Moving Back to Jamaica

A blog about my Move Back to Jamaica after 20+ years of living in the US. Most of the articles focus on the period from 2005-2009 when the transition was new, and at it's most challenging.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Final Steps

While there were still some snags to overcome, I left the Customs office feeling that the process was coming to an end, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel. In a way, I had to feel that way as I was leaving for a business trip the next day (from Tuesday through Friday) and was leaving the entire process in the hands of two people -- my customs broker and a friend of mine who promised to be there to allow my stuff to be loaded into our apartment, if needed.

Well, she was needed -- the customs broker did his part, and by Wednesday the contents of the container were cleared by customs and the entire shipment was sent by truck to my new apartment where my friend reported that the broker's company was moving all the contents "gingerly" from the back of my truck into the apartment. I was nervously calling by cell phone from Barbados.

After hanging up with her, I stayed on the phone and called my wife in Washington, DC to let her know that we were at the end of the physical process, to our mutual relief. Now it was just a matter of unpacking boxes and settling into our new apartment.


While the process was at times jarring and surprising one, in retrospect I think that there was much that could have been avoided if I had more knowledge about the entire process from the very beginning. While there are people who ship goods back home frequently, there are relatively few who do so as returning residents, which is a one-time privilege. When I searched the internet for any kind of assistance, I could only find a single shipper that was helpful -- -- they had pictures and gave tips on how best to pack a container. This turned out to be useful when we were trying to understand what the helpful mover was telling us about "securing the load."

The only other things I could find on the internet were companies trying to sell, sell, sell without offering any actual help whatsoever (unless that help was to buy.) Mostly these companies were ones that were offering to do everything from end-to-end, by packing the items in the home and unpacking them at the destination.

Of course, the fee for that kind of end-to-end care and responsibility is not a small one.

Most people of modest means who are not having their move to Jamaica being paid for by their large company employer would not select this option, but instead would try to do some of it themselves.

I think that with better planning and more information, there could have been no surprises at all, and the move would have been easier. Hopefully, this series of blogs will help a little in smoothing out the bumps on the trip home -- after all, it's almost every Jamaican's dream to move back and this should not be as much of an impediment as it is.

Incidentally, moving back the physical items is the easiest part of all, I think. Mentally moving back is another thing altogether, and one that I'll be focusing on in blogs to come.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Now the Excitement Begins

Putting everything that one owns into a rusty metal box does bring some sober thinking.

A childhood friend of mine died last Sunday when he took his boat to Lime Cay, jumped off, and hit his head. A close death makes you ponder certain things... like the fact that when you die, you can't take the boat with you, or even your closest friends and family. It's a really sad time for his family, as you could imagine and if the funeral is on Saturday, I'll probably be going.

It also brings into clear relief the reasons why I am moving back to Jamaica, which run counter to the accepted wisdom that one should be looking to leave Jamaica for the US, not move back to it. Moving back to Jamaica represents a commitment to a vision I currently have for my life -- one in which I make a difference to that which matters to me. My friend's death is a timely reminder, that not even tomorrow is assured, and that I'd rather spend today moving in the direction of my commitments and visions, than running away from what scares me in life (and there are some really scary things happening in Jamaica at the moment.)

Well, anyways at this point I still wanted my stuff (even though it will all be inherited by someone else when I die) out of customs and back into my hands. My wife was just beginning to start to worry about "people walking around Kingston in her shoes" and "the TV and the rug -- make sure that those are there because those are the things that they are most likely to steal."

Luckily, for me, I could afford to use a custom broker, a reputable firm that was referred to me by a friend, who immediately put me in touch with the owner by phone from where I was working in Barbados. He promised to take care of everything, and I had to trust him on this one because I only had a day and a half in Jamaica, before leaving to return to Bim (i.e. Barbados.)

On Monday morning, I was at my customs broker offices, and they took us through the paperwork quickly, and assigned someone (a junior clerk) to go with us to the interview at Customs. This was a critical juncture -- the point at which I would be given the status of Returning Resident, and therefore bring in everything tax free, or be left in the pool of "the usual traveller" with a hefty bill to pay running into the US$thousands.

(Incidentally, it would have helped mildly if I had made a list of the contents of each box, and then kept a numbered list of the boxes. I use the word "mildly" because I had over a hundred boxes, and finding "box number 74" would have taken at least a half hour...)

My trusted broker, who pays the role of consultant, trainer, advisor, middleman, confidante, clairvoyant and others, helped me to prepare for the interview by giving me something of a pep talk, and an idea of some of the things that would be BAD to say, like "Oh, NO, I will never, ever again ever travel from Jamaica for the rest of my life." Of course, the customs officer would need to be placated and pampered, and treated as if they had the power to make a big decision... which they certainly did.

In the back of my mind, of course, were all the stories that every Jamaican knows -- how dem customs officer "tief" and "all dem want is a smalls" (bribe.) A friend told me her first hand account of spending 5 hours in customs trying to clear one box, and when the customs officer came she started by opening the box, and upon finding a box of chocolates, ate in right there in front of her... slowly, and deliberately, making her know "who was in charge yahso!"

So, I had my own share of trepidation as I drove down to the customs house on the wharf with my mother and the junior clerk , not knowing what to expect, but expecting at least a long line, a very long wait and hoping that my customs broker had brought the necessary "smalls" they would need to grease the wheels of customs.

Well, it turns out I was way off the mark.

The line was short. The office was professionally run. The officer was polite and friendly.

I was second in line, and was seen in less than half an hour, and would have been seen sooner were it not for the man in front of me who had messed up his shipment, and could not hear that the customs agents were trying to help him... trying their best to help him, in spite of his rudeness.

The only hitch came when I had to redo a form that the customs brokers used, because they had the "old form" and had not updated their supply of forms. Luckily, the our trusted junior clerk seemed to be a friend of everyone in the office, and the relationship, for which I was paying good money, was giving me the advantage I needed.

There was also a minor hitch in the spelling of my name on the bill of lading, and when I began to worry about my flight the following day, they all assured me that no, I didn't even need to come back myself, the broker would take care of all of it for me. My goods would be inspected the following day and then be released by Wednesday or Thursday.

It was such a non-event that my mother fell asleep in the office while waiting for me.

While I understand that it is entirely possible to get the entire process done without the assistance of customs brokers, it would have been much harder to do, much more stressful, take much more time, and also require several payments to different bodies and agencies. In fact, I had a good friend who also cleared a container, and the entire process took 3 solid days of her time, most of which were spent down on the wharves waiting.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Landing in Jamaica

The trip home was quite uneventful -- a short flight from Miami to Kingston.

But, it did feel different to land at Norman Manley this time around, as if this time it really counted. After living abroad for 21 years, this was the first time I had deliberately given up my dwelling in the US to move to ANY other country.

As I landed, I felt very, very American for some reason that I couldn't quite explain. Not like I didn't belong, but more like I felt very aware that I had both American ways of thinking and Caribbean ways of thinking bouncing around in my head, and that I was making a huge shift from spending time being American to spending much more time being Jamaican.

It reminded me of when I first started to travel heavily to the Caribbean to work. Coming back to US felt strange, and it would take me about 24 hours, then 12, then 1 hour, then 10 minutes to make a mental shift, which included "speeding up" to match the US pace or "slowing down" to match the Caribbean pace.

But this time around, seeingthe water and the mountains and feeling the plane land softly with that "Air Jamaica soft landing" felt more poignant. It was also sobering to know that the 20 foot rusty box was sitting atthe wharf somewhere waiting for me to redeem just about everything I owned.

Coming through immigration was routine, except that I declared that I was a Returning Resident. This declaration is important as it allows me to bringall my belongings back to Jamaica without duty. The only mistake I made was to declare it to the wrong person (immigration) not knowing that it was really something to do with customs.

When I came into the customs table for my search I was well-practiced. "I am declaring myself a returning resident." Firmly -- just like I had imagined it for God-knows how many years.

The Customs Official was friendlier and younger than usual, and had to consult her colleague to see which form I needed (the long yellow one.) She searched and we chatted, and she completed the search.

I paused and looked her in the eye and said... "How come yuh not even welcome me home with a little song?" She paused for a while, and started searching her mind for either a good song, or a good comeback. I broke in and said, "Or at least a little "welcome home."?" She gave me a genuine smile and said "Welcome home Mr. Francis!" (My first name is a popular last name in Ja.)

I said thank you, and smiled... she smiled back and said, "Please teach people.... to read, write,... anything... and get 10 people to learn what you know." I told her "I promise," and I walked out of customs, a Jamaican resident again for the first time since 1984.


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Now I Know I’m Still in America

I knew that I had not yet left America when the time came to get rid of the two large items that my wife and I decided not to take with us to Jamaica: a sofa/loveseat set and my old 1991 Acura Integra.

I had seen old sofas and loveseats left around the compound by past residents and always wondered how in the world they could just throw out furniture like that (not all of it looking bad.)

Well, I found out why it was so difficult.

About a week ahead of the final date of the lease, which happened to fall on a Sunday, I used the Yellow Pages to call several charitable organizations to see if they would come and pick up the furniture as a donation. Several donations turned out to be too busy to come before 10 working days time, and I needed it gone within 7 days. Others did not take furniture at all…

On Wednesday I found someone who said that they’d like to take both pieces, and after they called on Thursday to confirm that they’d be coming by the following day, they dropped off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.

By Saturday morning we were panicking, and even called to find out how much it would cost to pay someone to haul away the furniture to the dump: the answer to that was $60. Eventually, a hand-written advertisement placed in my complex yielded a phone call from someone who took the sofa, and someone who wanted the loveseat was eventually able to secure a van to pick it up, so by the end of the day both items were gone.

As for the car, I had some sentimental feelings for my Integra, which I had driven since 1991 for almost all of its 178000 miles. It had seen me through so much, and still was in pretty good shape, but the importation laws of Jamaica prevented anyone from bringing into the island any vehicle that was over three years old.

There were many companies willing to take the donation, and even to come and pick it up, with the only problem being that they could not do so before Wednesday, and I needed to have it transferred on Monday before I flew out of Miami.

Eventually I found out that the Salvation Army had a point at which I could drop off the vehicle on the way to the airport, which I did, but not without a short moment of regret that I could not keep it. As I drove up to the depot, I saw a sign on the building that said ‘Car Auctions Every First Saturday at 10:00am.” I then realized that my car was not even going to be used by a Salvation Army worker, but would probably be sent right back into the general population, and in effect what I was donating to the Salvation Army was not the car, but the proceeds from its sale at auction. Somehow, that was not as satisfying to me, because it meant that I really would have no idea where my car was ending up and in whose hands.

Oh well – the transaction took 5 minutes and that was that. I was car-less.

I couldn’t help think how different this was from Jamaica, where thieves recently jumped over the wall at my parents place and stole birds from the bird-cage and 4 plastic lawn chairs. In Jamaica, I would have found a recipient for all the items it took me so long to get rid of within a matter of half an hour, if as long.

The US is such a land of plenty, and a place that has become so affluent that any old and used item becomes a candidate for the dump, rather than something that could be recycled.

It was such a graphic demonstration of the land from which I’m coming, and the one to which I’m heading.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Filling a rusty, metal, 20 foot box

The next question was, who do we get to help us to move all of our things down to the container, which was now perched at the other side of the complex, out of sight and not entirely out of mind...

It didn't seem that "Raggedy Rich" and "Dutty Dawg Dacres" were likely to be able to take the day off on short notice, round of 20 of their friends, and come over to help the following day (Friday), no matter how much beer and pizza we plied them with, and how much begging we did.

This seemed like a job for the pros, which gave both of us the willies, having had terrible experiences with movers in the past... well... who hasn't?

After getting a quick referral, we called a company who said that we neeeded to let them know in the next 10 minutes so they could set it up for the following day.

We made a well-thought out, balanced, executive decision ... in the throes of our desperation. "How soon can you get here?" I coughed out, feeling the pressure of an apartment manager n the war-path someplace, and a container and carrier pick-up time of 6pm sharp.

At $44 dollars per person per hour, it was a better deal than had ever been presented bya moving company, who follow the time honored tradition of the industry of negotiating the price of the delivery while you are waiting for them to unload your previous earthly possessions (with the wife nervously wondering if the china from the wedding was all broken, and the husband hoping that the old TV did break, thus requiring a new flat-screen model from Circuit City... for the sake of the children, of course.)

They said they'd be there the following day at 8:30 am or so.

If any sleep came that night it came from exhaustion, as once we found the movers, we realised that we were in no shape for them to come tomorrow to help move all our stuff. We had been planning for another day of leisurely packing, followed by some leisurely shopping, to be rounded off by filling the container over a leisurely weekend, eating pizza and drinking beer at a leisurely pace.

Now we were busy throwing stuff into boxes and taping them up, calling my two aunts for help -- frantically getting everything together in the few hours we had left.

The following morning we awoke to sore backs and aching muscles, but we just about almost ready.

The movers came, with an extra person, and after we engaged in the time-honored moving tradition of haggling over how long the job would take (they had not been told about the 200-300 yard distance to the container) they got to work. We got busy telling them where things were, what to do,and got VERY busy making sure that they were happy, and well-watered and well-plied with patties (no beer for them.) They were being paid by the hour, after all, and we needed them to keep working hard, which to their credit they did no some horrendous heat.

They took our stuff downstairs, packed it into the truck for the short trip across the complex, and emptied the truck directly into the container.

They came back for a load, and somewhere in all this they asked "Where do you have your plywood and "lock and load?"" (I may be wrong about the name of this device.)

One of the movers, a tall guy with a tattoo on his neck who looked like the most resistant of all (until he shared that he had spent 6 weeks in Jamaica, taking comfort in some of the best ganja in the world) told us that we needed to secure the load with __something__. This would prevent the stuff in the container from moving around. According to him, you didn't want to have all your stuff bouncing around inside the container, and unless it was completely full (which was unlikely) it could happen.

Thanks to my aunt we were able to get all that we needed in about 2 hours -- going from not understanding a word of what he was talking about, to being able to get the items in hand so they could pack the truck.

Long story short, by 3 pm they were done. The container was tightly packed with two 8x4 pieces of plywood, secured by very tight rope. For a decent picture of what I'm talking about, see: which is the best (and only) site on how to do the physical packing.

Whether the job they did was adequate to prevent a problem remains to be seen...

At around 7pm or so, another driver came with a truck to pick up our now filled container, just about every earthly possession... to take it to Jamaica for us. We breathed a deep, deep sigh of relief, because we had made the deadlines, in spite of the many surprises.

In retrospect, it would have been much easier and much more expensive to have a company come in and do everything while we spent a day at the beach... but, no regrets so far.

The only remaining job that we had to do before I could leave Florida for good was to dispose of my sofa and love-seat set, and find someplace to which that I could donate my car on short order. Neither of these turned out to be straightforward propositions, of course.

(to be continued)

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Oh what a difference a month makes.

The move is not quite completed, but I look back to what I wrote back then can only marvel at my naivete, and lack of knowledge.

The one thing that I most regret is that there is no source on the internet that right now has any practical help on how to arrange a move back to Jamaica (or any third world country I imagine.) Hopefully this can help anyone how is looking for advice, and hopefully they will actually be able to find it!

There have been constant surprises all along the way, and I've learned a lot about a process I hope never to repeat -- but not because the process is difficult, but because I don't want to ever leave Jamaica to live anywhere else ever again!

The first major surprise came when the twenty foot container arrived.

I had thought that the container was something like the PODS (Portable On Demand Storage Units) I'd seen in people's driveways -- a clean, white metal box that would occupy a single parking space. In fact, on Thursday morning I went cycling in the morning and saw a couple of PODS in the neighborhood... "No problem, I thought."

That was until I saw the huge, metal rusty box arrive at my Emerald Place apartment in Fort Lauderdale ar atound 1 pm or so. It was bigger than I thought, and nowhere near as photogenic as the PODS I'd seen. In fact, it kinda looked like a dumpster on a flat bed carrier, raised about 5 feet off the ground being pulled by a driver (who spoke a little English, thankfully) and his son who was no more than 10 years old.

He quite innocently asked me where I wanted to place the container, and I thought to myself - oh, that's easy -- near to the front of the building, near the elevators. So he pulled it in, sideways, backing it in with his semi, and walked to the back and released the container.

Except, it seemed that he had forgotten to take the carrier with him...

So as he prepares to pull away, my wife and I look at each other in a panic and say "Hold on, is he leaving it like that???"

Well, apparently he was.

There was the container, on a carrier, sitting 5 feet above the ground, in the parking lot of my apartment complex... looking as if it had no business being there parked between apartment 304's Camry and apartment 106's scooter.

Also, we looked at each other and asked "How the heck to we get up that high?" At five feet off the ground, there was no way to get ourselves up that high... not without major gymnastics, a ramp or a lot more help than "Raggedy Rich" and "Dutty Dawg Dacres", my two friends who were coming to help us move. How in the world were we going to get our belongings from my apartment and up and into that thing?

While the driver waited for our next move (he clearly had some a lunch of hot empanadas waiting somewhere for him and his son) a man walks up and asked accusingly "What the heck is that and how long is it going to be there?" I've never seen him before...

I try to explain the situation, throwing in the fact that I was moving back home to Jamaica, and needed to do this to export my belongings. Maybe, I thought, he'd take some pity on poor us and what we were trying to do.

"Four days???!!!! Hell no. This is private property! You can't leave that there! I'm calling the apartment complex, and the fire marshall ,and the police and the coast guard, and...." I don't know what he said next, because I had stopped listening by then as he ranted on, giving me an instant reminder of some of the things I dislike about America.

We ignored him, but realized that we'd better get some permission from the apartment complex before the driver left. With our best hand signals, my wife ran and stopped him, and tried to explain to him using both of the words that she knew in Spanish, that we needed to get permission from the apartment complex to leave the (possibly) offending object in place, which was now taking up 6 parking spaces in the front of building 3, Emerald Place.

He seemed to understand, and she begged him for 15 minutes (his son did some fast interpreting.)

We quickly went over to the office in the hope of warding off a barrage of phone calls from what I thought could quickly turn into a lynch mob, and (too quickly, and out of breath) explained the situation to one of the employees in the apartment office.

She assured us that the office manager would NEVER allow us to leave it where we had.

We gulped.

But, credit to her clear thinking, she called her boss and asked if we could leave it at the back of the complex (about 300 yards away), and if we could get 24 hours to get it off the property. She was very persuasive, which might have had something to do with our panicked looks and generally desperate demeanor.

Her boss relented, and after a quick call to the container company to see if they could pick the container up the following day (Friday) instead of Monday, we at least were now allowed to theoretically pack this 20 foot metal box with all our earthly possessions.

Now... how the heck would we get all those earthly possessions from my second floor apartment, and nice two bedroom with a view of the pool, incidentally, down to the rusty container sitting atop a carried over five feet high, 300 yards away?

Somehow, "Raggedy Rich" and "Dutty Dawg Dacres" didn't seem like the right help for us at 2 pm on Thursday and the clock ticking.

(to be continued)

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