Mark Wignall | Promoting Port Royal
Last Tuesday, Gleaner columnist Patria-Kaye Aarons wrote a piece titled 'A Royal joke', in which she spoke of the announcement of a government investment of US$7.4-million in a floating cruise-shipping terminal at Port Royal, a village rich in its history of piracy, debauchery, and monarchical governance but for many decades now, foolishly starved of development.
Aarons stated, "If you took me as a tourist to Port Royal as it is today, I would think piracy was alive and well in Jamaica. I would feel robbed."
I fully agree with Aarons even as I can understand the Government's position of being tempted to put the cart before the horse. Port Royal has way under 5,000 people, and the main housing development in the main part of the village is nothing more than a slum. For the last five years or so, there has been no fire engine attached to the empty yard of the fire station.
A tourist and his partner walking through Port Royal today would have more urge to focus on each other as the 'historical sites' and the expectations that would come with such a visit would strike the superlative in underwhelming.
As a Jamaican, I enjoy every visit I make to Port Royal, whether it was those I made as a schoolboy in the 1960s or the recent one I made a few months ago where Chupski and I dined on fish and steamed bammies at Gloria's outdoor outlet.
I don't even bother to make the stroll over to the fort or go further past Giddy House and on to the beach. Soothing but stunningly lacking in attractive historical interest or excitement. So I go and eat fried or steamed fish, festival and bammies, sip a few beers, and talk nonsense with the sweet lady.
It would be like inviting me to an expensive restaurant then sitting down to be served cornmeal porridge as an appetiser, turkey neck and bulgur as the main course, and a bag-juice smoothie as dessert.
In the announcement, the pier is to be operational in Jamaica's winter tourist season, that is, between December 2018 and March 2019. Let's assume a vessel arrives with 6,000 tourists and its planned stay is from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. If 1,500 disembark, what is there in Port Royal right now to hold their attention?
A few bars selling white rum instead of 'wenches' in the garb of the 17th century and thieving pirates and navy men offering guides to the ghosts of those who once roamed? After the third stop, maybe only 500 would disembark, and in time, with no local development, it would be mainly a point to grab a tour bus and head for Portland or St Thomas.
For sure, the residents of St Thomas, as one of the most forgotten parishes in Jamaica, could do with a few hundred tourists walking among them and listening to the multiple bits of the raw and exciting history of the parish.
Is Jamaica a dumping ground?
A few months ago, I was in a supermarket and I grabbed what I thought was a bottle of Jamaican-produced coconut oil. At home, I was mad at myself for not examining the label while I was doing the actual shopping. Made in Trinidad, it said.
Last week, I was in the same upbeat supermarket along Red Hills Road, and again, I was on the hunt for coconut oil. Almost every bottle was produced in Trinidad or farther afield. At a little shop close to a gully bank, where I don't particularly like to shop but I do out of a sense of supporting such small businesses, I asked for a pack of soap powder.
It is quite cheap, at $120, and, to no one's surprise, it is distributed by a place in Portmore Pines, manufactured under a UK-owned formula, and produced in The People's Republic of China. The last time I checked, Jamaica is by no means short of companies manufacturing detergents and coconut oil. So why are we so overrun by these foreign-produced products?
Pricing would seem to be the only logical reason. If a pack of laundry detergent can be exported all the way from China and sold locally on par with, and even less than, the price of the locally produced product, and, the distributor and the little shopkeeper makes a viable margin, why not?
Carreras is the main manufacturer of cigarettes, a product that is no longer enjoying the sort of vogue it had, say, in the 1950s-1990s. That said, a health-conscious world has learned to coexist with the lower numbers of those still smoking and those who want to be free from its ill effects.
It seems that more among the better educated have given up on smoking, while significant numbers of the poorest and the least educated are still hooked on the habit. The problem is that the price of a stick of cigarette is of utmost importance, so the cheaper, the better.
Enter the 'bandooloo' cigarette, multiple brands with the usual gory warnings on the box, made in China and cheaper than the brands produced by Carreras, which is heavily taxed by the Government. The number-one problem is that hardly anyone among the poor is purchasing a box, so whatever the warning, whether one cares or not, no one sees it.
The second problem is that these imports are all illegal and they all evade Customs. One can understand a few goods slipping through the scrutiny of Customs and evading taxes, but this goes way beyond that.
This is many hundreds of millions of uncustomed cigarettes being sold in every bar and corner shop in Jamaica. Not a few bars or shops, but everywhere.
Is Jamaica that lawless to the point that a heavily consumed product can be selling all over Jamaica and the JCF and those who police for Customs do not see it as a problem? There is another question that naturally follows: Is there collusion by some in the hierarchy of the security entities to 'unpolice' this very open problem?
Illegal and well-needed lifeline
"Cigarette, weed, bag juice, and snacks a my biggest seller dem," said a shopkeeper to me recently. Her business was on the edge of a well-known garrison area where guns and assorted criminality are everyday behaviours.
"A man drink a special an him either buy weed and grabba or a cheap cigarette. Mi have my place weh mi buy cigarette from, and it sell, an mi mek my profit. Is strictly business," she said.
"Aren't you afraid of the authorities raiding you and seizing the cigarettes?" I ask.
'No, sah! Dem woulda haffi do dat to every shop and bar inna Jamaica. Mi just believe sey big man involve, so every now and den, dem raid a warehouse an hol somebody. Probably a quarrel dem have and smaddy bus pon smaddy.
"Man get fine, pay di fine, and start back di same ting him a do. To much poor people a mek money off a it fi Government fi crack dung pon it."
If there is one thing where the incidence has been demonstrably lessened, that is, bandooloo liquor. Up to a year ago, the seals removed from a well-known brand of rum were being collected by bartenders and sold to those involved in many illegalities.
An adulterated type of rum was produced and skilfully bottled in the name-brand label. Its taste was somewhere between whiffs of kerosense and rubbing alcohol.
Some 'rumheads' got mildly ill, but as far as I know, no deaths from this were reported.