Meet me at the office

Visiting any place in the Caribbean, Simon Lee’s first stop is the local rumshop — and not just for the drinks

  • Illustration by Jason Jarvis

First-time visitors to the Caribbean may be unaware that the most important institution in the islands is neither the parliament nor the school, neither church, temple, mosque, nor fast food outlet, but the rumshop.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I’d better explain. Unlike bars or pubs with their air-conditioning, fancy cocktails, and prices to match, the rumshop is a place of few pretensions and endless possibilities.

Originally, this quintessential Caribbean institution supplied sugar plantation workers with their basic needs: rice, provisions, saltfish, candles, kerosene — and rum, the fuel which kept them swinging their cutlasses in the blazing canefields all day, soothed aching muscles and souls at sunset, and soaked up their meagre wages.

If you look carefully, you’ll still find these old-style rumshops, with shiny wooden counters, rice-bags bulging on the floor, shelves stacked with dry goods and tins, and a clientele inclusive enough to perplex or delight the most conscientious sociologist.

Here you’ll find everyone from cabinet minister and police superintendent to calypsonian, stevedore, and market vendor. While impassioned card or domino players slam the tables, you might eavesdrop on an acute analysis of island politics, worldwide terrorism, or an ongoing cricket match, or join a discussion on the finer points of currying duck.

If you need anything (a goat, divorce lawyer, new carburettor, six men to build a house, some more to pull your car out of a ditch), someone in the rumshop will have it — or they’ll know someone else who does. The “someone” will probably be their auntie’s friend’s nephew’s daughter-in-law’s cousin, or some more distant pumpkin-vine relative or acquaintance. In this Creole kind of interactive transaction, not only do you get what you want, but you also meet half the island in the process.

Need some insider trading info? A scoop on the latest corruption scandal? The names of the West Indies opening batsmen in 1984? The complete lyrics for Sparrow’s monarch-winning calypso in 1957? A folk cure for migraine? The winning mark in the Chinese numbers game? All of this and more is yours for the price of a rumshop drink.

I discovered my passion for rumshops (seats of learning, refuge, entertainment, popular and folk culture, oral history, debate, diversion, and digression) shortly after arriving in Trinidad. Wilting at the end of my first day at the school I’d come to teach in, I presented my thirst at the grandly named Federal Snackette on the seething Eastern Main Road in Tunapuna.

The name itself was a lesson in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, commemorating the short-lived Federation of the West Indies (1958–61), and it seemed a safe spot, across the road from both the police and fire stations.

It was my first visit, so nobody knew me. Or so I thought, as I collected my beastly cold beer and sat at a table to gape at the main-road street life. Before the bottle left my lips, Mr Mahabir, the proprietor, a short but wrestling-build-broad East Indian in his 60s, shuffled over to tell me a colleague was waiting for me behind the screen at my back.

I thought he’d made a mistake, and said so, but at Bir’s gentle insistence I poked my head round the screen to find Errol Sitahal, one of Trinidad’s finest actors, who was a senior member of the English department I’d just joined.

I didn’t leave the Federal until early next morning. By the end of my first rumshop session, I’d listened to Errol declaiming tragic Shakespearian soliloquies, accompanied by a wandering violinist; heard a Midnight Robber practising his carnival speech; been introduced to the local police chief, sundry firemen, farmers, civil servants, badjohns, and smartmen; and acquired a mentor in all things Trini — no less than the venerable Bir, the Federal’s commander and rear high admiral (as long as his Madam wasn’t around).

The Federal became both my liming spot (as in chilling out, relaxing), and my evening school. I’d sit for hours getting my ears round the intricacies of Trinidad Creole. I had a live database of Trini and Caribbean history and culture right at my elbow, along with visiting professors. One night Sam Selvon, the writer who brought the cadences of Caribbean speech to an international audience in his brilliant book The Lonely Londoners, joined our table for a classic lime.

My Federal experiences stood me in good stead when I began to travel and write about the other islands. Wherever I landed, whatever the story, I’d head for a rumshop — not just for the drinks, but to feel the pulse of the island. Scotts in Gros Islet, St Lucia; Kennedy’s in St John’s, Antigua; along with nameless rumshops in Dominica’s Carib territory; these are only a few of my Caribbean locals. But I’d always come back to Trinidad and the Federal Snackette.

One day a friend from Europe called. He’d just landed, would I meet with him? No problem.

“Meet me at the office,” I told him, and gave him directions to the Federal.

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