In a Friday market at the crossroads called Chada on the island of LaGonave in Haiti, I stopped at the rum seller’s table. I wanted to buy some kleren, local rum, distilled sugar cane spirits.
“If you want some rum, you have to buy this,” the man said, and indicated a bottle of Babincourt, the National Haitian Rum, the seal on the cap undisturbed.
I wanted kleren, what the locals drank. It’s pinkish and so sugary it’s practically nutritious. They make another spirit drink locally—tafya. The maker goes out and picks a special combination of leaves, stuffs a bottle with them, and pours in kleren. The mixture is then stored in a dark place for weeks or months while the leaves steep into the kleren and it becomes tafya.
I wasn’t after tafya. I just wanted a little bottle of kleren, but the vendor shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “This…” and he waved at the bottles of kleren, “is for people with no self-respect. You want a little drink now and again, you take this,” and he held out the bottle of commercial rum.
I still wanted the kleren. He said no. I moved on. I thought he might chase me down, sell it to me after all when it was clear I wasn’t going to buy the expensive stuff. But he didn’t.
I don’t know the whole sociology of alcohol consumption in Haiti. In the countryside, there might be a few known drunkards that reliably squander family resources on drink. There’s definitely a connection between domestic violence and alcohol consumption. What you don’t see much of though, is casual drinking, social drinking. If alcohol isn’t a gotta-have-it thing for someone—well, there’s a lot of other things people need more. And so I’ve ended up knowing a lot of people happy to take a drink now and again who hardly ever do.
Once, I attended a going-away party for a visitor who had spent several months in the community and became very popular with a lot of folks. The room was already elbow-to-elbow with people when the guest of honor showed up, bearing an unopened bottle of Babincourt rum. She unscrewed the top, took a pull and handed off the bottle. Within minutes, the party erupted.
A guitar was passed from hand to hand. People whooped, sang, and told riddles. They made up jokes and acted out stories about each other. Children played chase and did acrobatics. Everyone danced.
And by 9 o’clock, the whole party had folded up and everyone had gone home.
The party lived on the whole next day in everyone’s imagination, though. People retold the jokes and repeated the best lyrics to the improvised songs. People who weren’t there told you the stories they heard about you. They told you what they would have done if they had been there.
I think about college students and their famous drinking rituals. And I think about how that bottle of rum spilled into the community that night, a perfect homeopathic dose, that set good spirits loose for everyone.