Legend has it that when sailors undertook the long and perilous journey from Europe to the Caribbean centuries ago and made it back alive, they brought back a barrel of rum from Barbados to prove they had actually crossed the mighty Atlantic and were not spinning tall tales as sailors were wont to do. (The legend is probably inaccurate. Knowing sailors, they would have probably drunk the rum on the way home and only got back the barrel as proof.)
Though my flight to Barbados from London wasn't as treacherous as a sea voyage in the olden days, when I touched down at the refurbished Grantley Adams International Airport after a long and bumpy flight, I definitely needed a drink.Of water.
But what greeted me was a table full of glasses filled with cool rum punch. This, at three in the afternoon! With calypso tunes playing in the background encouraging me to plunge into the spirit of Barbados without further ado, I somehow forgot about the water and succumbed.
To be frank, that wasn't the beginning of a beautiful relationship - the punch was too strong for my unrefined tastes and I really don't drink in the middle of the afternoon. But I soon found out that it is hard to escape rum in Barbados.
Rum is made out of molasses - the sticky brown residue that is produced while processing sugarcane - and is the only spirit to be made out of that plant. Barbados is believed to be the birthplace of rum and the island has had a love affair with the spirit for over 350 years starting from the time the British colonised the tropical island and laid bare vast tracts of forest land to plant sugarcane.
Not surprisingly, rum is Barbados's national drink and the rum produced in the island is considered among the best in the world. There are three distilleries in the 431 sq km country Mount Gay, Foursquare Rum Factory and Malibu. Mount Gay's Extra Old and Eclipse rums have won gold medals and top honours at many international competitions.
Mount Gay has an interesting visitors' centre in the capital, Bridgetown, where tourists are acquainted with the history of rum making in Barbados. On display are huge old wooden vats, old copper stills and valuable old glass bottles, some of which are still used at the Mount Gay distillery in the parish of St Lucy.
The highlight of the tour is a rum tasting session that makes you really light-headed and if you are not careful, will lead you to splurge in the gift shop that adjoins the bar - like I did.
The countryside is also punctuated by 1,600 rum shops, an average of one shop for 170 inhabitants. That explains why during the island safari, lan, our Bajan driver and knowledgeable guide, told us quite reassuringly that the jeep would run out of diesel faster than it would out of rum.
Like cricket, rum is also a source of immense national pride as Ian made evident when he uncharacteristically sparred with a journalist of Guyanese origin in our group who argued that the best rum in the world was not a Mount Gay rum as Ian claimed, but the El Dorado Special reserve, a product of Demerara Distillers in (where else?) Guyana.
TAKE IT EASY
Besides selling liquor rum shops in Barbados also double up as grocery shops and form an integral part of Bajan culture. Whether it is a warm afternoon or cool evening, you will always catch locals sipping rum, discussing cricket or local politics or just chilling out with a game of cards at the nearest rum shop. Spending some time in a rum shop is a good way to taste a slice of typical Bajan life.With some good rum and pieces of the local delicacy - fried flying fish - accompanied with generous dollops of hot Bajan pepper sauce, one can become a rum shop fan for life.
The bountiful rum shops and churches on the island (the main faith is Anglican but there are a hundred different Christian denominations) forced me to mentally compare Barbados to Goa even though I know it is a completely unfair comparison because of the uniqueness of both holiday destinations.
But here goes: The island is largely flat with rolling hills, somewhat like Goa. It has narrow roads that make driving a bit frustrating if you have a slow poke in front of you - just like Goa. And if Goa has grand whitewashed Portuguese churches every few kilometres and liquor shacks every 500 metres, little churches can be seen in every corner in Barbados along with the rum shops. Last, if feni is an obsession in Goa, in Barbados it is rum.