A New Chapter for Trinidad and Tobago

P1070144
Petrotrin at night, courtesy Gavin, made available through this Creative Commons License.

I’ve never written about the oil and gas industry. I’m certainly no expert – there are plenty of people claiming to be with or without credentials, and I don’t wish to intrude upon their space.

Oil and gas, after all, is a messy affair. In Trinidad and Tobago, even more so since it has and continues to depend so much on this sector for income – something that I do write about in the context of diversifying the economy through technology, which in turn could finance further development in those areas. That’s crazy thinking in Trinidad and Tobago for anyone in a position to do anything about it.

So first I’m not going to write about Trinidad and Tobago. I’m going to write about a place few from Trinidad and Tobago have ventured to before I bring it all back to Trinidad and Tobago.

The place?

Beloit, Wisconsin Watertower
Photo by me, July, 2010.

Beloit, Wisconsin.

This was a place that Margaret Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist, once called ‘America in microcosm’. Many families there once worked for a company some have heard of – General Motors (GM).

The nearby GM assembly plant was open in 1919, and lasted until 2009 – 90 years. So it was pretty much settled that as children grew up, they’d get a job at GM. In 1970, the peak employment of that plant was 7,000.

When I got to Beloit in 2010 or so, it was a very different Beloit. I didn’t get to see it on the upswing – I am too young for that – and I didn’t see it dwindle. I saw the results – a small economy within Wisconsin that had high unemployment and all the stuff that goes with it.

An interesting and unrelated thing to note is that the city fines people who don’t keep their lawns mowed or their houses painted. This had resulted in even small time criminals maintaining nice lawns, and some pretty annoyingly colored houses as a form of rebellion.

The economy was hyper-dependent on GM. And I expect that even now, the recovery from that weaning was difficult.

Now, Beloit was in a quandary when GM shut down operations in the area. They likely still are.

Downtown Beloit Sunset
Downtown Beloit at Sunset, also by me. 2012.

Yet, they have one of the most highly rated Main Streets, and in 2015 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index ranked the Janesville-Beloit metropolitan area #4 by how well they created and sustained jobs and economic growth.

I don’t know much about what happened when I left – what I do know is that Beloit was in trouble. And I saw opportunity for technology companies there – and some showed up, though I’m not certain how that all worked out.

But I do know one thing. Beloit’s still there.

Petrotrin oil refinery
Petrotrin Oil Refinery at Night, made available by Marc Aberdeen through this Creative Commons License.

Back to Trinidad and Tobago and Petrotrin: There are parallels with Beloit, and there are some things that are not. For example, Petrotrin is only a part of the oil and gas sector in Trinidad and Tobago – and also, it’s government owned – though the Wikipedia article presently discusses Petrotrin in a past tense.

This morning, I watched Curtis Williams say that the Trinidad and Tobago government bought the refinery, now being closed according to a leaked internal memo, to save 3,000 jobs. He went on to say that this seemingly remained the main thrust of what Petrotrin did in later years – profitability was never really seen as important.

Now, some people talk about this as a business – as they should. Still, the government buying the refinery was a risky proposition for the long term. But politics requires jobs – and every political party that has been in power has kept that ball in the air.

That ball in the air is now a can being kicked around on the ground now.

And so, the conversations about privatization I’ve seen have been lacking in understanding that it’s simply a bad business proposition for a private entity to run. The cost of production is, from most reports, too high.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig into the financials – I could, but if I dig into the books of any company, I’m only looking at what is reported – and no one has reported anything good.

So the question is whether it’s worth keeping at all. There’s enough inefficiency that it should be a wake up call; to me it seems an indictment of a culture that allowed it to happen – something no one in Trinidad and Tobago wants to hear.

But if they look carefully, they can see it.

I will point out that Beloit, Wisconsin has found ways to recover – and I’m pretty sure there are at least parts of it that are unpopular. Beloit survives. So will Trinidad and Tobago. But there are necessary differences between what they were and what they must become.

The time for thinking about economic diversification is over. With a lowering interest in oil and gas technologies, it’s time for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago – as well as it’s stakeholders, every citizen, to start working on that diversification.

Want things to change? Read more. Think more. Think about repercussions of actions at even the most personal of levels – there is opportunity in even the most dire of circumstances, if only the Government and people would get out of their own way.

Or you could paint your house a bright orange in protest – an appropriate mix of red and yellow political filters – and hope for the best.

I’m not a big fan of orange, yellow or red.

Writers Without Borders.

Chimpanzee playing with a laptopWhen Renard Moreau wrote about the six things that baffled him, I had to respond – and I did. Yet there is more I’d like to say on the topic of, “Where are the bloggers from Trinidad and Tobago?”.

There was a time when I was considered to be a blogger from Trinidad and Tobago. Geographically, right now, I would have to agree to the fact that I’m blogging from Trinidad and Tobago. And I’d also have to agree that I’ve been writing a few posts lately that are about Trinidad and Tobago, because I happen to be here and I happen to notice things.

GlobalVoices once thought I was a blogger from Trinidad and Tobago, but then they realized I lived in South Trinidad and that I didn’t write incessantly about Trinidad and Tobago.

I lost clique status, quietly, and my feelings were not hurt. That’s just not what I write. And I also don’t write about places where unicorns dance around rainbows with leprechauns, for that matter, and much of what is written about Trinidad and Tobago seems to be that. Just like everywhere else I’ve lived or experienced. That’s just not what I see.

I believe writers are witnesses of a sort. What we witness defines what we write, be it science fiction, be it fiction, or be it obituaries.

I see dead people”, said the obituary writer.

There are more places to list than a single nation, and to define me by one nation is a little insulting.

The truth is that there are two things that legitimize a writer: Actually writing and not being horrible at it, and being read. My dues in that department are so old that the receipts add up to broken links.

But back to these borders, these boundaries that people want to neatly place other people in when their sock drawer is likely in need of more attention instead. I write. Others write. And when people write, certainly they color their writing with what has made them… them. Yet, unless they marched around under a specific nation’s flag all the time, it’s hard for me to imagine a writer to be from anywhere.

What writers write, though – that’s something completely different. If you write solely about Trinidad and Tobago, I’d say you’re a Trinidad and Tobago writer (small market). If you write solely about the United States, I’d say you’re an American writer (big market). If you write solely about Jamaica, someone’s going to annoy you with a poorly done Jamaican accent and tell you they love Bob Marley.

It’s the way of it.

So, while there are boundaries in this world, writers that I read are not limited by those boundaries.

Stories practically write themselves everywhere. Recently in South Oropouche, a man was dismayed to walk into his own wake – and I know the fellow. The sex toy ban has everyone murmuring with friends, laughing and joking, but the ineptitude related to that government and media conversation is something out of a Pink Panther graphic novel.

But that’s not what defines me as a writer. That I am a writer has taken over a decade for me to admit, even after having published through O’Reilly publishing, writing numerous articles, and so on. But I’m a writer.

And that’s enough, really. I’m not out there flying a flag for a nation. I’m writing what’s on my mind. Nobody’s paying me at this time – feel free to send me money – but don’t expect me to change what I’m writing.

It’s my thing. It’s what I do. And I’d like to think that writers themselves are larger than the borders they live within.

The Failure To Communicate. [Updated 22 Aug 2018]

Giant cucumbers from Doug and Ariana.
Cucumbers, which are not sex toys, provided here as a neutral image for this article. Use through a Creative Commons License which can be found by clicking the image.

I found yesterday (21 Aug 2018) that I had made an error in this; the Customs Act does in fact have something on obscene materials. The mistake I made was in assuming that they had searchable text. They do not have searchable text in the PDFs they have online, something worthy of note – but not an excuse. Lesson learned. 

When the Great Ban on Sex Toys in Trinidad and Tobago was announced, I was both slightly amused and curious. It’s not that I write about such topics, it’s that I’m human and that Trinidad and Tobago in it’s entirety doesn’t cease to surprise me when it comes to odd things.

You see, there were articles written as if it weren’t a developing story – there was no notation, as an example, that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s Customs and Excise Division website did not make mention of ‘sex toys’. Of course, maybe it just wasn’t updated, but a search of the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette didn’t reveal any new changes either. That took me less than 30 minutes to go through as an uninterested person, not a journalist. And I’m not a lawyer. So it seems to be a spurious claim, one that doesn’t jive. Update: Section 45 l of the Customs Act does mention things that can be related to ‘sex toys’, but not directly. 

The law being quoted is Section 46(g) of the Criminal Offences Act which says: “Any person who offers for sale or distribution or who exhibits to public view any profane, indecent, or obscene, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation may be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and if found liable, to imprisonment for two years.” Update: They were quoting the wrong law in the article. The Customs Act was the appropriate Act to quote, which would have been 45 L. 

It says nothing about importation. Granted, the last group of people I’d want to know what I do with myself would be the government and it’s employees, but the published Acts and Amendments related to Customs and Excise says nothing about sex toys, or anything profane, indecent, or obscene…

So I’m writing this, despite my misgivings about the topic, because to me the topic at issue is not sex toys, but instead appropriate research for an article that is supposed to inform the public. There is a big question here that, sure, Ministers should be able to answer – but they’re ducking it.

Selling the items is one thing. Importing for personal use seems to be quite another.

And while I wouldn’t want to know what the government would tax on sex toys, given how much I paid on a simple book recently, I don’t know that anyone would think it worthwhile – but articles that are about an alleged ban of importation of sex toys doesn’t make sense to anyone who bothers with a short amount of research.

And can someone, please, give a legal definition of a sex toy that isn’t subjective?

This is a failure of the media, in my eyes, though my eyes see the world differently than others. I view the media’s job to inform and question appropriately. The very first article should have been able to say that no one has mentioned the laws related to customs and excise, that the law quoted was about the sale of the items.

This has blaring questions attached that are so apparent that they might as well be painted bright neon pink.

And made to vibrate.

Now, if they start dealing with Internet Enabled… devices… and privacy issues, such as this data breach, I’ll write more about it. But to me, this is all about improper communication from the people we depend on to communicate.  

The Reading Tax: Trinidad and Tobago.

The last copy I'm buying. Too many given away or stolen.While we live in an era where digital books are prevalent, and I have many of them, there are certain books that I like to have physically. And I like to have them in hardcover because, if a book is worth having physically, it’s worth having the hardcover.

So I ordered the book on the right through Amazon.com- the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. It’s somewhat rare as seen, so it ended up costing me $58 U.S. from a third party vendor through Amazon.com. I got it today, after Aeropost covered customs for me – which cost an additional $24.39 US (or $164.35 TT).

All in all, this specific book cost me $82.39 US, or $555.18 TT. It’s something I’m willing to pay for; it’s an important book for me.

Still, that is a little pricey, isn’t it? If it wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t bother.

I recalled that Nigel Khan’s bookstore used to do special orders years ago, and I thought maybe it would be worth exploring – they do, after all, import books. So I wandered into Southpark and asked the lady about it, and she said ‘yes’. I provided her a few titles I wanted in hardcover, English translations… and started off with ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (Paulo Freire).

She dutifully tapped away at her keyboard, then asked me to come around and choose which edition I wanted. When I wandered around, my mind’s internal jaw dropped.

I was staring at Amazon.com’s page search for ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

Still, this was an experiment and I wanted to see where this would go. Maybe they had a better deal for me. Maybe it would be something worthwhile, maybe there would be some value added to me somehow. So I chose the 50th year anniversary hardcover of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, which I saw was clearly was $64.47 US.

And we worked through the other book – Musashi’s, “Book of Five Rings”.

Then, she whipped out her calculator – because no one uses the calculator on the computer they access the Internet on (there’s money down the tubes) – and she started working out the pricing.

Now, I paid about 30% markup on the Douglas Adams book myself, which is pretty steep for any book – but let’s work with a 30% markup. So, at $64.47 US, I should be looking at about $84 US to bring the book in. That’s about $566-570 TT.  In my head, I averaged roughly $575 TT, which wasn’t too far off as I write this.

That solar powered calculator had other numbers in mind.

It spoke with the woman’s voice and told me $1200 TT/$180 US.

For a $65 US book. For something I could bring in myself for roughly $84 US.

What?! For one book? That’s effectively buying the same book almost 3 times and getting only one copy. I buy the government a copy they don’t get, I buy the bookstore a copy they don’t get, and I get one.

I’ll bring it in myself when I’m ready. Or, at those prices, maybe I should fly to the U.S. and bring in a suitcase of books.

Everybody knows it.

But people in Trinidad and Tobago, largely, know this. And this is one aspect of living in small economy with little purchasing power, subject to pricing necessary to maintain a business presence in Trinidad and Tobago based on importation. I can get screwed by the government alone by bringing it in myself, or I can get screwed by the government who subsequently screws a business that’s screwing me.

Yet not everyone can order the books off of Amazon – foreign exchange is a commodity unto itself in Trinidad and Tobago. So if you want a book and you can’t get the foreign exchange together, which is just about everybody these days, you get charged about 3 times the book price for a special order.

And can everyone afford that? No.

Reading in Trinidad and Tobago seems to have become a luxury. We live in a global information economy, and these prices for books in the Trinidad and Tobago Information Fiefdom do not bode well for the future.

See An Attorney: Purchasing Land in T&T

Survey PointThere’s always a deal too good to be true anywhere, but in Trinidad and Tobago it seems those that are easily swindled are found all over – I’ve met more than a few.

This post on Facebook about an allegedly dishonest real estate agent is what prompted this post. I’ve seen it too many times, partly because I own property.

It’s easy for anyone to say derogatory things about people who fall for land related fraud. I see it as an issue of a lack of education, of desperation, and the promise of something too good to be true. And on the flip side, there are enough people out there with property that don’t understand the process themselves and dig their own holes.

And, to be clear, I am not an attorney. I just know one thing that should be the mantra of anyone who is going to purchase property: Consult an attorney with land conveyance experience.

What I share beyond that is subject to about 20 years of indirect experience and 13 years of direct experience of dealing with property sales in Trinidad and Tobago.

The First Steps

The first step is, so that everyone knows, not to build a house and hope that the owner never shows up. It’s actually to have a conversation with the landowner – and from there, the following should be done if a sale is agreed upon:

(1) A deed search: Don’t buy property without a deed because then… you’re not really buying property. You may be buying rights, and I’ve seen instances where the rights are dubious.

Any attorney can do a deed search. It verifies that the deed is legitimate. However, it doesn’t verify that the deed being shown represents the land that is being sold. See part II.

If someone is selling rights, that’s a legal process as well which involves notifying the landowner. 

(2) A survey: You can’t buy or sell anything without defining what it is.

Get a survey.  That survey will also verify that the deed shown in step 1 is the same one being dealt with.

Purchase agreements can be done without surveys, but without very specific circumstances the best bet is to have a survey – and I think it’s in the purchaser’s interests to have their surveyor do it.

(3) Purchase Agreement: Once everyone agrees to a price for the property being sold – conveyed –  everyone goes to an attorney to do the purchase agreement. The purchaser can select their own attorney (I encourage it).

It usually means putting 10% down, as well as other things that the attorney will advise you on –  such things can change, so I won’t get into that. Attorneys get paid to stay on top of that. See one.

Do not simply hand money over to someone without a signed agreement.

(4) At the end of the purchase agreement period, pay off what is owed. You pay the lawyer for services, as well as deed registration, and so on.

You’ll need an assessment number as well – the attorney should already have that from the people selling – and you’ll go get your own assessment number, which is it’s own process.

And that’s basically how you purchase land/property. And even with this simple thing, you’ll note you always start at an attorney to verify that the deed is legitimate, and you should get your advice about everything else right then and there. I don’t expect the overall process to change, but your attorney will advise you.

Do it right or don’t do it at all. Don’t cry fraud if you never went to see an attorney, you just look silly.

Ferrying The Wrong Questions Without Data

leaving TrinidadPeople have been talking a lot about the new ferry between Trinidad and Tobago, the MV Galleon’s Passage. There’s been plenty of coverage in the media – some I’m certain I haven’t seen – but I ignored much of it because it was apparent that people talking about the ship and the one it had replaced didn’t know too much about ships.

I found myself staring at a comparison between the MF Panorama and the MV Galleon’s Passage on Facebook. Assuming the information is correct, there’s a lot to speculate on – but there’s not enough.

Ship Name MF PANORAMA MV GALLEONS PASSAGE
Built 1987 2016
Length 101.28 m 74 m
Breadth 17.54 m 22 m
Speed (Top) 14.6 knots (19 knots) 11.6 knots (22 knots)
# Passengers 1,000 700
# beds 45 0
# cars 145 100
Time to Tobago 5 hours 6-8 hours

Let’s assume for a moment that this is all correct – I’m not sure.

On the surface, this is a pretty clear comparison between two ships. In this comparison, the new ship, the MV Galleons Passage is smaller by length, yet wider. It’s maximum speed is slower. It carries less passengers. It has no beds, and it carries less cars. That’s all pretty damning, right?

Not really. Probably the most important aspect of a ferry is the displacement. You can have a ship that has lower length and breadth that has a higher displacement. I’m not saying that this is the case here, I’m saying that information isn’t available here and can’t be found easily on the Internet, if it exists at all. The draft of the ships could have hinted at that. A read of ship measurements might be revealing.

The point is, the data we have here really doesn’t demonstrate much except some decreases – the number of passengers, cars and beds have decreased – the beds all the way out of existence – but then we get into different things that should have been considered when looking at getting a ferry.

What does the ferry need to do?

The ferry needs to transport people and things back and forth between Trinidad and Tobago. We could leave it at that – in fact, it seems everyone has – but really, it’s more complicated than it has been framed in the media and by politicians.

When purchasing something, we should be looking not only at it’s capacity – it’s value, per se – as well as it’s cost. If you don’t know the difference between cost and value, hold your breath. The cost of air is presently free. The value of air is revealed the as you hold your breath. Take your time.

So, like everything else, there’s an initial cost. There are also maintenance costs. In the context of a ship, you’re looking at electromechanical maintenance, other maintenance (painting, et al), as well as the cost of the ship’s complement (the people who work on the ship) and their salaries. Where’s this data?

And while we’re here, while there are no beds for people to take naps in the new ships, this information is lacking something probably more important to businesses and people in Tobago: how much cargo can be packed in there? That isn’t mentioned at all – and the difference between the Loaded and Light displacement might tell us something. We don’t have that.

That can also be a factor in speed. Most people know that if you want to go fast, you get a sports car. If you have cargo, you want a heavier vehicle which is typically slower. We don’t know that the new ship is slower because of this, but it’s worth considering.

And that gets us into historical data, as well as present day demands.

Where’s The Historical Data?

How many passengers at most need to be transported at a time? How many vehicles at a time? How many people at a time prefer a slow boat over a short hop on a plane? How does that change throughout the year?

The short answer is, we don’t know. We simply don’t have that data, and we assume that the government has that data hidden away somewhere and we would hope that the best decision would be made that fits the requirements of the ship as well as affordability. But we don’t actually have any of that data available.

There’s no actual transparency here, and while we can hope that journalists asked these questions, we don’t have evidence of that.

Open Data

And this is where we can drag it to the Trinidad and Tobago National ICT plan. There’s supposed to be ‘open data’, allowing the general public of Trinidad and Tobago information in decisions such as this. All we’ve really had is a lot of guided conversation, without actual information that shows whether the decision is good, bad, or simply the best fit with the options available. Regardless of political stripe, this information would at the least allow more sensible conversation.

In essence, we’re asking for the government not just for the right answer, but to show it’s working. And that means not only do we have to ask the right questions – journalists and, failing them, otherwise – and we have to have access to the answers to those questions.

A More Climate-Smart Caribbean? [Updated]

Usain Bolt with NX300-4
Usain Bolt with NX300-4, courtesy SamSung, Belgium. Some Rights Reserved (through Image Link)

From Richard Branson’s comment on his post – thank you – here is his response with what  countries are on the list:


“Hi Taran – the countries already signed up are: Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, US Virgin Islands, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Belize, Barbados, Bahamas, Guyana, Suriname, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St Vincent & The Grenadines, Panama, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras. I hope to see more join the list!?”

————————————————————————

I was perusing my networks and came across this post by Richard Branson on LinkedIn about creating a cleaner Caribbean, complete with a picture of him chatting with Usain Bolt. This, in turn, leads to a post about creating the world’s first Climate Smart Zone.

I knew nothing about it. Here I am, in Trinidad and Tobago  – a part of the Caribbean – and I’m getting this news from Richard Branson on LinkedIn. That’s peculiar, isn’t it? So I dug in, particularly interested in aspects related to Trinidad and Tobago. Short answer: Nothing specific about any country, really.

In spending about an hour doing some research on it this morning, I saw no particular references to Trinidad and Tobago related to the ‘Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator‘. The name alone is a mouthful, distills to an unwieldy acronym, and doesn’t actually get into much detail. It’s boiler-plate NGO/Government communications, the message diluted for the people who probably should know more about it.

Caricom Today has an interesting article on it – “Caribbean Aims to Become World’s First Climate Smart Zone“:

Core partners include the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, CARICOM, and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

Over the next five years, the accelerator will create the right environment for private and public funds to flow into investments in clean energy, building resilience and climate-smart cities and healthy oceans.

Oh. And it mentions something rather interesting as well – that US $200 million is earmarked for this. Hidden in plain sight.

There’s more from the Inter-American Development Bank here:

The deadly havoc that was caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 posed huge challenges to many Caribbean countries. While the Caribbean has historically been vulnerable to natural disasters, climate change is exacerbating these risks and is threatening the region’s quest for sustainable development. Unless confronted with substantial resources, the economic impact for the region could exceed US$22 billion per year by 2050, or about ten percent of current GDP. Speaking at an event, Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group said:“Our goal is ambitious and bold: we are creating the world’s first climate-smart zone. We have a vision of the Caribbean which is greener, stronger and more resilient than ever before – built on innovation, powered by clean, sustainable energy and accelerated by public and private investment”.

And this, apparently, has been a thing since at least December, 2017, as this World Bank article demonstrates.

And yet, there are claims of all these ‘Caribbean countries’ being involved, but no real list of them. I found nothing about Trinidad and Tobago in there. When we write, “Caribbean Countries”, it’s a nebulous thing.

So, I’m not sure about much of this – I’ll be paying more attention to it, but there needs to be more detail in what they send out.

The people of the Caribbean certainly would be interested in this, if only there were usable information… which is always the problem with such things.

How many photocopies of ID, T&T?

Computerize THIS.Everywhere I go these days in Trinidad and Tobago, it seems someone wants to photocopy two forms of my identification.

My bank has multiple copies. Lawyers have multiple copies. The government has multiple copies – and guess who issues identification? Water (WASA), Electricity (T&TEC)… the list goes on.

And everywhere that there are photocopies of my identification, people I don’t know have access to them. How can I possibly trust a system that allows anyone photocopies of identification in files?

You want to see two forms of identification – fair enough. You don’t trust the people who are seeing them, so you have them photocopied – now, you clearly don’t trust these people, but you ask the individual to trust them with access to the same photocopies.

There seems to be a special part of the Amazon Forest dedicated to this need for everyone to have photocopies of everyone else’s identification here in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s just asking for identity theft, or corruption – because those photocopies can be… photocopied… and then they can be photocopied… and since these systems require photocopies… who knows what all these photocopies will be used for?

It’s outrageous. Processes that require photocopies of identification are severely outdated.

I’d even say that they should be made illegal.

Please photocopy this post and hand it to people who are photocopying your identification.

Customer Service Post Mortem: Ugh

Public 'Services'

I went to pick up a few boxes of contacts at the optometrist company I presently deal with. I won’t write of the fact that they wanted me to pay more to have my prescription myself instead of being monopolized by them – a tactic abandoned in other countries.

On this particular day, it was the quarter finals of the World Cup – something I had chosen to miss because I had a friend in the hospital I wanted to see. I arrived with ample time to get that done, pick up some medications and get to the hospital for visiting hours. A young lady met me at the counter, as usual. And then, having pulled me up on the system, asked me to have a seat in the back – a seat which faced an empty desk. I sat for a while, with someone else there – a lady as I recall – and we discussed the match for a few minutes before she was called away.

I sat there, alone, for some minutes, occupying myself with the phone. Nothing was happening. I could hear people moving around, so I stood up and surveyed the situation calmly – there were three people with three customers. There were three other people who, upon seeing me watching got busy with shelving. One asked the others if someone was at lunch, which apparently was true. It was 3:30 p.m.

Now, getting contacts shouldn’t be a process like this. Everywhere else on the planet, they pull up my prescription on the computer, see if it’s in stock and if it is, I pay for them and leave. This takes less than 10 minutes on a bad day. On a good day, less than 5 minutes. That day, I had passed the 15 minute mark.

I started to leave – I had other things to do before heading to the hospital, and I would be busy the next day so I needed to get these things done that day. One of the busy people, one with a customer, left her customer apologetically and told me she would be right with me, and I explained to her firmly that getting my contacts or even ordering them is a simple process. The unspoken was that any of the three people who were playing with shelving could have gotten onto the system, see I had an up to date prescription, and then sell them to me. The argument could be that they were unqualified.

What I saw, as a customer, was people who should be able to handle a simple transaction avoiding me. My experience, with this company, is that they think I come to their office to sit down and wait for what should be a standing transaction – every time.

I went, ordered and purchased medications at the pharmacy, and went back to the optometrist where I was immediately seen by a customer service person. She was diligent to the point of aggravation, going back to physical files instead of trusting the computer system that all their customers pay for to have better convenience. I mentioned that. She wanted to be sure. I can understand that, but it added to the irritation.

But the real conversation I left with was this:

“Mr. Rampersad, I know you probably want to get to see the football game and…”
“It’s not about the football game. I’m rushed.”
“Well you shouldn’t rush all the time…”

Yes, she did that. I stared at her and quietly said, “I am not in a rush, I am rushed. I had three things to do. The first was at least order the contacts, the second was to pick up medication, and the third was to see my friend in the hospital.” I looked at my watch. “And now, we’re wasting visiting hours. I’m rushed because a simple thing is taking too long. The time it took me to get medications is exactly how long it should take to get my contacts.”

Silenced, we went through the rest of it as quickly as she could. After I got rid of her preconception that me needing to get things done in a timely manner, unrushed, was about football and which, therefore, she didn’t think was important.

In essence, she didn’t think my needs were important. There are flaws in the process I have seen at this place over the months, one of which is constantly asking me to sit down for things that should be able to be done in minutes.

And I’m pretty sure that when my prescription runs out with them, I’ll be finding a new optometrist company to deal with because I vote with my feet – and wallet. Because I don’t settle for paying someone to prejudge me, my intentions, and why I need things done quickly.

Shirts and P10s: Function vs. Form, Import Businesses vs. The Online Tax.

I’ve been spending some time shopping here and there. I went looking for shirts, and found that the ones with designs I liked lacked pockets, and the ones with pockets were not to my liking. I don’t understand the war on pockets of all these imported shirts, particularly when everyone these days has a mobile phone that they could place there instead of near their posterior – rubbing their posterior against their mouth and ear by proxy.

It should be as unattractive as it sounds, shouldn’t it?

This isn’t really be about shirts. I’m certainly not in charge of fashion; I personally admit a fondness for function over form and make no apology. There is a room for pretty in my world, but it has to do more than look pretty.

Another thing I was looking at, and more on topic, is the Huawei P10. I presently have a P10 Lite that, for whatever reason, no one seems to have cases for – a shortcoming of Huawei I’ve found pretty consistent, at least in South-West Trinidad. So, the first month I bought it, I cracked the screen.

Truth be told, I wanted a P10 because Mark Lyndersay keeps showing off his great shots through the Leicos lenses. And now, having cracked the screen of a fairly decent camera that has more than earned it’s keep, I walked into bMobile to see if I could purchase one. I find their pre-paid bundles work best for me, and I don’t really like contracts. Their P10 was available only under a post-paid plan, apparently with a 2 year contract.

I don’t know anyone who walks into bMobile, or Digicel, and says, “Hey! I want a 2 year contract that I won’t take to a lawyer to advise me on!”. I don’t know anyone like that. I do know people who say, “I want to upgrade my phone.”

So I saw one today at an outlet, and I asked the person who was selling it, “Do you have a case for it?”

“No.”

I was about to plunk down the money. I really was. But if you’re not going to support what you’re selling even with a simple case for someone to protect their investment, I’d offer you’re not a shrewd businessperson. And as much as I like Mark and love his photos, this lack of cases is a horrible thing for someone who spends a lot of time off the beaten track. We get back to function and form.

Let’s take a deeper dive.

This should all be simple enough to solve, but in a small consumer base such as that of Trinidad and Tobago, it’s a problem. Foreign exchange is at an increasing premium. Importers haven’t necessarily been putting their best foot forward over the years because when money flowed like oil – excuse me, it still does – but when it flowed through the economy at a higher rate, people bought all sorts of things with their disposable income.

The oil price reduction as well as severe lack of economic diversification over the decades by every administration has lead to sub-optimum disposable income. In plain English, people aren’t spending money because they aren’t getting it.

This means that companies that import goods other than food have these stocks of inventory that they can’t return. They made choices in products that, at least to some, are outright silly. When I drive by and see fluorescent colored plastic home goods, I can’t help but wonder what the person importing was thinking. “Fluorescent pink and green laundry hampers will fly off the shelves!”, said no sane person ever. 

So, the only sane thing to do when you can’t get what you want is to get what you want online through an online tax of 7% that is inconsistent for the very same items imported twice. It’s the new gambling system put in place by the government, a government that is going to send out people to evaluate properties probably as inconsistently as they handle the online tax.

To some, the online tax roulette is worth it if you can find the foreign exchange to play the game. If you need a case for a P10 or P10 Lite, as an example. Or if you want to buy fender flares for your pickup, or if you want to buy shirts with pockets.

To others, what they wear and use is framed by what importers have in their inventory. The illusion of choice is just that, more so in smaller economies.