At the far end of my plane ticket awaited rum paradise. It’s a long trek from my motherland in Africa to the tropical islands of Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean. I was obviously by no means the first of my part of the world to undertake this journey, but unlike some of my enslaved predecessors, I was more than willing.
From all the byproducts resulting from the horrors of slavery, rum – together with blues music – must be on the better side of the list. And here I was, strapped down in a steel tube hurtling through the sky straight towards its origin – The Caribbean.
You see, by a stroke of good fortune, I procured an invite to the 10th Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge, taking place in Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad. I’ve been aware of Trinidad & Tobago since childhood. Coming from a colonised world myself, I’m versed in the game of Brian Lara, but it was only later that I realised a few drops of Trinidad was always present in the drinks I love.
Since 1875, when the Siegert family first moved their operations from the then called town of Angostura in Venezuela to Port of Spain in Trinidad, their brand of bitters has become synonymous with iconic cocktails all over the world. Even that America drunkard, Mark Twain, mentioned his love for Angostura in a letter to his wife in 1874:
Livy my darling, I want you to be sure & remember to have, in the bathroom, when I arrive, a bottle of Scotch whisky, a lemon, some crushed sugar, & a bottle of Angostura bitters. Ever since I have been in London I have taken in a wine glass what is called a cock-tail (made with those ingredients) before breakfast, before dinner, & just before going to bed.
Today you will find a bottle of Angostura bitters behind almost every self-respecting bar in the world. It dominates the drinks market like no other brand ever has. In fact, except for its secret recipe, there’s not much to tell about this bitter potion that has not been divulged before. Every bartender worth his jigger knows more than they probably should about this tincture with its uniquely oversized label. But there’s more to Angostura than bitters.
As I boarded the final leg of my long-haul from Heathrow, my travel companions all of a sudden became more rumbustious. It was a sign of things to come. Next to me, a large lady spilt over her economy seat to claim some of my confinement. She looked anxious. Not interested in chit-chat, I left her to her own devices. A few minutes later she wrapped her 50s style chiffon scarf a few times around her head and nodded off like a butterfly in its cocoon. “So that’s the end of that then ”, I pondered but quickly realised the rest of the passengers had no such intentions. Except for my now veiled neighbour and an oddball in seat 33D with a surgical mask on, the rest of the passengers were a boisterous bunch, and as soon as the drinks trolley started rolling, limers began congregating all over the cabin.
The consumption of libations continued unabated throughout the night, unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a flight before, until we dotted down at our final destination in Port of Spain the next day. After an introduction to island time at passport control, I finally stepped out from the airport terminal. The tropical heat wrapped around my face like a wet wool blanket in a tumble drier. I wanted to take off all my clothes and never wear them again [*] or drench my system with something cool and refreshing, preferably rum-infused. Either way, I was melting.
After a quick shower at the Hyatt Regency, I made my way to a private celebration at a charming colonial compound somewhere in the city. On arrival, I proceed straight towards the nearest bar. “What will it be?”, the bartender casually asked with his distinct Trini accent. This was it, my first drink in the Caribbean. What will it be indeed?
Now for boozehounds like myself, it’s always an extra-special occasion when consuming a drink near its origin. I guess the same can be said for pretty much anything, but my response nevertheless came instinctively.
“Angostura 1824 on the rocks, please”.
Angostura was so much a part of this world, you only had to walk the streets of Port of Spain to see it proudly beaming from billboards on every corner. Taking into account that the 1824 rum played homage to the year when Dr Siegert first created his famous bitters, it only seemed fitting to celebrate my maiden arrival to Trinidad with this dark liquid.
A few minutes later I could feel the rum taking effect. My body loosened as the taste of thick molasses and dark coffee rolled down my gullet. The heat’s still relentless and for a second the pool looked inviting.
I struck up a conversation with a fellow journalist from a British newspaper. “So what’s the angle? Any ideas on what to write about this?”, I asked, knowing very well I had little direction myself. “I’m doing a travel piece on the Carnival ”, he replied.
Oh yes, The Carnival.
Billed by the locals as the biggest party on earth, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is a non-stop masquerade of feathers and skin. Young, old, thick, thin, you name it, all twerking while dry humping anyone closeby. It’s a beautiful rum-laced affair with a rich history. Since the 18th century, on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, everyone in Port of Spain revels in culture and liquor. By the end of Tuesday, only hardcore zombies prevail, chipping away behind booming soca trucks, desperately trying to squeeze the last drops of carnival from the alcohol-drenched streets.
I continued my conversation with my new acquaintance: “I’m planning to do some kind of Hunter S Thompson’s Rum Diary riff. Seeing that bartenders do twists on classic cocktails all the time, I can just as well do one on a classic Caribbean rum novel.”, I justified my flaky decision.
Thompson’s Rum Diary seemed like a good fit. The plot was rudimentary but relevant to my trip. Caribbean, drunk journalists, rum, love, death, it’s all key plot points in his 1960s novel. My initial thought was that I would only need the Caribbean, journalists and rum references, but unknown to me at the time was that death would very much be part of my story.
The knowledge of one’s own immortality is what makes us so uniquely human. Since childhood, we are made aware of our limited existence and subsequently live our lives accordingly. We strive to be more healthy. Go to the gym, eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, do less drugs. Every day we make decisions to limit our risk, all in a desperate attempt to prolong our imminent demise. It makes us who we are and when confronted with death it’s profound.
The next morning I woke up on my hotel bed, face down, enveloped in the aroma of my own rum flavoured sweat. In my drunken state, I never turned the AC on. I dragged myself out of bed. Assuming it’s still early, I pulled open the curtains. The daybreak flooded through, all the way to the back of my gloomy eyeballs, rendering me temporarily blind. “Goddam, I need glasses,” I reminded myself while blocking the glare with an outstretched hand. It took a few seconds before my vision blurred back into focus. The Caribbean sea stretched out in front of me, calm like a housewife on Prozac, not even a whisper of a breeze dared to disturb it. Under the cloak of the night, a superyacht had stealthily appeared in front of the hotel.
It’s a spectacular 300-feet engineering showpiece, complete with a whirlybird peeking from the helipad on the stern. The bluish-grey hull shimmered proudly in the morning sun. It radiated class, but behind its shiny veneer lay a murky world.
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the current owner, acquired this cruiser for around $150 million from a Russian billionaire five years ago, about the same time Teodorín became vice president of the oil-rich country of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa. He’s also the son of the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who in turn has been described by rights organisations as one of the most brutal dictators and abusers of Human Rights in Africa. It’s a classic case of the resource curse. A poor starving nation discovers some kind of black fermented tree goo that corrupts its beliefs and pollutes its skies. It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. [*]
Similar to Equatorial Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago is also blessed with oil and gas riches, but unlike its oily brother across the Atlantic, it’s without the excessive corruption. According to Transparency International corruption in Trinidad and Tobago was average at best, and failed miserably in comparison to Equatorial Guinea, which was listed as the 7th most corrupt country in the world.
In fact, Trinidad and Tobago is the leading Caribbean producer of oil and gas and has earned a reputation as an excellent investment opportunity for international businesses. However, it’s an industrialised island country where oil comes first and tourism second. They don’t have to sell the island dream as hard as other paradise destinations and for adventurous travellers like myself, this was good news. Tourism can so easily negate the natural authenticity of a country. It was not the case here.
After breakfast, we headed to the Trinidad Distillery, a subsidiary of Angostura Holdings. A bus the locals referred to as a maxi, picked us up at the hotel. It’s an upsized minibus, complete with a retro design straight out of the 80s. Speakers blaring soca music – imagine Bob Marley on a heavy dose of amphetamines. It’s a fusion of Calypso and Indian beats that would be permanently etched into my brain by the end of the trip.
After a 15-minute drive East we arrived at the distillery. It’s an impressive operation that can produce up to 8.5 million litres of pure alcohol annually via massive column stills. On a tour of the compound, I observed the genuine enthusiasm of the staff. They seemed proud of their work, in a way that parents are proud of their children. The rest of the day disappeared into dictations and iterations as I interviewed the finalists and judges for the upcoming competition.
By dusk, the maxi, with AC and soca still at full blast, returned us to the hotel. I secured a window seat and for the rest of the journey staring out the window, watching palm trees flashing by, pondering the good times ahead. We stopped at a red light. Across the road, I spotted the man from my flight. The one with the surgical mask. The mask’s still on. I waved hello, he ignored me. “You sick bastard”, I muttered.
The Saturday evening I found myself in my hotel room changing into formal attire for the evening’s gala event when the phone rang. My phone only seemed to bring distress lately and this time was no different. It’s my sister: “Mom had a heart attack, she’s in intensive care.”
It’s the call from my childhood nightmares, the one where I received the message that my last remaining parent was gravely ill. As a five-year-old, I would wake up from this dream, tears streaming down my cheeks.
Over the years I convinced myself I was adequately prepared for this very moment.
“Ok”, I muffled back into the phone. For the rest of the conversation, my mind wandered, speculating about possible future outcomes. “But she is stable now”, it’s my sister’s voice dragging me back to reality. By the time the call ended I was five again, tears streaming down my cheeks.
The 10th edition of the biennial Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge saw nine bartenders from around the world competing to become Angostura’s next brand ambassador. The last challenge required the contestants to make two cocktails, one rum one amaro, in front of a panel of judges and a live audience at a gala event in the banquet hall of the hotel.
My sister’s voice still rang fresh in my ears as I made my way to one of the complimentary pop-up cocktail bars at the event. On the menu: Queens Park Swizzle. It’s a local classic with global recognition. Created right here in Port of Spain in the 1920s at the now-demolished Queen’s Park Hotel, The Queen’s Park Swizzle is everything that’s right in the world. Rum, lime, mint and bitters all whisked together. It was the joy my soul so much needed. After a few more refills my worries made way for the job at hand.
To the far end of the banquet hall, the MC called for the first bartender to step up. The whole thing resembled something from a set of a television talent show, complete with celebrity judges, cameras and dabbler contestants, except here everyone was masters of their craft.
One by one the bartenders made their way onto the stage, impressing the judges and audience with their superior ability and well-crafted drinks. It’s a talk-and-shake affair that lasted for approximately ten minutes before the stage was reset for the next presentation. Some told stories of suffering on the banks of the Orinoco river in 1820 and how a German Surgeon General called Johann Siegert, serving in the army of Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, set out to create an elixir for suffering soldiers. I recalled cocktail names like “Doctor’s Orders” and phrases like “Chaos to Order” being used during some of the presentations.
The early days of Dr Johann Siegert’s relationship with his bitter potion were everything but the glamour and joy we associate with Angostura bitters today. Wartime hospitals in the 1800s were a brutal and gruesome affair. During those trying times, Dr Siegert’s bitters were cloaked in distress and worry.
I observed the tension evaporating from each bartender’s eyes as they exited the stage. It’s a beautiful release of nerves.
Across the room, I caught sight of a tall balding man. I scrunched up my eyes to focus. “Can it be? Is that Hunter S Thompson chatting to some of the other media folk over there? Can’t be. Maybe it’s just the rum or maybe it’s Thompson”, I wondered “The man obviously faked his own suicide and is now hiding out here in Port of Spain, attending global cocktail competitions and living the island life.”
It was neither. As I made my way through the crowd I noticed my Thompson suspect was far too jovial for a man who once said “Beware of enthusiasm and of love, both are temporary and quick to sway. [*]”
My Hunter doppelganger turned out to be an Irishman called Gonzo. I introduced myself and immediately blurted out my lookalike theory. “It’s been mentioned before”, Gonzo reassured me… We were interrupted by the MC calling the contestants back onto the stage, it was time to announce the winner. I turned around. On the stage were ten gorgeous women pulsating in carnival costumes made from feathers and titchy scraps of fabric. Centrestage behind the microphone stood a middle-aged man, beaming from ear to ear, the new CEO of Angostura. I moved to the back bar for a refill as he started addressing the rum-infused audience, to return just in time for the announcement of the top three contestants. Vietnam third, followed by Australia and then the winner, the man they called The Bishop from Barbados ended up with the title as Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge champion.
The rest of the night deviated into more quality rum, questionable dancing and an abnormal quantity of fried chicken.
I woke up the next morning in my hotel room, this time with the AC on full blast. Curtains closed. Progress. I switched on the television and fired up the Nespresso machine for something that resembled coffee. International news channels broadcasted the same story about a virus. Local channels were all covering the upcoming carnival.
After breakfast and still shaking from the night before, we set out for a beach on the other side of the island. Our journey snaked through the tropical landscape and mountainous terrain until we reached our final destination, Maracas Beach, a two-kilometre long strip of pristine white sand flanked by rainforest-covered mountains.
I settled in on a beach chair with a highball of sorrel flavoured rum and coconut water. It tasted like a tropical Christmas cake. Memories of my mother came flooding back. I wondered how she was doing? My eyes started to water. Time for a swim.
I dived into the first wave. The water lukewarm on my skin but still refreshing. Behind the breakers where the ocean was calm, I floated on my back like a sad seal, staring at the gloom above with watery eyes. My mind flickered through distant memories while I desperately tried to stay in the moment. After a while, I headed back to the beach. The world was still turning.
“Have you tried a Bake and Shark yet?”, it’s Gonzo, the Thompson fellow from the previous night. “The what now?” I ask.
On the island, you’ll find many splendid street food staples. The most iconic is a hand-held greaser made with two fried flatbread pieces, drenched in chickpea curry and chutney, called Doubles. Everywhere I went, from airport to carpark, Doubles were always close by but here at Maracas Beach, it’s all about Bake and Shark. A number of vendors operated along the beach.
“You have to try the Bake and Shark”, Gonzo reiterated. “Come with me”. We took a short walk over the white beach sand to a kiosk called Natalie’s Bake & Shark. Gonzo placed the order while I scanned the bar fridge for beer. “And two Stags please”, I added. Gonzo declined the beer. “Ok one beer then”, I revised.
A few minutes later Gonzo handed me my Bake and Shark. It’s a lightly fried bun filled with chunks of breaded and fried Blacktip shark. “The secret is the extras”, he added while pointing to the condiments station.
It’s not the first time I’ve eaten shark. Growing up in a small fishing village I was accustomed to eating everything from the ocean. I remember the little sand sharks we use to catch in the shallow waters. They were no more than 30 centimetres long, but still with the temper of a Great White. The Chihuahua Doberman analogy. With skin like heavy grade sandpaper, these little bastards were anything but easy to prepare and always involved my dad’s bench vice and pliers. Not for the squeamish. The meat was snow white and firm. It however never occurred to me to put my little ankle biters on a bun, let alone drench it with everything from leaves to hot sauce. I should have. The condiment station had every option I never thought of as a child. Lettuce, tomatoes, coleslaw, pineapple slices, chutney, hot sauce, tamarind, you name it. I loaded my shark sandwich with all possibilities. Suffice to say, it lived up to the hype. Absolutely delicious!
At crack of dawn the next morning I found myself among hundreds of festival revellers parading behind blaring soca trucks on the streets of Port of Spain. It’s J’ouvert and I’ve been at it since early morning. Sometime during the parade, I spotted the masked man again. Next to him, a man was smoking. The smoker noticed my stare and passed it my way. “Thanks!”, I shouted over the thunderous music and took a few satisfying drags. It’s been too damn long. By now the music and rum began to take hold of my dancing feet. Sipping and chipping. Around me faces glittered in the morning sun and for a moment I drifted along in ecstasy.
J’ouvert marked the unofficial beginning of the two-day carnival celebrations. The start of the final bacchanal before the mortification of the flesh, so to speak. It is believed that the word “carnival” was taken from the Latin words carn- ‘flesh’ and levare ‘put away’. It’s basically December before dry-January. The last quench before purifying the mind, body and soul.
That morning of J’ouvert my mother passed away in a hospital bed on the other side of the world. The news reached me later the day while on an outing down the islands. The dark thumb of fate turned my paradise into sorrow.
Days later on my return journey, I sat down at an airport bar in London for a quick drink. Behind the counter, a bartender with a face mask on attended to my order. He reached for the Angostura to shake a few dashes into my cocktail. The sight of the bottle immediately triggered grieving memories of my mother. All of a sudden I felt a certain empathy towards Dr Johann Siegert, who in those early war days most likely also associated his bitters with sorrow and pain. However, Dr Siegert turned things around. His potion found its rightful place in the cocktail, the official bearer of joy. And if from now going forward his bitters was to remind me of my mother, I can just as well commemorate her life with it. A joyous memory for each drop.
“What’s with the masks?”, I asked the bartender. I noticed a fair amount of masked travellers around the airport terminal. “Don’t you watch the news? It’s the virus. We have a global pandemic on our hands. Thousands might die”, he replied. He placed my cocktails on a paper coaster and pushed it over the counter towards me, “Here you go”.
“Well, in that case, you better add a few more drops of bitters then”, I requested.
He reached for the bottle of Angostura again. I slipped down memory lane. It’s beautiful.