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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Market Town, Tribal Bar, Country Liquor

Apr.09.15

Market Town, Tribal Bar, Country Liquor

by Rolf Potts

I couldn’t see into the sleeping room, but the hotel’s owner, who appeared to be tipsy on his own liquor, told me that Mursi tribesmen and their families paid the equivalent of 20 cents per person to sleep on the packed-dirt floor. I was sitting in what the owner called the “drinking room,” a smoky, lamp-lit chamber with grimy turquoise walls, a sagging tile ceiling, and tattered posters of Jesus and Mary tacked up behind the bar. The Mursi men, who were required to check their fighting staves at the door, sat on low wooden benches, sipping at small glasses filled with a cloudy liquor called araki. Their wives, whose ceremonially severed lower lips sagged around their chins as they nursed babies in the dim light, sat on the floor along the wall. Everyone stared at a table in the front of the room, where a small television flickered with black-and-white images of light-skinned Ethiopian entertainers cavorting to Bollywood-esque pop songs. The air was thick with the smell of fermented sorghum and hand-cured goat leather.

The Mursi had arrived on foot, walking for as much as one week from the isolated hill country of southwest Ethiopia to the only metropolis they knew—Jinka, a market town of 22,000 people. The hotel, which sat at the back of a dirt alley and had no sign, catered to their tastes. Araki was the only drink on offer, and the owner sloshed it into a plastic bottle from an unwieldy jerrycan before moving around the room to refill clients’ glasses for ten cents a shot. The drink, he told me, had been distilled several valleys away, in the town of Konso; it was made from sorghum and barley, and sold mainly to country folk and tribal people like the Mursi, who couldn’t afford commercial spirits. The araki smelled rich and rotten and organic when I brought it to my nose. It burned going down, filling my sinuses with a potent, sileage-like aroma; my eyes watered, and I choked out a cough. The Mursi men next to me tittered as the owner brought me a glass of cola to help wash the liquor down.

Earlier that day I’d seen Mursi tribesmen in a markedly different setting, at a village three hours by jeep south of Jinka. There, the men had brandished AK-47 rifles outside of grass-walled huts, wearing headdresses studded with feathers, rebar rings, and warthog tusks. The women had balanced beaded baskets atop their heads, their faces painted a chalky white, their lower lips stretched taut by ocher-painted clay plates the size of coffee saucers. This colorful display was purely for the benefit of the half-dozen tourists, myself included, who’d come to take photos of Ethiopia’s most striking-looking tribespeople. The Mursi had bargained fiercely for the right to be photographed; prices had started at just over $1 per snapshot.

By contrast, the Mursi in the dark little Jinka hotel bar wore simple tartan shawls and paid me little mind as they stared at the television and chatted softly amongst themselves. The following morning they would take their butter and honey to the market and trade it for cash and manufactured goods before beginning the long walk home. Like me, they were travelers in Jinka, sipping their araki slowly, as if to savor the novelty of the moment.

The Rare Story in Which an Impromptu Beatles Serenade Doesn’t Fill One with Rage

Nov.16.17

The Rare Story in Which an Impromptu Beatles Serenade Doesn’t Fill One with Rage

by Anuj Juna

Beer in Kalimpong

He strums the guitar, eyes closed, and I watch this silver-haired old man bring the past alive. It’s an old Beatles number, and he hums just the way George would. The glass of beer is cold in my hands, and in a day or two I will be leaving the West Bengal mountain town of Kalimpong and riding my bike into Bhutan, where I will run out of money and make new friends.

But right now, Binod Onkle (the local pronunciation of “uncle”) has me mesmerized. His eyes are still closed, and the first few words of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” linger in the air. It’s not hard to picture a younger Binod, crooning on a stage, getting thrown out of boarding school, raising havoc in bars, falling in love, and falling out of love.

It was fitting that our meeting was so unplanned. With a bike that needed repairs, I had planned to spend a few days in Kalimpong. In the end, I spent close to two weeks there, most nights at Cloud Nine, Binod Uncle’s hotel.

During dinner at Cloud Nine, he would join me at the table, sharing wildly inappropriate stories with a poker face and twinkling eyes. Bottle of beer in hand, he would take a deep swig now and then, slipping into his memories. Nothing was out of bounds in our conversations, and the candor was wonderful.

He had an animated way of speaking, his hands moving around as the words rushed out. Every so often he would deliver a punchline without changing his expression, and there would be a few seconds of silence as I processed what I had just heard. Then, laughter, more laughter, and beer.

One night, he bought me a beer, impishly telling me that one of his guests had paid up, and he “had made a little money today.” That night, he picked up the guitar and began strumming away.

The morning I finally left Kalimpong, he waved goodbye from the hotel door. When I turned one final time, he gave a sharp, little salute.

Months later, I would remember his twinkling eyes and that salute. When I heard of the civil unrest in the hills, it was Binod Uncle I thought of first. A crooning rock star, with a guitar in his hands, and a bottle of beer never too far away.

A Totally Avoidable Error in Drink Selection at an Italian Food Fair

Nov.15.17

A Totally Avoidable Error in Drink Selection at an Italian Food Fair

by Prathap Nair

Licorice mojito in Cesena

After overdosing on golden deep-fried arancinis and hearty, brown-spotted piadena stuffed with prosciutto and squacquerone cheese at a street food fair in Cesena, my drowsy gaze lands on a makeshift stall. I’ve just had a couple of plastic glasses of the local Sangiovese wine with which I could easily see myself becoming best friends, but when I spotted the licorice mojito, it stirred some memories.

Until I found this stall, I was under the impression that licorice was mostly a Scandinavian thing. In Denmark, licorice is introduced into beer, ice cream, chocolate, mints, fudge, and candy. When I visited Aarhus last year, my friend and his family force-fed me so many licorice-flavored sweets that my memories of Danish Christmas are now tainted with a strong licorice scent.

“To be fair, I haven’t given licorice a chance,” my partner says, jolting me back from my brief reverie. “Well, now is the time,” I say, emboldened by his vote of confidence. We buy a disposable plastic glass and decide to split the drink. This was fortunate.

Elbowing out of the crowd, we walk into a tiny, unpeopled piazza with tall mustard-colored buildings that close down on us. A sense of suffocation sweeps over us. Yet as my partner’s face grows unpleasant and he scrunches up his eyebrows, I deduce it’s the mojito. But it’s more than that.

“This reminds me of Wasai (in Mumbai) where my mom used to leave me with my extended family before going to work, when I was a kid. It’s depressing, let’s get out of here,” he says with a sense of urgency.

I sip the coffee-brown slush and realize even the heavy dose of alcohol couldn’t tame the assaulting flavor of licorice, an overbearing syrupy note with salty undertones.

The piazza is empty, save for a few restaurants waiting for their last-minute customers before they close for lunch and a food delivery guy fastening his delivery cartons around his bike’s pillion. A middle-aged woman eyeballs us suspiciously as she parks her bike.

We stir the plastic straw as the ice cubes release more water into the coffee-brown slush. It’s a beautiful, sunny day in Cesena. The after-kick from the alcohol stirs our memories and our consciousness slowly but steadily blurs. We silently meditate on the small failures of our travels, and decide to flavor-code each one of them as the plastic glass of licorice mojito passes back and forth between our hands.

We’ll Skip the Long Religious Hike But That Donkey Driver Sounds Like Quality People

Nov.14.17

We’ll Skip the Long Religious Hike But That Donkey Driver Sounds Like Quality People

by Kim Green

Red wine in Ponferrada

“Our position ist here,” said Martin the German policeman, pointing to a screenshot map of Ponferrada—a town best known for its 12th-century Templar castle, in the Bierzo region of northwestern Spain.

We teased Martin for his orderliness: his rucksack contents were meticulously sub-bagged and labeled in three languages. But we appreciated his geographical exactitude. He led us straight to a little grocery store attached to a Shell station, where we provisioned for 15.

When a tribe of pilgrims comes together on the Camino de Santiago, everyone specializes; odd talents rise to the surface. My husband Hal sang and cooked; I did rudimentary translating and was best known for an ability to speed-pee without dropping the pack. Martin navigated and performed acts of gallantry: he once backtracked several kilometers to shoulder an
injured Swiss friend’s pack as she limped into Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a town best known for a poultry-related miracle.

Frida the Swede instigated wine drinking and merriment, and on one occasion, ministered to a friend laid low by wine drinking and merriment—the same Swiss pilgrim previously rescued by Martin. Providing opportunities for would-be rescuers was her specialty.

In the Ponferrada hostel kitchen, Frida took charge of pasta sauce-making; Heinrich, a cheerful German in a felt “Wander Hut” hiking hat, prepared salads, and I assembled tapas platters: sautéed mushrooms, cured meats, soft cheeses, and membrillo (quince paste). As we worked, we chefs sipped from a private stash of Mencía, a fruity varietal from the Bierzo.

After dinner, Frida and I headed outside with our second bottle of Mencía. In the courtyard, we met Ginés, an arriero—a person who transports goods by pack animal—who was walking from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela and back with his burro, Marina, and a small dog named Escoti.

I’d previously learned the word arriero because of a Basque sandwich. At a town festival in Navarra, hundreds of miles back east, I ate a bocadillo piled high with Lajoarriero—literally, “muleskinner’s garlic.” It was a delicious dish I hoped to see more of, made from cod, garlic, tomato, and pepper, created long ago by Basque pack-mule drivers as a way to enliven the preserved salt cod they carried.

Now, here was a real live muleteer-peregrino. His dog sometimes, but not always, rode on the burro’s back. Ginés demonstrated this for us, setting Escoti delicately upon Marina with a blast of laughter.

Ginés the muleskinner sometimes, if not always, preferred his wine from a bota—a traditional leather canteen-bag. It is capable of dispensing any kind of liquid, but why would it? Spanish wine is delicious, and is often cheaper than bottled water—especially if you’re not married to any specific varietal. Ginés was not.

Bota-drinking lessons were Ginés’s specialty. He took charge of demonstrating proper bota usage to Frida and me: Open wide. Squeeze the bota. Aim haphazardly and from a great distance. Prepare for impact. Repeat.

We passed the wineskin around as Hal and the mule-driving bilbaíno sang “Adiós Muchachos,” an Argentine tango Hal’s mother taught him when he was little. “I love my burro!” announced Ginés when the song was over, a moment before the beast stomped his foot. “Joder, puta!” he shouted. (No translation needed.)

There Are No Polite Canadians When it Comes to Grape-Stomping Glory

Nov.13.17

There Are No Polite Canadians When it Comes to Grape-Stomping Glory

by Christina Newberry

Wine in Oliver, B.C.

As the grapes squish between my toes, I feel two things: slightly cold and very sticky. But mostly, I’m worried about the clock.

This is not exactly old-school winemaking, in which stompers tread slowly and carefully to avoid crushing the seeds, which can ruin the taste of the finished wine. It’s more like an episode of I Love Lucy.

I’m well past my ankles in a barrel of grapes, to be sure, but not at a winery. I’m on an outdoor stage in Oliver, Canada, with an orange feather boa wrapped around my neck as I stomp for glory, racing against time. The challenge? To coax as much juice from these grapes as possible in five raucous minutes, alternating with two other team members to stomp the grapes, catch the juice in a jug, and run it over to our team bucket. The music is blaring, the crowd is cheering, and the team of grandmotherly types next to us is bending the rules.

The competition at the Festival of the Grape is fierce—no polite Canadians here. My team pumps out 22 pounds of juice in the first round, ranking us second going into the final heat. But thanks to a few sneaky moves from the ladies next door, we fall to third in the finals—out-squishing 21 other teams.
None of this juice will be used for wine, of course—there are too many grimy feet involved for that (never mind the poor technique). It’s destined instead for the compost pile.

The wineries in this region—like most modern winemakers—use machines to crush the majority of their grapes, so being a prize-winning grape stomper gives me no inside knowledge of Oliver’s wine production. Still, with the competition over, I’m ready for some first-hand research into how the local wines taste.

I’m mentally sipping my first glass of full-bodied red when a bunch of grapes hits me square in the face. It’s the start of a good-natured grape fight, and you can guess who’s doing most of the throwing. When a particularly ripe bunch gets me right in the eye, I can’t help laughing despite the sting. I can only hope the sweet juice dribbling into my mouth hasn’t touched too many feet.

Plan Your Day Around the Afternoon Booze Harvest

Nov.09.17

Plan Your Day Around the Afternoon Booze Harvest

by Lindsay Gasik

Coconut Toddy in Malaysia

The old climber is dozing on a wooden bench, shirtless and shoeless, under a tin-roof shack surrounded by coconut trees. I can’t tell if he’s tired, too hot, or has been excessively rehydrating. Fat flies make his mustache twitch. A hefty, middle-aged man passes a bowl of deep-red wild boar curry over his head to a friend. They notice us getting out of the car, lift their glasses, and with the friendliest of Indian head-waggles, chug.

It’s a hot afternoon in April and I’m beyond parched. With little rain, temperatures in Malaysia have soared to roasting. My last grown-up beverage was four months ago in the United States, over an annual rendition of New Year’s Tipsy Scrabble. I could drink anytime I wanted—I’m older than 21 and not Muslim—but I fear the cheap local spirit, arrack, and am not about to pay the exorbitant government tax on beer, wine, and liquors. Local coconut toddy, only 3 ringgit a glass, is delicious, effective, and probably healthy. Over the past 16 Friday afternoons, I’ve only wished it was easier to find.

The barman emerges from the shed, wiping an assortment of beer-branded tumblers with an old rag. He recognizes me and head-waggles a greeting, his tidy white mustache and balding rim of hair shining paly against his dark skin. He sets the tumblers on a scratched metal table and nudges the skinny climber awake. Rubbing his face, he grabs a belt with the tools of his trade—a knife and a plastic bottle—and stalks toward the nearest tree. I’m gleeful. I’ve timed my visit perfectly for the afternoon’s alcoholic harvest.

The climber shimmies up the tree and removes a pot taped to the stem of what was a flower cluster, but is now a gaping wound oozing thin, sweet sap that, in this demented heat, turns quickly to alcohol. The alcohol content is unregulated—it ranges anywhere from 2 to 7 percent ABV, like a strong beer, depending on how hot the day is and how long the sap is left to ferment. When it’s cloudy and cool, the toddy stays sweet and bubbly like a kombucha tea. When it rains, the pots fill with water and the harvest is spoiled. On days like today, one sour sip of the morning’s harvest is strong enough to make my head buzz. I wait for the fresh, sweeter stuff, straight out of the tree.

“How do you know this place?” asks one of the men eating curry. There are no signs. This toddy bar sits on the third dirt road past the red restaurant, in a quiet row of small farms inhabited by Indian-Malays, an ethnic minority of mostly Hindus who comprise 7 percent of Malaysia’s population. I suspect that, like most toddy shacks, this one is unlabeled and tucked out of sight on purpose to avoid the Muslim-led government’s increasingly strict governance of alcohol production. It’s very unlikely that my Western friends and I would have found this place on our own.

“Local friends,” I reply.

On the ground, the climber hands over a full plastic jug and stretches back out in the shade. The barman pours the whitish-clear liquid, disturbingly like diluted bleach, through a sieve and directly into my glass, flicking aside debris and dead insects. Ignoring my squeamishness, I clink glasses with the two guys, their fingers stained red with curry. The liquid is like a sugared bread roll, yeasty and still warm from all that sun.

I hand my car keys to a friend who has more body weight than I do and settle onto the bench to drink.

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