I had stopped at the shabby old store-and-warf across the river from where we are staying to talk with our canvas shop about material choices. The canvas guys are located behind the store, so we use the store warf to tie up the dinghy when we go to talk with them. The store has a faded painted sign saying “Tienda Reed” but everyone calls it “Chiqui’s”. The store has been here since the dawn of time and was the original-and-only source of supplies on the river back in the day. Nowadays it sits in the shadow and truck noise of the new 100ft-high concrete bridge that crosses the river here. It was hot, so I grabbed a real Coke (in glass, with real sugar; the kind of authentically nice food product that is common outside the US) from the cooler, paid my 3.5Q, and went around to meet with the canvas guys. It was a quick chat, took me only two minutes to decide on the material for our next project, so I still had a lot of the Coke left as I wandered back through the old store on my way back to the dinghy. I was wandering the store working on my Coke, looking through their assortment of hardware (the kind of things that are utterly critical to keeping a house and boat going here in the mangroves and you just never know when you will run across that one bit that you didn’t know you needed) when an older river gent (no other word for his appearance) sitting on the store bench chuckled and said something about my Coke being very refreshing. [Note – from here forward this was all in Spanish so I probably have some of the facts wrong] I replied with yes, Coke was the best of all drinks. Which he also laughed at and asked if I knew why it was so popular in the Rio. I drifted over to his bench saying “no, I didn’t”, and sat down as he started to tell me the story in the way of old men who know people and the world.
It turns out that there was nothing at what is now the bustling port of Puerto Barrios, just forest and water. The United Fruit Company, now basically Chiquita, wanted to build up the port because the existing port at Livingston was essentially inaccessible to rail. So they brought in large numbers of workers, housed them at Livingston, and ferried them to Puerto Barrios daily. With the food tax situation, where there were large sales taxes on food, United Fruit was paying their people with food since they had an “in” with the government that allowed them to not pay the tax. They also were importing Cokes from the US, which was so popular that the workers would wait for hours for the boat that brought it to Livingston. With the supply of food and Cokes, United Fruit had a locked-in workforce. I pointed out that Cokes of the day were loaded with cocaine instead of today’s caffeine, making them that much more popular, which he smiled and nodded at, saying that was exactly the point. We then talked at length about the days following United Fruit, the end of the dictator era with the passing of Jorge Ubico in the 1944 revolution (we had arrived on the federal holiday of Revolution Day and there was a huge celebration going on all weekend), the communist/leftist guerilla wars, it was a bad time for everyone, how Cuba is still stuck there eating their idealisms, .. .
We got to a break in the chat and I asked him his name. He said something complicated that I didn’t quite catch, but that everyone just called him Chiqui.