Saturday, May 24, 2014

Brain of the Bahamas - brackets, failed

“Brain of the Bahamas, brackets failed”, Rob the friendly cynic used to call me, after I’d come fourth in the final of the local Champion of Knowledge competition in Nassau in 1970. Dave the friendly librarian was appalled that I had missed an easy question about the Dewey Decimal System. Tchah! A mental blockage, under the pressure of a live audience on live radio. Fourth prize was a Larousse encyclopedia, which is actually quite informative about the bloody Dewey Decimal System.

I did better in the National Spelling Bee, the same year. My second-place finish there, won me a free return-flight for two on Bahamas Airways. Yee-hah! We had already flown to several of the Bahamian Out-Islands, and we planned to use these tickets for a trip down to the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), the furthest we could go on the airline. We would wait for the next long-weekend, to make it worth the while.

Unfortunately... The airline chose that weekend to go broke. We never got past the check-in desk, and never did get to the Turks. Twenty years later I came second in a British-FCO competition to take charge of those Islands’ offshore tax-haven administration. Not as Financial Secretary, but the office below that, I think it was; I don’t recall the title. They flew me to London for the interview, but that was as close as I got.

It’s fun winning competitions; but sometimes it’s better if you don’t win. Life is a series of small competitions, isn’t it? Small victories, small losses. John Lennon should have called his song, “All you need is luck”. He knows that now, of course.

I knew the chap who got the job. Derek was the safer choice, but he failed to raise the profile of the offshore sector much; and I might have failed too. Who knows? TCI is a strange collection of sparsely settled islands. The islands themselves are nice enough, but the politics are wild. The FCO clerks ignored the burgeoning corruption for decades, just as they did Cayman’s. TCI’s shit just happened to hit the fan first. Its former Leader of Government Business is in Brazil fighting extradition as we speak; ours is merely under arrest.

At the time I applied for that job, our local political establishment was trying to give me the bum’s rush for my part in establishing the Chamber of Commerce as an independent force for good in the community. As the Chamber’s manager, I was instrumental in fighting off the politicians’ attempt to impose an Income Tax in our little fiscal paradise. By the end of the battle, there was blood all over the carpet, and much of it was mine. The dirty story is briefly told in my blog-post Confessions of a Subversive, in October 2012.

My chances of survival in Cayman were slim, so I began applying for jobs in other tax-havens. One of them was the position of Registrar of Companies in Liberia. I wasn’t ecstatic at the prospect of living in such a place, but who could tell what fortune the CIA might pay me? In the event, not nearly enough. They flew me up to Langley, but the wage was too silly, and I turned it down. I met the Scottish fellow who got the job after he’d done his three years – a Hamish Somebody. It wasn’t bad, he said, except for the civil war.

Here at home, I got by with a little help from my friends and the FCO in London, although I was blacklisted for employment forever more, and had to be stamped in as a tourist every month for the next two years. Bastards!

Was it worth the agony of winning that battle, that competition? Only just, on a personal level. But Cayman is still free of Income Tax, these twenty-seven years later; so my community has benefited mightily. And, I’m still here. There’s a few million dollars less in the bank account than I would have had, had the bullies allowed me to earn a proper living again. Ah well. Sometimes the prize for winning isn’t exactly what it says on the ticket. That's just the way it goes, right?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Small-island traffic

On our small island – eighty square miles in area – we rarely find ourselves far from home. Google Earth shows our house as an L-shaped white roof a mile south of town along the coast road, in a cul-de-sac off to the left. Linda and I each have a car – each seventeen years old, whose first five years were spent in Japan.

Such cars are popularly called “deportees”; they’re cheap to buy, and very reliable. There are probably 20,000 of them on Grand Cayman, and 20,000 other cars, mostly American. Traffic problems in general aren’t as bad as in most places, and are mostly confined to the morning and evening rush-hours.

I have no occasion to go downtown these days, but Linda drives through it along Hog Sty Bay (George Town Harbour, excuse me) on her way to work and back. It’s a pleasant drive, except when four or five cruise-liners are at anchor and their passengers take over the streets. They use the designated pedestrian crossings as often as not, which is nice, though they’re usually looking the wrong way. As a British colony, we drive on the left, and that confuses them.

Half our vehicles have the steering wheels on the left, too – just like back home in the USA – and that’s confusing. Who the hell knows what’s coming from where? The Japanese cars are like English cars: drivers sit on the right. When tourists rent cars here, they don’t always manage to remember all the possibilities.

We residents are commendably patient with them. When we see a car coming towards us on the wrong side of the road, we just slow right down until the penny drops. No cussing, no rude gestures, just that super-patient look that is more insulting than both of those.

We have five sets of traffic lights on the Island, plus a few red-light flashers at zebra crossings. The most fun to be had is at the four-way-stop junction up by the Hospital. There’s always some idiot who sneaks through in the slipstream of the car ahead of him, too impatient to allow the rest of us to exercise our democratic entitlement to move off in the exact order we arrived. Democracy is imperilled whenever a close finish occurs. It usually is, isn’t it?

What a virtuous feeling, to concede priority to a rival who may or may not have come to a complete halt a tenth of a second before us. What indignation, when the concession is not acknowledged with a pip of the horn or a wave. And what fury, when a wretched pedestrian crosses the junction and makes all the cars wait. Oh, the agony when the wretch is on crutches, or hobbling pathetically on his or her way to the Hospital to get crutches.

 By the time the fool finally makes his crippled way across, we’ve all forgotten whose turn it is to move first. What tentative movements there are then, for the first four vehicles, all being urged on by reminders from the drivers behind them.

 On mornings when I have my nine o’clock directors’ meetings, the traffic is a bit dodgy on Smith Road up beside the Prep School. Young kids are jumping out of cars and running across the road, parents are turning into or out of the designated drop-off spots, and the rest of us feel sorely put upon. It’s only a two-lane street, and two stopped SUVs half-parked on opposite sides of it reduce that to a single lane.

We childless cars squeeze past as best we can, and we resent the delay. After all, the lights by the cricket field are only a hundred yards away, and thirty seconds’ delay might cost us a green light. Cayman’s drivers are courteous, yes, and patient within reason; but there are limits. We are human. If you prick us, we bleed.

I always stop to pick up a coffee at the supermarket, where two hundred cars are angle-parked in banks of two (one on the left, one on the right), and where there are no designated trolley-paths. Again, pedestrians are saved from mass slaughter by drivers’ courtesy and patience. We give way to every shopping cart – “Go ahead, darlin’!” – never mind the dozen cars behind us backed up into the main road, and the three trying to back out in front of us. Ah well; it’s what we do.

It’s bad manners to stop and chat to a friend one hasn’t seen in a while, though, so there’s not much of that. Most of the time.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Buddy Holly’s father

It’s quite fun coming across old photos of one’s younger self. Somehow, one of mine had gotten caught up in Linda’s library of stamp-albums and first-day covers that we were sorting through last week. (After Hurricane Ivan all the albums were crammed up on the ledge above the washing-machine, and she wanted to unload some of them to a visiting cousin.)

This photo was of me in Arab dress – a professional portrait from Al Sharq Studio in Jericho, when I was 25. My Lawrence of Arabia moment, set up by our hosts in what was then Jordan. Somewhere there exists a corresponding photo of Linda: not nearly as glamorous, because in most Arab countries it’s only the men who are allowed to look cool.

I have always remembered being dressed up and photographed in Middle-Eastern gear, but I’d have said it was in Tehran in the home of one of our Mercedes drivers [reported in Cattle Class to Kuwait, April 2012]. But, no, the Studio’s name and address is on the back of the photo. We must have been staying with the owner of the Studio, but I can’t recall that, or him and his family.

It’s shameful of me to forget, but there is no ingratitude in the shame. The people of the entire region and culture were so hospitable to us, that any stand-out would have been an exception – had there been one, which there wasn't.

I tend to confuse Jericho with Jerash. At the latter, we were invited by a bunch of shepherds to share their evening meal, when their workday was done. So we dumped our rucksacks with them and went for a walk. To our shame (more shame!), we didn’t get back until two minutes after sunset – and this during Ramadan, which is the Moslem month of fasting. Hugely embarrassing!

The poor men hadn’t eaten a crumb since dawn, yet couldn’t break their fast until their invited guests arrived. We washed our hands in haste and sat down around a big circular bowl of food, and had to take the first dip. Only then could the hungry ones fall to. They forgave us. It’s a wonderfully tolerant culture, at ground level -- Western propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.

We have only a few photos from our travels together, Linda and I. I’ve never been “into” photos, and dislike posing. We have one of me lying beside the little car on a hill overlooking Istanbul, with our clothes strung around drying in the sun. And there’s one of me hitching, with Mt Ararat in the background, just before the Mercedes convoy picked us up. But after that, nothing, that I can recall; and none at all of Linda.

Nothing from Esfahan or Kuwait or Baghdad. Only the two formal snaps from Jericho. Then nothing from Baalbeck or Cairo or Cyprus – or even Mykonos, the most romantic island in the world. Nothing until our wedding in Toronto, two full years after the Al Sharq portraits.

 (For our 25th Wedding Anniversary, Linda got our local newspaper to publish a photo of us at the actual wedding – she young and pretty, me smiling in my black-framed glasses, fashionable at the time. A few days later, Roger the comedian greeted me at the tennis courts with, "Hello! It’s Buddy Holly’s father!” Which is funny if you remember who Buddy Holly was and what he looked like.)

Our home is festooned with snaps of Ross at all ages and stages, and of our grand-children. That’s what happens, isn’t it? His kids love seeing snapshots of their Dad as a little boy, just as their children will be glad we kept so many snaps of them. We have a paper wall-chart where we used to mark the girls’ heights when they were smaller. The older one is above the limit, now; but we like to keep it up for old time’s sake. Nostalgia is good.

Maybe we’ll leave it to them in our Wills. There's a thought! On the wall beside my computer as I type now, there is a painting of my great-grandmother Emily, from 1847. Cousin Lucy left it to me in her Will, together with the actual locket Emily wears in the portrait. A tattered wall-chart is not quite in the same league, but it’s the best we can manage.