Friday, July 09, 2004

Culture? Shock!

It occurs to me that I seldom write here about the wacky stuff that goes on in this territory. It can be some funny shit--if you don't have to live with it.

West Indians here can sometimes be some of the rudest and unfriendliest people we've encountered anywhere. I find this rudeness particularly curious given that the economy here is primarily fueled by tourism. Talk about unclear on the concept. One of my favorite moments was when a woman called a local talk radio show enraged that two tourists had had the nerve to ride a (city) bus. "Those buses are for US!"

We've all heard stories of corruption in government. Hell, we're living through an administration in Washington rife with it. (Can you say Halliburton, boys and girls?) The corruption here is not only staggering in its proportions, it's also very, very blatant. If you're gonna steal, at least show a little finesse. And those are YOUR tax dollars at work, my friends. We pay 'federal' income tax, but it stays in the territory. I think you'd be surprised how many of your federal tax dollars find their way down here. Much of it ends up being 'misappropriated' or simply unaccounted for at all.

And there's a neat little government program here that allows a bunch of rich folks from the States to set up shop down here and avoid paying most taxes. All they have to do is provide a few jobs for locals. In return, they pay almost nothing in gross receipts or personal and corporate income tax. The phone company is a beneficiary of this program. And the same man owns the phone company, the cable company and the daily newspaper (as well as utilities on other Caribbean islands).

Let's talk about work ethic, shall we? Or rather, the lack of one. Rudeness and unfriendliness are bad enough, but when it's topped off by a huge dose of arrogance, then I have a real problem. Here's my rule: if you're going to act superior and arrogant, you'd better have the shit to back it up. You don't get to be arrogant when you're unbelievably incompetent and lazy. Sorry, doesn't work that way. And respect? It's earned. Lest you think I sound harsh, let me point out that many West Indians have disdain for their fellow West Indians who work in government jobs. The stories are endless. Here are a few:

My pal and her husband were building their dream house. (He's a native, she's lived here 20 years.) We have a Home Depot, but it didn't open until after her home was completed so she had to buy all of her stuff at the Home Depot in San Juan. A year ago, the government (to make up for some of the money they were raiding from the till) instituted a 'personal goods tax' where you have to pay a percentage (4%? 7%? I forget) on any item over $1,000 that's brought into the territory. My friend was not happy about this. Suddenly, nearing completion of their house, they were hit with this extra tax. But like a good resident, she paid it. But the first time she went to the government office handling said tax, she had to WAKE UP the cashier to get her to accept the check. The young woman was literally napping at the window.

Same friend...her husband went to the DMV last year to renew his driver's license. They made him wait three hours between the time he completed the paperwork and the time they called him to the window to pick up his new license. When the woman handed it to him, it had his photo, his thumbprint and his signature. There was no written information, not even a name. He insisted that the clerk re-do it and she refused. She was adamant that it was good the way it was. So he took it home to my friend who took one look at it, thought her husband was crazy for accepting it and got on the phone to correct the situation. Here's the best part, when he was arguing with the clerk that it needed more information, the man behind him in line saw what was happening and said something like, "He can't use that..." She snapped back, "You mind your own business!"

There's a legendary story about the guy who got his new license that had a picture empty chair.

Our office handles a lot of real estate closings. To sell a home here, you must obtain from the Department of Finance a 'tax clearance letter' showing that all property taxes have been paid in full. To obtain this letter, you must provide the Department of Finance with copies of all of your paid property tax bills. God forbid you should misplace them (as clients sometimes do) because a canceled check means nothing to these people, as our secretary (who's our liaison with all government agencies--she's West Indian) learned the hard way. So even when you provide them with copies of the front and back of a canceled check, they still take weeks to 'research' it. Their record-keeping systems are a mystery to everyone. And 1995 is a particularly difficult year. A supervisor once told employees to take some boxes to the landfill. Turns out they ontained hundreds of records of paid 1995 property taxes.

There are stories of checks sitting in boxes of paperwork in various government offices...for years. (You'd think if the government was on the verge of bankruptcy, which it is, they'd be a little more careful with the money.)

There's a West Indian woman at my office who works six hours a day in the role of messenger/maid. (Yes, it's archaic, but just about everything in that office is out of the dark ages.) She's a very quiet, sweet woman. But her (West Indian) predecessor was somethng else. We once sent her on a banking errand and when she returned, she walked into my office and threw the banking bag at me in a fit of fury for having had her afternoon nap interrupted. (Needless to say, she didn't last long after that.)

You get the idea.

So the next time you're at your local DMV or Tax Assessor's office, be glad you don't live here. Be very, very glad.


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