Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It’s the Real Thing:

One of the piti piti joys for me in coming to Haiti is drinking Coke—yes, Coca-Cola, that most American of beverages. In Haiti, the sweet, caramel beverage is available in half liter and smaller glass bottles, and I tell you, from no container does Coke taste better. I know nothing about where Port-au-Prince Coke is produced, though I would think the recipe is uniform throughout the world, or understand the effect of bottling on the beverage’s flavor. As a Coke connoisseur, I just know it tastes best here—and that’s not homesickness talking. I’m drinking it straight out of the bottle as I type. I don’t even like to dilute it with ice. The sweetness and tang of the soda seem pure. I’m sorry I can’t do any better than this at describing the sensation. Maybe you beer drinkers who prefer glass bottles to cans can understand.

After John and I have been at clinic for a couple of hours, I usually walk across the street and buy three half liter bottles from the street merchants. They charge $3 Haitian or about 35 cents U.S. a bottle. When they see me coming, they begin digging in their red coolers under the bags of water and the bottles of juice and other sodas for the Cokes, which are invariably at the bottom. Hopefully, this will mean they will be cold, although the ice in the cooler has usually long since turned to dirty water. It doesn’t matter though; such is the superiority of Haitian Coke that it tastes great lukewarm. The street vendors are unfailingly polite. They wipe off the bottles and gently pry off the tops, leaving them on to protect the precious drink. I pay them the money with the understanding that I will return the bottles when we are finished.

Here’s a little lesson in economics: down the street from the clinic is a neat little convenient store. John and I used to stop in there for a beverage. They had Cokes in a cooler, but these Cokes weren't in glass bottles. Their Cokes were in plastic bottles or cans: drinking these is not the same taste treat. Sometimes the Coke in the plastic bottles is flat, the seal from the plastic screw top having gone bad. These Cokes aren’t even as good as American Cokes. And the prices are triple what we pay on the street. Triple the price for an inferior product: large scale capitalism at work? And then, of course, where’s the most expensive place to buy food or beverages any where in the world? Hotels! (I found this out when pricing wedding receptions). The Coke in the slightly larger than a third of a liter bottle that I am currently drinking cost $1.65 U.S. Outrageous.

Okay, this has been a long post about a frivolous topic. Let me redeem it, or spoil it, depending on your view, with some political commentary. I read a review of a recently published book, “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” In the book, the authors profile the eating habits of 30 families from 24 countries. They also photograph them with a week’s worth of food. One Mexican family of five is pictured with the 12 2 liter bottles of Coke that they drink weekly. Mexico leads the world in per capita consumption of Coke. I don’t know why this is—what kind of marketing does Coke do below the border?—but, it’s probably no coincidence that 65 percent of Mexicans are overweight. It doesn’t take a nutritionist to figure out that drinking Coke on this scale—or even semi-regularly—means a person is substituting it for healthier beverages, like water.

I think this concept of the spread of Coke worldwide has something to do with globalization, and not in a good way, unless you’re a Coca Cola stockholder, but I don’t possess the political/economic knowledge to ‘splain it. I don’t understand the pricing either. Does the container really cost more than the drink? Is sugar this cheap? Maybe the Haitians who harvest it in the Dominican Republic aren't earning enough?

If we’re not careful, we’re going to turn into a world of diabetic, artery-clogged, tooth-rotting roly pollys. And because of the caffeine, we’ll be addicted to the stuff. If you said to me, “Well, that kind of a world would be better than one in which children are starving,” I would agree: give the developing world their shot at the diseases of excess. But I think it’s a little bit of a false dichotomy. Is it truly either/or? Drink Coke (eat McDonalds) or die? Maybe Marx was right: societies have to pass through the stage of capitalization before more humane economies emerge. Or maybe capitalization is as good as it gets. I don’t know.

So for personal and political reasons, I should quit drinking Coke. But I can’t give it up in Haiti. (My mother always said my favorite word was later). I’ll end with a song I inexplicably began humming yesterday. I think it sums up—especially it’s last two Brave New Worldish lines—what we’ve been talking about and also encapsulates the fresh-as-a-new-snow, innocent-as-a-babe-in-a-manger commercial spirit of Christmas

I'd like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to hold it in my arms and keep it company
I'd like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills "Ah, peace throughout the land"

I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company
It’s the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today.
That's the song I hear, that the world sings today.

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