On a recent trip to Spain, Rome, Portugal and Greece to attend a conference and conduct research, my colleagues and I were warned well in advance to expect the worst. There were fears about the so-called global recession and its impact on these countries, the problems with the Euro, and the unrest we were likely to encounter, particularly as there was a change of government in the case of Rome. We were warned about pickpockets, looting, and all the imaginable ills that lay in wait for us.
Strangely enough, I did not experience any of these problems, nor did discussions with people in civil society suggest that the challenges that were facing their countries were insurmountable. People recognised that some of the problems rested on the shoulders of the citizenry themselves. In the case of Greece or Hellas, for example, we were informed that people had moved away from the outlying districts, where a number of them had been shepherds. Currently, we were informed,the task was performed by Pakistanis, Indians, or people from Afghanistan.
We were also advised that education (to the level of university) was free and health services were free as well. In two of these countries, too, we were advised that their dependence was on one major product, in the case of Greece, mainly tourism. In actually looking at them, though, one could not witness any signs or signals of economic problems. Rather, I would say unhesitatingly that they were extremely developed.
In the cases of all these countries, even in the outlying district areas leading to high mountainous areas, we were amazed at the roads. For hundreds of miles of roadway, there was not one pothole. Moreover, the surrounding areas were immaculately maintained, with oleanders in full bloom, the drains were clean and, except for the marketplace in Greece, we did not see one piece of paper or even a cigarette butt in the street. Yet, in all these countries, I saw no CEPEP workers. Rather, in late afternoons, a garbage truck came, and then a water truck, which washed down the streets.
However, we were shocked at the method of crossing the street. There were crossings where pedestrians crossed. We heard no obscene language being used, even in the marketplaces; we saw no drunks (even though wine was available in all the little cafes); we saw no one spitting in the streets; we smelled no urine or saw no faeces on the roads.
In Rome, we saw a really good method to recycle. At strategic points there were water fountains where people simply refilled their water bottles. It made sense, since it reduced dramatically the number of plastic water bottles in the landfills and dumps. It also signalled to us that there was potable water available to all. In all these countries, the air-conditioned buses were on time and there was a well-established metro system. Hence traffic problems were noticeably absent.
We also experienced the respect that the people had for their heritage. In nearly all cases there was a charge to visit historical attractions-but it was well worth it. No doubt the recession facing these countries will have a serious impact, but I cannot help but think that they will overcome these hurdles, since they seem to have an advanced transport system, infrastructural system, as well as potable water. In many of these countries, too, it is clear that they have recognised their over-reliance on imported food and are moving to food sufficiency. They have also recognised the damage that cheap Chinese products can have on an economy and on local artisans.
In coming home to Trinidad, I experienced a shock on leaving the airport-the roads seemed to have worsened, the curbs were overgrown, flooding seems to be a major challenge, there have been electricity outages.... and my list of litanies and woes has continued to grow. To have gone abroad seems to have opened a Pandora's box -I now see the "true" state of Trinidad.
Crime is still high; we, a proclaimed non-racist society, seem to have literally chased out the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Police on the grounds of blaming them for non-performance; we keep on throwing money at situations without putting in place performance standards and measures of accountability; the standards of education have declined; corruption, although hidden, is extremely high;and one can only hint at the underground economy.
Moreover, even those who proclaimed the corruption of previous parties seem to be "eating ah food" and are silent. What to me is even more distressing, however, is that I (I am sorry if there is one; I am not privy to it) have seen no vision for the future and no strategic plans for the country. To me, the outsider and layman, it appears that the country is adrift.
Part of our problem, clearly is the political games and manoeuvres that we have embraced since 1956. Another problem is clearly the apathy and the attitude of our society. Before we too are engulfed by the global crisis, it is time for us to re-think our strategies and to put basic measures in place so that we too may be able to buffer any economic crisis or recession.