Saint Hilaire Saint Louis features in One Day in Port-au-Prince, a multimedia documentary.
PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - On a rickety-looking table set up on a sidewalk, dozens of bottles were sparkling in the sun: DSP Black Deluxe Whisky from India, Disaronno Amaretto from Italy, Andre Champagne from the United States. In the background was a crumpled building.
Saint Hilaire Saint Louis, 30, was leaning over his stall in downtown Port-au-Prince, discussing the booze business in the wake of the earthquake.
“This is how it goes: liquor sells by the season, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Right now it’s whisky season… It sells really well. This White Label whisky that you see here, it sells really fast.”
Then he corrected himself: “But not these days. People have no money.”
There’s something incongruous about champagne bottles and cognac stacked neatly on a table amid the ruins of a devastated city. Laid out under Saint Hilaire’s green and yellow umbrellas, they seem like mocking reminders of a better time.
“Before all that, before the earthquake, you could come here and make enough money to eat, to go home and eat with your children and your wife,” he said. “Well, that’s over. The country is destroyed. I tell you, my business is destroyed too.”
He was at work when the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010. He said it felt as though the ground was dancing under his feet. He staggered down the road and narrowly avoided being crushed by falling debris.
“I came back here, and I couldn’t find my merchandise because the roof had collapsed on it,” he recalled. “They were all broken.”
Like many roadside entrepreneurs in the capital, the only way Saint Hilaire could restart his business was by borrowing money from a friend. The cash allowed him to buy new stock, but it left him with a debt he has yet to repay.
A year after the quake, is anybody buying his champagne?
“People don’t need to be rich for champagne,” he said. “Maybe today is my birthday. I want to open a champagne bottle and treat myself. The price range is wide. You can find some at 200 gourdes ($5), some at 300 gourdes ($7.50), and it goes on. It depends on the size of your wallet.”
Five bucks won’t get you Dom Perignon - and you might end up with a sore head in the morning - but it seems pretty reasonable for a drop of bubbly in a city where bottled water can set you back $1, not far off what you’d pay in a London supermarket.
But when you remember that half the country lives on less than $1 a day, even bottled water seems like a guilty pleasure.
I asked Saint Hilaire if people were turning to drink to drown their sorrows after the quake. His answer was an indignant “No!”
“If you only have 50 gourdes, and everything else is lost, do you think you’ll spend it on alcohol?” he said. “People will try to buy a pair of sandals, shoes, and a shirt to put on.”
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