Chamisul Classic on the Karimata Straits
Alcohol control in the Islamic world runs a long gamut.
There are those countries that practice outright prohibition, like Saudi Arabia, where being caught with a bottle of whiskey is almost like being caught with a pound of heroin, no matter what your denomination, nationality, or excuse.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, like the former Soviet “stans,” where the prohibition on alcohol appears to have been left out of their version of the Quran, and vodka pours like water over Niagara Falls, morning, noon, and night.
Most countries occupy some kind of middle: it’s available but hard to find (Egypt), it’s heavily taxed (Malaysia), it’s only available in fancy hotels or madly regulated shops (Qatar), you have to prove you’re non-Muslim to get it (Pakistan), and so on.
Indonesia—the most populous Islamic country in the world, with 203 million faithful—is one of those middle grounders. In Hindu Bali it’s everywhere, in arch-Islamic Aceh it’s nowhere, and in most of the country it’s just expensive and you have to look for it.
And it is not available on Pelni, the network of ferries that transports millions of Indonesians between the Indonesian archipelago’s 17,000 or so islands.
Right now, I am on a 29-hour ferry, crossing the Karimata Straits, about two degrees south of the equator, from Jakarta’s port of Tanjung Priok (6.1321° S, 106.8715° E) to Pulau Batam (1.0456° N, 104.0305° E).
I knew there was no way I was going to be able to do this trip without liquor, and at the same time, I knew there wouldn’t be any liquor on this ferry.
I went to a bottle shop last night to figure what I might be able to smuggle on board, but the cheapest and most appropriate thing I could find, 200 ml of Black Velvet rye in a plastic mickey, was just too expensive, at $20. (If it had been 200 ml of Canadian Club, fine, but Black Velvet was what we used to drink as university kids in British Columbia, when the student loan money was really stretched to the limit.)
Luckily, I was staying with a Korean friend, and like any good Korean abroad, her shelves were packed with Korean worker gasoline: soju. She gave me a 200ml Tetra Pak box of my favorite, Chamisul Classic, and that’s what I’m drinking now, at 7:42 pm, in my cockroach-infested Kelas 1A cabin.
The soju is warm, it’s gross, it isn’t accompanied with the requisite grilled pig guts and kimchi, but it’s something to make this extremely boring trip a little less boring, books, beetles, cold mie goreng, and 200-decibel calls to Islamic prayer broadcast straight to your room notwithstanding.