Image by Ryan Dos Santos
“So I smoke a little too much, and I drink a little too much / And the tunes I request are not always the best / But the ones where the trumpets blare!”
I don’t drink very much at all. Not cup full of rum at 8am like the men on my dam, not every afternoon like my landlord, and not so much that I fall in the latrine, crash my motorbike, break my leg, or beat up my wife.
But still, compared to my mostly teetotal, religious family – I’m a sod. My pious, hajjah mother, on a visit to California years ago, refused to even set foot in the picturesque Napa vineyards. I’ll wait in the car, she said, her face and mind set, as I talked fruitlessly, about the art of grape growing, beautiful landscapes etc. When my sister-in-law had her first baby and the milk was slow in coming, I suggested the old folk remedy of a sip of Guinness. Again, my mother looked daggers at me, heathen child.
I learned about wine in California, beer back in my college days, and everything else in between. Here in Guyana, El Dorado is my favorite. Many locals favor Russian vodka, but I like to see my liquor when I drink it. As a cool down from the sizzling tropical heat, Banks hits the spot- the local Budweiser. No Carib for me tho- their wutless Mash day float with big bikini-clad Brazilians turned my stomach more than my head. Guinness is good as always, although the local recipe lacks the heft that I’m used to in other parts.
Here in the village, kari- parakari- to be exact- is the drink of choice. ‘Buck man’s coffee’ is what one old timer tells me when I raise my eyebrows askance at his 6:30am drinking start time. Every afternoon, without fail, there is a group gathered around my neighbor’s house- the same old man. It’s his bedtime ritual as well as his morning pick-me-up. My friend Anne, the local storekeeper, often closes up shop and disappears for hours at a time, to that same neighbor’s house for a mug up or two. At another friend’s 12yr old daughter’s birthday party, the birthday girl passes around mugs of kari that she has made herself; it is a necessary skill for every woman (men too actually) to learn. Pregnant women drink it and toddlers cut their teeth on it; they are given kari by their mothers even before they’re weaned. “Want kari!” is what my friend’s 3yr old says when he is thirsty.
To be fair, the kari given to children is often sweeter than that consumed by adults, less fermented. Like most home brews, the longer the fermenting time, the stronger the beverage. In the north, people drink it just so, without straining out the clumps. Here in the south, I’m happy to say, it’s a smoother, much more palatable drink.
There is a local custom of cooperative work- ‘manore’ in Wapishana. If someone has a house or other large building project, for example, all are asked/invited to help, and a big pot of food and bucket of kari is provided in payment for your labor. It’s the same as inviting some friends over to help paint your apartment and buying pizza and beer for them afterwards. With the kari/beer inducement, more are likely to show up and help you get your work done quicker- that’s just a fact in all societies.
“I was drinking kari from the time I was in your belly; I can’t stop now.”
Some in the village are now starting to turn against the buck man’s coffee though. It’s a sin, says the minister. There is much testifying and vow-making in church- some blaming culture, decades bad habit, and dissolute friends for leading them astray, but the devout’s newfound attempts at temperance earns scorn and derision from many others. “I will never stop drinking kari, never! “ countervows several obdurate and unrepentant souls. Others are insulted by the assault on their culture, attacking back. “Some people think they’re better than others. Look, don’t come to my house anymore, hear? Cuz I will get vex if you don’t drink my kari. So is best you stay at home.”
To refuse kari when it is offered is an insult to the host. It could mean you think they have bad hygiene and that you will get sick if you drink from them, or that they have wronged you in some way, etc. Just like on the coast when you go to someone’s house and they offer you a drink, you have to accept it, thirsty or not. Coke and other soft drinks are not my usual beverages of choice, but I know it’s rude to not at least have a sip when it’s offered.
Drinking kari together also helps ease stigma. Take the case of Mr. Black Sheep for example. This of course is not this man’s born name, but after several incidents- one involving the suspicious death of the village sow by his hand, allegedly, and another with a son bringing home an underage runaway girl from the coast have earned him a reputation as a rascal and this disreputable moniker. One year later however, his wife and Aunty A meet up in Aunty L’s kitchen, all drinking kari together, and the next day, they are visiting each other homes, helping complete work, and sharing produce from their farm. Kari (like time) erases judgment and facilitates the re-building of frayed relationships.
Not that I was meaning to, but I haven’t had anything much to drink (ie alcohol) since leaving town several month ago [except for a couple of Banks in Lethem, and that bottle of sorrel wine]. The village shop has stopped stocking beer , to the disappointment of many (it was Brazilian and Venezuelan crap anyway- Brahman and Polar- I’d only drank it for lack of choice. Uh huh.) I’d considered packing some El Dorado, since I may be here for the holidays, but decided against it at the last minute. Would be a good time to detox a bit, I told myself, give the old liver a break. A friend’s husband, a daily rum drinker, is dying from cirrhosis, and although that’s not something I need to worry about, I thought I’d err on the side of caution. I’ll do yoga every day, breathe clean mountain air, take long walks in the savannah, get my 8hrs of sleep every night, and greet the new year in fighting shape.
However, there was no escaping the giant inflatable El Dorado bottle in the Savannah Inn supermarket in Lethem. A paragon of discipline, I reached for the smallest bottle, resisting the gallon jugs. Just to welcome in 2012, I said to myself. It could be the end of the world as we know it after all. Uh huh. Cheers!
Written by Sherlina Nageer just before the new year…
Sherlina is the founder and Chief Mango Picker at Sunshine Organic Snacks. S.O.S. is an indigenous, women-run, cooperatively operated small Guyanese business which aims to empower women in underserved and vulnerable communities in Guyana. S.O.S. uses solar drying to preserve local fruits such as mangoes, bananas, papaya, and pineapple.