Rum shacks in the Caribbean

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

More on sailing on a tall ship

‘Rum shack’ is the generic name for the basic bars that serve the rum in various measures in all of the Caribbean islands, or at least the handful I’ve visited. They are not built for luxury but are functional and serve their purpose, that is to get people as drunk as quickly as possible.

Although what they are there for is the same on whatever island they might also double up as something else when not serving the rum. One place I went to was the village local grocery store (although no one came in to buy groceries whilst I was there) and yet another was attached to a ‘fast food’ stall in the bus station in Kingstown, St Vincent, which I mentioned when I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the streets.

But before talking about the places that do the selling I should write about what is sold.

Although not exclusively these rum shacks are there to sell the double proof white rum, each island having its own particular favourite brand. It might come as no surprise to read that each islander thinks that the best rum is produced on his island. This, to me, is a bit academic as it is such strong alcohol that there is no real taste to talk of.

Double strength means 80% or more. The strongest one, commercially, I came across was the Sunset brand from St Vincent. That is 84% proof. That has a warning message on the back label about naked flames and inflammable liquids! But I’m sure that the home-made versions that are on sale in the streets and markets could well be higher in percentage.

There is also a bit of a ritual with this rum. In the first rum shack I went into, in Castries, the capital of St Lucia, the rum was served in shots in plastic cups. The woman behind the bar was also behind a home-made reinforced steel rod cage and the booze was served through tiny hatches. I never saw any trouble in any of the bars I went into but presumably the bars were there for a reason. The gateway to the bar area was never locked but then I was there in the afternoon or (relatively) early evening.

In ALL the places I went there was either a full bottle of iced water – normally in a bottle that once would have held the local rum – available on the counter for all to use or given to each individual customer.

How this was used was up to personal preference and depended on how quickly you wanted the rum to enter the system. Some would knock back a shot and then drink 2 or 3 cups of the iced water to prevent the burning sensation from becoming too great. Others would water down the shot and then drink it at a slower pace. The former method was definitely the option for those who would come into the rum shack for a quick drink and then move on – to another rum shack.

In most places the manner of it being served was not by the individual shot as in the Castries (the shot costing 2 Eastern Caribbean Dollars (about £0.50p)) but by the measure. There would also be quarter spirit bottles and you could ask for a full one of these, or just a proportion. This would be filled from a full bottle of the local brew. It was then for the customer to decide the quantity to be served in the plastic cup and the manner, although most locals seem to prefer the quick shot and then the cups of water. To give an idea about cost the normal price for a quarter bottle filled in this way was about 12EC$ and to put that into perspective a 1 litre bottle in a supermarket would cost about 30EC$.

I don’t know where it all came from but there were a number of these rum shacks, on the various islands that were called ‘People’s Bar’ or variations on that. The one I like was the Poor People’s bar in Grenville, on Grenada, which lived up to its name as there was virtually nothing on show. There was enough to serve for the day and no money seemed to be tied up in providing an inviting display but not earning anything. This was confirmed when I was speaking with the owner of the bar opposite the mooring of the ship in St George, Grenada. He would make sure that he had enough stock for those days when there was a greater demand, such as the weekend, but had learnt to reduce surplus stock as much as possible.

What was common to all these places was the number of people who had obviously had too much. Sometimes during a life time but more often for that day. Sometimes this would be mixed with a little bit of marijuana and they were the ones who were really spaced out. But it was definitely a regular affair as I even got to know some of the drinkers in the bar in Castries as I first met them before the Caribbean Island Hopping and then met them again, in the same bar, drinking the same way 2 weeks later.

Haven’t found the equivalent in Bermuda so it seems that this drinking culture is restricted to the islands of the Caribbean, at least from my experience to the group known as the Windward Islands.

More on sailing on a tall ship

St Lucia and Country and Western Music

Country and Western MusicThere are big things that define a country but perhaps it’s the little, quirky aspects of a nation that tell you more about the people. In St Lucia one of those quirks is the love of Country and Western music.

Perhaps it’s just me but I would have thought that a musical style with its roots in the ‘red neck’ heartland of what was once Confederate America would have no resonance with a nation whose roots go back to Africa and slavery.

But you don’t have to get too far off the beaten tourist track to find that this is an island wide addiction.

Walk along the streets of any town and you will hear Tammy Wynette belting out D.I.V.O.R.C.E or even some more contemporary C+W music that makes reference to the World Wide Web, no idea by who.

It’s the same on the buses (more minibuses holding about 15 people) which ply the routes between the island’s towns and villages and CDs of C+W music are available on the street side stalls.

I can’t remember where it was but when I first came across this the music had been chosen in my honour, in my self-centred arrogance being the only one in the bar. When I asked about the choice I was told that there was a big following throughout the island and there had been for some time.

Why it’s so popular I haven’t been able to find out, and now there’s no time to discover the reason. Perhaps the desire to be miserable from time to tie is universal?

Grenada – the US invasion 30 years on, independence and elections

US troops bringing freedom to Grenada

US troops bringing freedom to Grenada

This year will see the thirtieth anniversary of the invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada by the might of the United States armed forces – with the connivance of the Thatcherite government in London.

Just over a year after the Malvinas War, which conveniently distracted attention away from the dire economic and social situation into which the UK had fallen, there was again a desire to draw the international spotlight away from developments in the Indian Ocean that had dangerous parallels to the events in the south Atlantic during 1982.

The nasty little war off the coast of Argentina had shown how deeply ingrained jingoism (reminiscent of the late 19th century) together with a vicious streak of racism, was in British society, however much the propaganda of the times tried to make out that there was a matter of principle at stake.

This was clearly demonstrated when the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Islands, a collection of some of the most remote islands on the planet, demanded a similar response from the British government as the ‘Falklanders’ had received. The Diego Garcians had been thrown off their land to make way for an US naval and air base and they wanted to go home.

But they were in a hiding to nothing. If most of the British population didn’t know where the Malvinas were before April 1982 (many thinking that Argentina had invaded the Scottish Isles!) most of them wouldn’t even had been able to say Diego Garcia let alone point to the globe and say where it was located. Another problem the Diego Garcians faced was that they were not white.

Even so the British and the Americans considered the parallels far too close and so concocted a ‘crisis’ in the Caribbean, about as far geographically away from the Chagos as it was possible to find.

Internal conflicts within the New Jewel Movement, initially led by Maurice Bishop, was declared so serious that the US had to invade the tiny island country ‘to safeguard the lives’ of a handful of US nationals at a college near the capital of St George.

Twelve thousand US troops were sent as part of a battle force to the island famous for its nutmegs. Grenada was, and still is, a member of the Commonwealth but Thatcher considered herself so indebted to the ‘B’ movie actor/president Reagan after the Malvinas invasion that this breach of international protocol was allowed.

To my shame I had forgotten all about this (yet another) betrayal by perfidious Albion but was forcefully reminded of the issue when I started talking to people in the rum shacks I visited during my short stay on Grenada.

February 19th is election day in Grenada and it doesn’t take a lot to start off a heated conversation about the merits of the 2 principal political contenders. And it wasn’t too long after participating in, or just listening to, these debates over cups of the 84% proof rum that I realised that the events of 30 years ago still colour the Grenadian political environment.

Those supporting the present party in power, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), are on the left and still have respect for Maurice Bishop, who was killed during the inner party struggle, and still angry about the US invasion. (The actual details of why the situation developed to such a state that the American imperialists were able to get away with their invasion are too complex to go into here and, to tell the truth, I still don’t fully understand why things got so far out of hand.)

In Grenada the population still has some (I consider, misguided) trust in the so-called democratic process and in the run up to the election issues and the prospective merits of the parties get discussed. Compare that with the UK during the last General Election when any visitor could have been excused if they didn’t know it was taking place.

The issues facing Grenadians are similar to those in most countries. The crash of 2008 is still having its effect (it is noticeable how quiet the tourist areas are in all the islands I have visited, considering that this is the height of the season) and as in other parts of the world the answer, of some, is the wholesale privatisation of the nations resources. This is the policy of the main opposition party, the New National Party (NND).

More than two weeks before the election there have been groups of people sporting the colours of their party (yellow for the NDC and green for the NNP). This month also sees the anniversary of independence from British colonial rule. The overwhelming theme of the slogans celebrating independence is the idea of one nation, all in it together (a sentiment that is expressed in the UK but without this really becoming a reality). Is this being stated as there might be a fear that the result of the elections could cause disturbances?

Talking to the locals they say that the outcome is by no means clear. The outgoing government has not lived up to its promises and there might be a change for the sake of it. How this will affect the lives of the people on this idyllic Caribbean island could be interesting to monitor in the coming weeks and months.

NDC supporters sporting the colours of their party

NDC supporters sporting the colours of their party