Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 27th 2014 Contents A26
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt April 27, 2014
In Kingston last week, the
Jamaica dollar was teetering
close to 110 for one US dol-
lar. That s a downward shift of
more than 15 per cent since the
start of last year.
Over the same time span, the
TT$ edged down by less than
0.5 per cent.
And gold? That ever-solid
store of value drifted down 23
per cent against the US dollar in
the past year. So much for the
Barbadians, meanwhile, mutter
nervously about devaluation, a
fate worse than death for the
island s self-respect. At its pres-
ent rate, is their currency truly
overvalued? It has been two Bar-
bados to one US since 1975.
So, which currencies are really
over- or under-valued? Which
way do they need to shift to find
their true market level?
The real measure, The Econo-
mist tells us, is the Big Mac. Its
sister company the Economist
Intelligence Unit (EIU) last
month published its international
living costs comparison. So
where does that put the
On the Big Mac basis, most
In Port-of-Spain, a Big Mac,
fries and drink costs the equiva-
lent of US$5.92. In New York,
the same meal sets you back
US$9.20. That leaves the TT
dollar undervalued by 36 per
cent at current exchange rates.
Munch away. And try not to
worry too much about Daily
Mail, which last year placed us
third in the world for obesity.
In Kingston, a burger meal
cost just US$4.92; on that basis,
the Jamaica dollar is way too
In Georgetown, paying more
than G$2,000 for a burger meal
feels crazy---but the price is just
US$5.69 when you convert, a
fraction cheaper than Port-of-
In Paramaribo, Big Mac meals
weigh in at US$6.21. In Grenada,
a burger meal is US$5.83. In
Antigua, US$7.41---pricey by
Caribbean standards, but that
still leaves the EC dollar under-
But in Bridgetown, a burger
meal sets you back US$9.25. No
surprises. Barbados is a high-
cost destination. And yes, their
currency looks overvalued,
against the US dollar. But not by
Leaving out Caracas with its
faked-up exchange rate, Switzer-
land is the worst place to buy a
burger meal; in Zürich, it sets
you back US$14.79.
Anyone mad enough to order a
Big Mac in place of a local lunch
in Paris deserves what they get---
a US$10.53 price tag.
In India too, you would be
slightly unhinged to prefer a
burger to fresh-made curry; but
you won t be punished in your
pocket. In Mumbai, the price is
Unfortunately, the EIU does
not check the price of that great
Trini staple, KFC.
But for some other goodies,
local prices weigh in low.
For the truly health-conscious,
cigarettes are less than one-third
of their New York or London
price; but more than double
what they would cost in India.
Gas for the car, naturally, is
less than half the US price, and
one-fifth what it would cost you
in London. That s the one cost
where Venezuela is a world-
beater; you can fill your tank in
Caracas almost for free.
Priced by the litre, a beer in
this country costs slightly less
than in New York, slightly more
than in London. By the bottle,
wine costs around 50 per cent
more---but in TT, there s a mas-
sive saving if you buy by the
Bread costs less here than in
London or New York. Weight-
for-weight, bread in Paris costs
almost double---but you can t get
a fresh-baked crusty French
baguette loaf in Port-of-Spain,
not for love and not for money.
There s more to life than bread
and burgers, gas and cigarettes.
Each year, the EIU calculates an
overall living cost index for
expats. It s not a fair measure for
locals, except possibly those at
the Westmoorings end of the
The EIU s index is used by
multinationals and global organi-
sations to fix salaries for interna-
tional staff. There s an extra
cost-of-living payment for those
who get sent somewhere pricey.
EIU living costs do include
basic groceries---but they also
throw in luxury cars, lifestyle
restaurants and high-end rents.
With an expat lifestyle, costs
in Port-of-Spain, Kingston,
Belize and Grenada are pretty
much the same---around one-
quarter less than New York.
Singapore and Paris top the
expensive list. Each has living
costs 30 per cent above New
Comparing with New York
may be misleading. It s not in
the top-ten expensive cities, but
it s no bargain basement.
Life in mid-sized North Amer-
ican cities naturally costs less
than New York. Detroit, Cleve-
land and Atlanta have living
costs slightly below Port-of-
Spain. Seattle, Boston and
Toronto are slightly more pricey,
but still less than the Big Apple.
Looking south, Buenos Aires
runs close to T&T. Rio, Sao
Paulo and Mexico City are more
expensive, but do not match
And Barbados? Expat living
costs are higher than in most of
the Americas, but six per cent
less than New York, and 13 per
cent less than London s. Those
are the island s two big tourist
markets. On that (fairly shaky)
basis, maybe Barbados can
remain competitive at current
exchange rates---if it gets the rest
of its act together.
On this the final day of
Bocas I interviewed
Monique Roffey an
British writer and memoirist on
writing and T&T.
Who is Monique Roffey?
My parents were the last wave
of immigrants in the colonial era.
They arrived with two suitcases
and a green bicycle in 1956, the
same month Eric Williams
launched the PNM.
Within a year of my parents
being married, my father applied
for a job in Trinidad for a four-
year contract with Furness and
Withy. They stayed 15 years. Left
for seven and returned for good in
77. They had four children
including a baby who died and is
buried in the cemetery here. They
lived through Independence, Eric
Williams, and Black Power. I
remember trips to Mayaro, Toco. I
sat my 11-plus here and was set to
go to Bishops, which was my first
choice when I was sent to a con-
vent boarding school in the UK. I
was going back and forth from the
UK to Trinidad from the age of 11.
My parents would drop me to
Piarco. I would get on a plane. I
would shut down and leave
Trinidad behind to a prison-like
boarding school. There was one
telephone. We had to queue up to
book calls. My parents and I wrote
thousands of letters back and
forth in blue aerograms. When I
came back for three weeks for the
holiday the world was vibrant
again---there was no Ariapita
Avenue, just the Pelican Inn and
JBs and it was home. And the
cycle would continue. I live in
England for much of the year. But
this is my home, my family live
here, they never left here, my
mother lived here for 70 years.
She is very English, and creolised.
You ve written five books,
been shortlisted for the Orange
Prize, won the Bocas prize last
year and your new book Days
of Ashes loosely based on the
events of 1990 is out soon.
What shaped your writing?
I am a writer. I was writing as a
child. I was a journalist before a
writer; I won an English prize at
15, the only thing I won before
Bocas. In boarding school in Eng-
land, by third form they streamed
us in "A," "B" and "C" class. If
you got an A in Latin in Oxbridge
class you got into the clever class.
I got an A and said "No." I didn t
like the look of the girls in clever
class. They looked about 45. I had
a great suspicion about something
so square. Early on, I knew I
didn t want that.
The generosity of many people;
fellow writers in the UK; a
decade-long apprenticeship that
included a PhD, an MA; living
with a writer, learning his work
ethic; and running the Arvon cen-
What s your bird s eye view
We lost our way. Dr Eric
Williams wasn t enough. There
was just him and not enough
people like him around him with a
vision, clear thought, wanting to
build a proper democracy. Politics
was once about ideas, people were
Labour, Conservative, Socialist---
labels, yes, but with ideals. ANR
Robinson s dying is the end of
Oil money became our great
tragedy. There is no more ideal-
ism, no more nation-building. It s
all about managing the money. We
are a flawed democracy.
In a fully active democracy there
are active checks and balances on
institutions and I m not sure we
have that. We have hundreds of
NGOs, but not powerful inde-
pendent lobbies. The press is not
so free. Unions are politically
allied. Universities are govern-
A lack of critical thinking goes
with a lack of democracy.
And as there is no money in the
arts here, no support for writers,
painters, thinkers, we are not
managing to hold the Government
accountable. Critical thinkers go
abroad. Those that stay often
think: "Why bother?"
What is the new hope for
Fifteen years ago, the Ameri-
cans, the New World (of which we
are a part), and not Galileo,
invented the Internet. Google
didn t come out of Vienna, but
from California. It gave almost
every human being on planet
inter-relatedness, information on
tap, online publishing, business,
degrees. It was like oxygen to the
Gabriel Garcia Marquez just
died. A great Caribbean man died.
Just as his generation is dying, our
generation, people in our 40s, are
given the gift of the digital era.
People in their 30s know nothing
else. Bocas---a literary Caribbean
festival---was spawned out of this.
The Internet opened up the world.
Wrongly used, it s a dangerous
tool. It is a power tool---porous,
crammed with opportunity, lines
of communication, generosity,
support, networks, causes; it pro-
tects whistle-blowers, can bring
down governments. Look at the
Arab Spring. Soon, totalitarian
states will not be able to survive
the Internet. Do you think Abu
Bakr would have been able to
move about freely from Mucurapo
Road to St Vincent Street in 1990
What pulls you to Trinidad?
I want to give back. This is my
home. There is lots of talent here.
I ve been running workshops here
for four years now; and now there
is a waiting list, people approach-
ing me weekly. The talent is great
but every writer needs an appren-
ticeship period where you learn
the craft from your peers in a
supportive environment. Writing is
a discipline---and you can t teach
that. Like any practice, it s a com-
mitment. It s not about melodra-
ma. It s a core system of working.
It s never rocked. If you wake up
one day and have cancer, that s
serious. If your boyfriend leaves,
that s minor. The work is the core.
THE BIG MAC INDEX, DOLLARS AND DEVALUATIONS
INTERVIEW WITH MONIQUE ROFFEY
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