Rick Bragg Drinks Rum in Wartime Haiti

More intoxicating than any drink are the memories it evokes. For Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, rum conjures a ramshackle bar in wartime Port-Au-Prince.

The bar in Pétionville leaned drunkenly on a hillside. The power came and went, plunging the city into darkness at intervals, lingering just long enough to keep the beer cool in the ancient ice chest. 

But it was too dark a time for beer.

Haiti was, as usual in the early 1990s, bathed in blood, but men never drink as much as they do between funerals, and there were so many of them in Port-au-Prince those days that the processions often intersected. Pétionville was an upscale section, at a lofty remove from the vast slums at the waterfront, but even here among the rich folks, you could feel the country sliding deeper into violence. The democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had fled, and the poor Haitians who had put him in office were being murdered amid a military coup.

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A rock or a chunk of concrete, something hard, struck the wall of the bar in the pitch black. The men at the bar, writers and photographers and genuine expatriates, scarcely flinched; it was only serious when it was bullets and machetes.

“Barbancourt?” the bartender said. The men answered in French. He poured the rum straight.

It tasted like sweet, harsh, liquid smoke. It tasted like the place, redolent of Haiti’s deep magic and rich and tortured history. It was easy to believe, after a glass or three, in incantations, and in the stumbling, moaning dead. But I knew it was the living you had to fear in Haiti. I sat numb as the men spoke about the killing, and the embargo, and the possibility of a U.S. invasion.or at least I think that was what they were talking about. I was pretty ignorant of French, and drunk and sleepy. But I never forgot that taste.

I had it again years later in a white-tablecloth restaurant in New Orleans, the Upperline. I had another, and in my head I drifted across the water.

So this is why they call it spirits.