gave it a major visual overhaul last spring. There you will find hundreds of photos from the various places I've lived in. I bought a new digital camera and my company has their scanner in my office. I'm running out of space on the web site with all the photos I've added. I enjoy the challenge of making it and I hope you like it.
We're building a 500 room Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montego Bay. I never thought I would come here. The personnel who were assigned to this job were selected nearly two years ago. While I was in Tanzania, one of our superintendents, Mr. Dennis, was assigned to Jamaica. I had no knowledge that I would be going here but the only jobs I've worked for Harbert (my present company) have been with Mr. Dennis...Georgia, Armenia, Tanzania. When I heard Dennis was going, something inside told me I was going too. Two weeks later, I got the call...it's uncanny.
I was brought in mid-job to estimate the cost of change orders. The initial cost was 48 million US. I've added about ten percent to that amount. My role has changed to include managing the construction of a golf club house and construction scheduling. It's been a tough job as it wasn't planned well at the start and the home office management has virtually ignored the project assuming it was the same methodology as construction in the US...sorry, that's what makes international construction so interesting. We'd planned to be done the first of December but with lots of rain, design changes, and low local labor productivity, we'll be lucky to get out of here in July 2000. I was told not to get comfortable here as my position was temporary. I guess I've worked my way to the indispensable category.
For those not familiar with the Ritz chain, it's a really swank hotel that gets most of it's business from a rich clientele with an average annual income of 300-400k. The customers are generally repeat customers. I'd guess that most will pay 300-400 per night...more than the average monthly income for a Jamaican wage earner. It's ironic that those who build it, won't be able to sleep in it once it's open.
Once finished, the place will be quite posh. I've never seen so much marble or wooden millwork in my life. Tile is an expensive ceramic. Right now, we have one of the four guest wings nearly finished and, hopefully, the remaining three will fall into place in domino like fashion at one month intervals. As for the main part of the hotel, business section, meeting areas, ballrooms, maintenance, laundry, and site fixtures, I'm not too sure when it will be done (and I'm doing the schedule). When it will be quite the task getting it up and running. My biggest beef with the design is the lack of play toys (amusements that kids would like...and some very large adults...and that there are too many rooms that will be empty)
Our owner is a wealthy US expat who is no amateur when it comes to building hotels in Jamaica. This one is his third. The first two, a Holiday Inn and the Wyndham within five miles of each other and the one we're building, were both taken over by the government. The exact reasoning for the government takeover isn't quite clear but one thing to me is sure, I would have learned my lesson after the first one. Right now, oceanfront property goes for about a million dollars per acre. I don't think I could part with too many millions before I learned my lesson even if I had them to lose (and I don't).
Strange, for some to people to believe, most of my associates would rather not be here. A myriad of reasons will come up but I believe the root of the discontent is the lack of quality and productivity of the workers and not wanting to be part of a sinking project. There's a lot of resentment between the workers and management. It's the first international job I've been on where the workers aren't happy to be working. Jamaicans beg for a job but then sit on the posterior once they get it. Wages run from about two bucks to fifteen bucks an hour for our office help...not worth it at either end but it's the going rate. The workers don't work too hard and have to do something about three times before it's right but when it comes to plaster work, Jamaicans are true craftsmen. The outside of our hotel is really remarkable reminding me of some of the work I saw in the former Soviet Union. Hotels with the decor like this, just don't happen in the US. They import the skilled laborers as the craftsmanship needed to build this place isn't around in the US anymore.
A few weeks after I arrived, there were riots. The first one was due to the police shooting a crime suspect. The issue at hand was whether the suspect was sleeping with a gun under his pillow. Obviously, the police say he had one and his family said no. He was killed by the police. The following day, riots (looting, fire bombs, and other violent protesting) started up. After a half day, the protests died due to a lack of interest.
A week later, some massive tax increases took place (25% gas tax, public transit increase, income etc.). These lasted 3-4 days. Again, looting, fire bombs and other violent protests were on the front burner. The increases were decreased somewhat after the government took notice. Unfortunately, Jamaicans view their politicians with corrupt regard...a tax increase is just another Jeep for the president. For the curious, the riots didn't harm our project physically but they did cut off our material shipments. About 20-30 percent of our workers stayed home choosing not to go through the rioting.
I live in a nice apartment at a local hotel. The general consensus is that this hotel could be more. It's about 5-10 years old but looks more like 20 due to a lack of maintenance. I'd guess that it has about a 20 percent occupancy level at best. The beach is small, shallow, and full of seaweed and mud...just what someone likes who has just shelled out 175 dollars a night (without food or drink). There isn't much to do but enjoy the sun at this establishment. The pool is great but there isn't much else. The Jamaicans built this place on their own and cried semi-uncle when the had made it a Comfort Inn. They seem to be clueless about running a resort. Unfortunately, they haven't taken any lessons from their next door neighbors, the Wyndham Hotel which has plenty of business. With some investment and maintenance, it could be a major bread winner.
There is limited gaming in Jamaica. The lottery is big. One of our plumbers has won it twice taking home a total of about eleven million US. He still works for us as if nothing has happened...probably because it went to his creditors to pay off some past debts. The only table game is slot machines. Most folks speculate that all forms of gaming will be here in the next few years. They say it will become the next Monte Carlo.
Me...well, I'm kind of half hearted about being here. If I'd been here at the beginning, it would have been different. Between the riots and being deported (more on this later), I didn't have a good initial impression. I feel as if I'm here to clean up someone else's mess. For the others, there are only so many things you can do once you run out of tourist destinations and working generally means we have to be on our best behavior (i.e. you can't be testing out the local beverages). If you're not into the ocean or golf, there really isn't much to do. I like my one day off. To wrap it up...Jamaica is a nice place to visit but you really don't want to work here.
We work Monday through Saturday...a half to a full day on Saturday...and play on the weekends. I spend my Sundays scuba diving, working out at the gym, and heading to the beach. Yes, I passed my open water diving class along with the advanced open water diving course. The advanced class allows me to go on the deeper dives (around 100-110 feet), do night dives, and do more complex multi-level diving. Yes, you can do them with a basic open water diving card but you have to build up credibility with the dive master. Jamaica isn't known for diving but the coral formations are really cool. We see a few nurse sharks (harmless), sea turtles, sting rays, barracudas, many varieties of small tropical fish, crabs, lobsters, conch, and many other undersea plants and animals. There aren't many large fish due to over-fishing. Compared to Africa, the water is much cooler too. The visibility is over a hundred feet on good days. I've even tried a couple of night dives where the coral opens up and turns a vivid green. By the time you read this, I'll have logged around 45 dives. I'm not much of a biology fan. I just like swimming under water...something I've wanted to do since I was a toddler but there aren't many oceans in Nebraska.
During the week, after work, I cook dinner, go for a walk, and head to the gym.
We have one movie theater in Montego Bay. We get a new movie every Wednesday. An adult fare is about $4.50. Reminiscent of my childhood days is intermission. They even play the Jamaican national anthem before the show. Unlike my childhood movies, you can by tap beer during the show. The movies are mostly American movies that have gone out of the mainstream theaters. The only Jamaican movie that played in the nine months I've been here showed for nearly a month.
Jamaican music is an annoying blend of rap and reggae. I don't care for rap by itself or in combination with anything. Like Jamaican speech, reggae is really hard to understand. Rap and reggae is completely unintelligible for this country boy.
It's funny, but Jamaicans seem to have more pride in being Jamaican rather than Jamaica. They beam with pride when someone asks if they're Jamaican but their actions show something less than pride. They're not environmentally friendly, littering everywhere, operating out of date vehicles who belch out pollution, and over-fishing. I love seafood but eat it very occasionally in protest of the overharvesting of the ocean. During the riots, Jamaicans didn't seem to care what impressions the world was getting from the violence. They realize that tourism is important to their economy but aren't worldly enough to understand that there are several tropical destinations to go to and their actions have direct impact upon public choice. Travel agents don't normally recommend Jamaica. While the riots were happening, people who drove through road blocks were stoned but tourist busses traveled through unscathed. Businesses closed down and were looted anyway.
Truthfully, I can't recommend Jamaica as a tourist destination if you love beaches...Jamaicans are clueless about what tourists are looking for. I'd recommend some other Carribean isles. Hotel owners and travel agents will direct you to tired, pathetic attractions whom they get kickbacks from. If forced, I'd tell you to fly to Montego Bay and travel by car or private van for a couple of hours to Negril...my Mecca....long sandy beaches and realistic hotel rates. I started going there about three months back and can't say anything bad about it. Any time between Thanksgiving and Easter is when it's rocking. Spring break is unreal from what I'm told. I got here at the tail end but didn't make it to Negril. Playboy made it one of it's best selections for Spring Break. I hope to see some of that action. Simply stated, unlike most of Jamaica, Negril 'gets' tourism...they understand what tourists want...seven miles of beach and reasonably priced hotels and restaurants. It's just a pain getting there and going there will make up a true witness to Jamaican poverty...no worries as Jamaica is doing a major overhaul of its' main highway.
Jamaica has incredible rain forests and mountains. The fields and trees are a lush green. Their waterfalls are spectacular. A nice afternoon can be had climbing the waterfalls. There are plenty of plantations to visit. The ocean waters are clear and blue. I've seen lots of storms and lots of sunshine. I love to be out during a lightning storm or during sunset. The view of the ocean with the sun going down on the horizon is truly one of God's best works. No, we haven't seen any hurricane action. The closest hurricane was Lenny which passed 250 miles south of here. Jamaica hasn't seen a hurricane since 1988, Gilbert.
Jamaica is a waiving contradiction in drugs. While deplaning, the flight steward stated that it is illegal to purchase or smoke ganja (marijuana) and the authorities would prosecute any who dared. A day isn't a day in Jamaica unless I get offered some smoke (ganja) or a whore...even at the hotel where I live. The police have steel railroad tracks buried in the ground, sticking up in the air, to detract drug planes from using the highway as a runway. My hero, Jimmy Buffett, had his plane shot at as the military thought he was a drug transporter. I laughed at a recent news headline where the local police busted a group for 360 pounds of ganja. During his dedication speech for the hotel, the prime minister of Jamaica (the president) went on and on (over a half hour) about how Jamaican ganja was the best in the world. I've heard tales where taxi drivers work while smoking it. Jamaicans view their ganja smoking like a constitutional right. The country uses the value of ganja sold as part of its' gross domestic product statistic.
For the curious, my ganja smoking friends say you can buy it for about thirty bucks a pound...if you know the right dealer...or the same money will get you a quarter ounce if they know you're a tourist. No, I tried it a couple of times in college but haven't sampled since. To their credit, the solicitor will ask you if you want ganja or a hooker and if you politely decline, they will go away. I'm just annoyed that the line of folks asking me to buy never seems to get smaller.
One of the guys at the office had an amusing technique for chasing away drug dealers and prostitutes that really works. When ganja is offered, he'd shout out very loudly so that everyone could hear it in the general direction of his girlfriend...HONEY...YOU WANT SOME COCAINE? The dealer would sneak away trying to be as invisible as possible...if that was possible. I tried it once and it worked remarkably.
Our clients will be doing drug testing as a condition of employment. I'm curious as to the outcome. In Alaska, we had a 70 percent failure rating (marijuana). I'd project about ten percent of the population who may pass this test.
The average Jamaican home would shock you...a shack with paper thin walls and corrugated metal roofing. Chances are good that it has no phone, running water, nor electricity.
The Jamaican currency is the Jamaican dollar. It's gone down in value since I got here, from 35 to 40 Jamaican dollars to one US dollar due to government debt. According to my atlas, inflation is 51%. A friend and I were talking to a girl who worked at a financial institution that made loans. She said her firm charges 34% interest. Funny to say that you can convert US currency at the money changers and they give you a far better exchange than most business establishments.
Gasoline goes for about two bucks a gallon. I'd say that for goods I need, I'd pay the same here as I did in Alaska...about forty to fifty percent higher than mainland US prices. Restaurants are comparable to some of the higher cost US establishments...up to a hundred bucks for two.
Jamaicans specialize in jerk...spicy coatings...chicken, pork, beef, fish. It's my favorite Jamaican cuisine. It's not complete without rice and peas (kidney beans) and pumpkin soup...yes pumpkin. If you know the dives, you can eat for about ten bucks. The only seafood restaurant is a real dive. It's an outdoor eatery where you go inside the kitchen and pick out your fish. It really doesn't matter what type you pick, it's got so much spice that they all taste the same. You have a few beers and about an hour later, they bring you fish...and bammy (a gritty fried, unleavened bread)...nothing else. By the time you finish, you're bound and determined to leave as your stomach is full and the flies have had enough of you.
Jamaicans love horse racing, soccer, and cricket. Basketball is growing in popularity. For the Nebraskans who remember Marlene Ottey, a Jamaican sprinter who went to Nebraska and later won a bronze medal in the Olympics, she was born in Kingston. I was here when she tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (steroids). The Jamaican consensus was of disbelief and that somehow, the "white man" cheated her.
I must say that I haven't really got into the Jamaican culture nor have I tried. I resent the fact that Jamaicans introduce themselves and in the next breath, try to sell me drugs or a hooker or want me to get them a job with our client...they couldn't care less about me...just who I know or what I have in my wallet. I am far from a prude but I don't like being hounded by sellers. No, I'm not naive. I realize that money talks in all languages but I don't like the technique and don't care to be hounded by anybody for anything. I refuse to believe that all Jamaicans are drug dealers or prostitutes. I know the approach right away by those who are trying to sell contraband. Jamaicans constantly are trying to circumvent the long road to success by roping in some expat into marriage or a job so it's hard to shake the stereotype.
Ok, you wonder, the deportation. I went home in June to visit my sister who returned home from Saudi and my father who just got out of the hospital after a two month stay. I'd planned to visit Saudi after I finished up Tanzania. I even had the paper work which is very difficult to obtain. My boss said I was to head to Jamaica as soon as possible so I skipped Saudi. With the sis heading home and Dad just getting out of the hospital, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. I'd been in contact with the folks who were expediting my visa who assured me my visa would be in my possession before I left with time to spare. Departure time came closer and the story remained...soon come visa. Well, it didn't come. I was told I could enter Jamaica with a drivers license and a birth certificate...they didn't tell me about the return ticket. I flew all the way from Omaha to Atlanta to Montego Bay and was promptly turned around and headed to Atlanta. They never let me make a phone call or get my baggage. I was stranded in Atlanta for a couple of days with just carry on luggage. My visa, it was sitting in our office in Jamaica and waiting for me since the day I left for home. One of my associates was traveling back to Atlanta from Jamaica and met me at the airport the next day. I can laugh about it now but at the time, I was livid but who could I direct my anger at...everyone was just doing their job.
Jamaica is 45 miles from Cuba. Flights from Jamaica to Cuba are plentiful. Cuba has some spectacular architecture and night life. Some of the crew have gone and really had a good time. They all say that the US is missing out on one hell of an economic opportunity by clinging on the trade embargo on Cuba. No, I haven't gone. I have a multitude of reasons for both going and not going but the one that comes to the forefront is my security clearance could be jeopardized if I go to Cuba. No, they don't stamp the passport and there wouldn't be any evidence if I did but I'm not smart enough to go and keep my mouth shut during the security interview. For the curious, it's not illegal to go to Cuba. You just can't buy anything. Go figure. I have tried a Cuban cigar which was spectacular. The Cuban rum can't be bought here as it would compete with Jamaican rum...as if the cigars wouldn't compete with the Jamaican cigars...don't know about this one either.
I haven't tried the Jamaican rum or cigars. I'm told they're very good. I don't care much about rum. I have tried the local beer...Red Stripe. Even toddlers know what Red Stripe is. The other day, someone asked a four year old if she drank rum...no, I'm a lady implying that women don't drink hard alcohol. She did light up like a kid does when offered ice cream when he asked her if she liked Red Stripe.
Transportation is very unique here. Even with the best of political connections, it takes more than a couple of months to get a license to drive...more like six if you have no connections. More than half drive without them. Not many folks have cars. Those who do on cars have economical Toyotas, Russian Ladas, or some American car in poor shape by someone who sold it at fire sale prices. There is no organized public transit system save for some very nice Mercedes Benz school busses. The majority of the population travels by a very unorthodox system of taxis. Taxi cabs are either common drivers or route taxis. The route taxi, similarly to a bus driver, travels up and down one highway and turns around at the same point and returns. Some folks are registered with the taxi authority, the Jamaican tourist authority. Most are not. Frankly, anyone with a car can be a cabby and pick up some scratch. The fare, for a local, is about seventy-five cents. You'd be surprised about how many folks can fit into a Toyota at a buck fare. If you even look close to a tourist, the same fare could go up to fifteen US. At that price, you'd expect to have the cab by yourself but the driver will try to get you to ride up front or slide over so he can pick up some more fares.
Driving in Jamaica, like most foreign countries, is an adventure. I don't travel far during the day and less far at night. Picture driving along on a dim highway with little or no marking. Everyone has their headlights aimed like a cyclops and that eye is pointed at your eyes. Like its' motherland, England, Jamaicans drive on the left. It's not bad if you have a right-hand driven car. We have lots of left-hand driven trucks that are frequently seen hugging the shoulder. Jamaicans view a two lane highway as two lines to drive in and one to pass...down the middle straddling the stripe. It's enough to make you lose your lunch. There are plenty of opportunities for fender benders. Between the crazy motorists and the stray goats, cattle, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, etc., there's plenty of opportunities for mega-fender benders.
As written earlier, Jamaica is rebuilding their roadways. The road from Montego Bay to Negril is about fifty miles. They're rebuilding the entire stretch. They're on their third contractor as the first two went broke. The cost and time to construct the road have both doubled.
Like taxis, there is a double tier pricing system in Jamaican hotels. My favorite hotel in Negril charges $104 a night for a double room for a tourist. For a local or Jamaican resident, that rate goes down to $75. Restaurants will normally knock off fifteen percent, the sales tax.
According the atlas, a Jamaican woman has 2.38 children. The big surprise is the number of illegitimate children. I see throngs of children with mothers...no fathers in view. The mothers don't appear to be beyond high school age.
Jamaica has several nude resorts. Topless sunbathing, common to European women, is very common here. I'd estimate about ten percent. No, the world hasn't come to an end.
Jamaicans have the reputation of being very laid back. Well, as evident by the acceptance of many things that we as Americans would be arrested for, it is a permissive society. Jamaica does not allow guns. As I was taught in college, places without handguns have high rates of violent crime. Contrary to the laid back reputation, Kingston has one of the highest murder rates in the world. They use knives and machetes.
Most cities have problems with stray dogs and cats. A recent city government assembly meeting was called to deal with stray animals...dogs, cats, cows, goats, pigs... They make night driving interesting...dozing off at the wheel isn't a problem.
I traveled to Canada on my vacation...fishing...or rather...relaxing at an island fishing cabin for a whole week with no work or phone to concern myself with. No, I'm not much of a fisherman nor did I catch any fish...just got away from it all.
I will be home during the holidays...the first time in five years. Like last year, it's hard to get into the Christmas spirit in the tropics. I'm sure you really don't pity me and my 'predicament' but it is worth noting. I'd hoped that my friends would come down for New Years...think about it...bringing in the Millennium New Year with sand in your toes. Unfortunately, nobody took me up on it until after I made the plane reservations.
I'm hoping to go to our jobs in Africa and / or China. The company hasn't been too lucky in getting new work of late. Right now, we're reorganizing transferring our private ownership from father to son. The gist of the transcript of the transition speech that I read was that the company was going to emphasize the very risky but far more lucrative international work. I just play it day to day.
I can't promise I'll be here much longer but if you come to Jamaica, give me a holler at work or by e-mail and I'll show and / or the really cool places to go here and maybe, we can hang.
I can only wish you an incredible Jamaican sunny day followed by an awesome Jamaican sunset. If I could give you that, we'd both be rich...in spirit and in financial wealth. If this is old news to you, I'm sorry. I still hope you enjoyed it as I enjoy writing and thank you for sharing in this experience.