There is astounding rum in the Guyanas.
When gong into the interior of what used to be Dutch Guyana and is now the nation of Suriname, I brought with me gifts for the village elders as is the custom. These included machetes of different varieties of quality, fish hooks, and rum. The rum was of two sorts, a standard rum, much like what you would get in a local liquor store but the other was a 180 or so proof distillation. It was actually pure alcohol with only the water that it absorbed from the atmosphere to "cut" it so it may have been more than 180 proof. I have never had any experience with "everclear" but this must have been much like that except it is a product of sugar cane rather than grain. I bought it in the city of St. Laurent in French Guiana and brought it back to the little village of Albina where we shoved off for our ten day trip up the Marrowijne River to a village we were to visit.
The rum had the mildly ominous name of Chat Noir, Black Cat. Several cases of it were stored up towards the bow of our forty foot dugout canoe.
Several days later, we were spending the night in a village at the head of some rapids. This is the preferred location of villages of these Djuka people who are the descendants of slaves (they prefer to think of their ancestors as having been prisoners of war). Their ancestors rebelled more than three hundred years ago. Unable to return across the South Atlantic to their homes, they headed into the bush. The rain forest here is the same latitude as their homes in West Africa and was far more hospitable to them than it was to the Dutch army units sent in over the next century or so to flush them out. Since the rain forests are so thick, travel by river is the only reasonable way to move through central Suriname and that is why the Djuka villages are placed at the head of rapids. It is far easier to defend yourselves against an enemy who is trying to deal with rapids than one who can organize an attack right outside your village. Their reasoning was good enough that no expedition ever mounted against them was successful It was also why, as an outsider, our group had to carry gifts for the headmen of the villages. This is truly their land. They are a semi-autonomous nation within Suriname.
We had stopped in a village at the head of a particularly difficult rapid that we had just come up through that afternoon and after a gift exchange ceremony with the village elders were preparing to spend the night there when I heard that there was a funeral taking place that evening in a village across the river. I asked the boatman to find out whether or not if I would be welcome there. He said that I would be.
It is about three quarters of a mile across the river at this point. We beached the canoe under a sandy bluff and walked up to the village. I was accompanied by a Djuka boatman and a translator.
It had just turned dark, something that happens at six pm every day near the equator. There was a large fire burning in the square which was surrounded by thatched huts. People were gathered around the square either standing or sitting on stools since it is regarded as being extremely poor manners to sit directly on the ground, probably for the very practical reason that insects and parasites are everywhere.
There were several young men drumming and some singing going on. I stood inobtrusively, I hoped, in the shadow of one of the huts and took out my tape recorder, slung it over my shoulder and held the mike in my hand. According to the dial on the recorder, I was getting good pickup and I settled in to watch what was going on.
Several houses away, a boy of about eight or nine years was offering an enamel cup he had just filled with the contents of a bottle in his hand. The adult drank it and passed the cup back to him. The boy, poured more into the cup, moved on to the next adult and offered it to him. When the bottle was empty, he brought out another. He was moving my way.
When he reached me, he seemed puzzled. More than six feet tall and while, wearing a shirt and trousers rather than bare chested with a cloth wrapped around my waist, I was clearly from far outside his society. It is possible that I was the first outsider he had ever faced in his young life and he didn't know how the rules of hospitality applied or didn't apply to me. Soon, though, he made a decision. He poured me some of this clear liquid, I think more than usual in order to show that despite his original hesitation, I was welcome. Then he passed me the enameled cup.
Even though the bottle was not marked, I was pretty sure it was rum but when I brought it up towards my face, my eyes began to water from the fumes. This was surely Chat Noir. The boy looked at me and suddenly I was aware that the entire village was also looking at me to see what this outsider would do when offered Djuka hospitality at this funeral.
I put the cup to my lips and took some of the liquid into my mouth. It burned! It actually felt as though it were eating away at my gums. The people were still looking at me with curiosity. I tried sucking saliva out of my salivary glands to mix with the rum in order to make it easier to swallow but that didn't seem to help. I could feel the rum burn as it trickled down my throat - and there was still a lot left in the cup.
I felt there was only one thing to do. I lifted the cup, took the entire belt in one gulp and swallowed.
When the rum reached my stomach it felt as though it splashed into an explosion, an upside-down mushroom cloud. I leaned against the hut and gasped. The boy smiled, took the cup and moved on. The people in the village lost interest too and returned to listening to the drumming and the singing. When the fire down below started to subside, I swear that int he back of my nostrils I smelled burning hair.
The funny thing was that about fifteen or twenty minutes later, I was feeling very much at home in this strange environment and I started looking around for that nice young boy with the bottle.
At about two AM, I had recorded enough music and was well aware that we would be up at dawn, 6:00AM, and soon after that would be moving up river. I needed to get some sleep. In order to get back to my hammock, I would need to get the translator and the boatman.
I found them on the other side of the village, back from the square a ways. The boatman had been lulled to sleep by the Chat Noir and was lying on the ground. The translator though was very active, He was dancing.
The Djuka are known for their fire-dancing. They will dance, on certain occasions, on burning embers, something I have never seen but it is well known throughout Suriname that they do this. The translator was not Djuka but he knew of the custom and had decided to show them his version of the fire dance. I have to add that he had been petting the Chat Noir vigorously during the evening. When I found him, he was dancing over an open fire, first on one bent leg and then on an other seeing how low he could dance. I think I got him away before he really hurt himself although I am not sure that he would have mentioned any such injuries to me over the upcoming days.
We made our way down the bluff to the beach in the total darkness. There was no moon but I did have a flashlight.
The boatman climbed in first and made his way to the stern and started the outboard. I climbed aboard next and was about in the middle of the dugout when the interpreter pushed off and jumped in, falling face-down on the bottom of the dugout. The boat swung in the current and when the motor stalled I could hear the rapids. The boatman started shouting. He clearly was saying something that was important. The interpreter, getting up to his knees from where he had fallen was not listening. "What's he saying!?". I wanted to know but interpreter didn't seem to care as much as I did. Now the rapids were getting louder as were the boatman's shouts and we were heading towards them sideways. It was right then that I took one of the most ill-considered actions of my life. I jumped overboard on the downstream side of the log dugout and tried to prevent it from moving closer to the rapids. Yup, I must have had more rum than I realized because I was trying to hold, broadside, a log that weighed easily a thousand pounds and was being pushed by one of South America's major rivers.
My first thought though wasn't that I was going to be pushed over and into the rapids at night, it was a totally different sort of thought. It was a thought that under no other conditions would I have ever considered to be important. thought that I had never considered until that moment. Now I really wanted to know whether or not piranha slept at night. The boatman had been feeding our little expedition with fresh fish including piranha on this trip so I knew they were there. What I didn't know was what sort of appetite they had in the middle of the night.
I was really lucky that I had jumped overboard more towards the bow than the stern so the boat pivoted around me, bow facing upstream. At about this time, the boatman got the engine running again. I popped up into the dugout like a watermelon seed squeezed between thumb and forefinger and we crossed the river without any further adventures.
I climbed into my hammock, still wet, adjusted the mosquito netting, and went to sleep to dream of black cats and piranhas going to a funeral.