Jamaica Magazine

Jamaican "craftsmen" Part 2 by American Retiree in Jamaica

Not all craftsmen are as naive as the two men from last month’s article. For example, I recently hired an electrician to install a light over the vanity in the bathroom. This gentleman was recommended by the church I was attending. In the same manner as in the first case, I received an on site estimate. The price he quoted was $1,000 JA (less than $17 US) plus parts. One problem with wiring an existing house is you can’t hide the wires in the walls. Even the switch has to be mounted on the face of the wall. That is what most electricians will tell you but not this one. He chiseled out enough of the wall, next to the light switch of the bathroom, to insert a second switch for the vanity light. When he completed the job, which took about a half a day, it looked very professional.

Jamaican labor is cheap. Where else could you find a skilled, but unlicensed, craftsman for that amount of money? Another example, I had a set of stairs on a walkway converted in to an 8′ ramp for $2,000 JA. How about $8,000 JA (less than $135 US), for a 12′ x 12′ tiled floor to be torn up and replaced? This was a three man job which took a whole day to complete. The only problem was a couple of the tiles cracked which he agreed to replace at his expense. It may have been my poor choice of tiles rather than his poor workmanship. Before he started installing the new tile, he showed me how much thinner the new tile was compared to the old tile.

Not long ago, I was having a problem with a clogged drain in the kitchen sink. Neither chemicals nor snakes seemed to alleviate the problem. What I needed was an electric rooter to clean the pipe. This time I let my “fingers do the walking.” To my surprise there wasn’t one listed in Montego Bay. My other option was to call plumbing supply houses to see if they knew anyone who had this type of machine. After several calls, one business talked me in to allowing a plumber he knows to help me out. Well, this plumber and his assistant showed up with not a roto-rooter, but a large piece of pvc pipe and another piece of equipment that looked like a garden hose with a bladder on one end. The principle behind this hose is to insert the hose in to the pipe as far as possible. Water pressure is supposed to inflate the bladder while the pressure of the water unclogs the pipe. It failed to do its job after numerous attempts. The next attempt was with the pvc pipe. Struggle as they might, the pvc pipe would only go so far and that was it. They tried and tried again for the better part of two days. The results were the same each time. Finally, they gave up. And because they didn’t solve my problem, they didn’t charge me. I felt so bad that all of their hard work was in vain, I gave them some money anyway.

Before they left, I asked if they knew anyone with an electric rooter. They told me to call Mr. Hylton. This is the man who installed my solar panel and water tank and who, a couple of years before, didn’t have a rooter. Not only did he now have the electric rooter but he was also a licensed plumber with an ad in the Yellow Pages. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any better success than the other men. His only suggestion was to dig up the lawn. My mind immediately went to a previous experience of digging up a lawn back in Massachusetts. The backhoe that did that job left the yard a mess. What could I do? I ran out of options.

When this backhoe arrived, it turned out to be an old Rasta man with a short handled shovel. I swear this old man didn’t take much longer than a modern backhoe to dig a 10′ trench. And, he did it much neater or without breaking the existing pipe. Now, with everything exposed, you could see why the rooter would only go so far. When this drywell (called a soakaway), was installed, a u-shaped trap was put in the middle of the line from the house to the drywell! The solution was easy, remove the trap and put in a straight piece. To do that, the new pipe had to have a flange on both ends to fit over the existing pipe. The new pipe had a flange on just one end. Did we have to go to the plumbing supply house to buy the correct pipe? No sir! Mr. Hylton used a rolled up newspaper which he set on fire and heated the plain end of the new pipe until it expanded enough to fit over the existing pipe which created a perfect flange.

My problem was solved, almost. There was a very sour smell coming from the laundry area. At first I thought it might have been a dead mouse but upon further investigation, I discovered there wasn’t any trap at the back of the washer. Mr. Hylton’s men came back the next day and put the much needed trap in place. The cost for Mr. Hylton, his plumbers, the Rasta man and the parts came to $12,000 JA ($200 US). That was far less than what I paid 18 years ago for a real backhoe.

There are good Jamaican craftsmen and there are bad ones. It takes talking to friends and neighbors to weed out the bad from the good. When you get a price for a job from any craftsman, it is for labor only! Parts are always extra. Most of the time I have to purchase the parts myself from the list given to me by the contractor. A large percentage of these craftsmen travel to the job site in taxis because they don’t own a car. In summary, other than the first two contractors I mentioned last month, I have had relatively good luck.

About the author

John Casey