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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

When Living in a World of Absurdities, Try Whisky

Apr.21.17

When Living in a World of Absurdities, Try Whisky

by Niren Tolsi

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South Africa’s largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 was feted as a “miracle,” yet 23 years later, we are not Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow children”: race and class tensions bubble on the surface, often popping angrily into the nation’s eye like blobs of fat from a frying pork sausage.

The country’s new constitution is considered one of the most progressive globally, but the scandal-ridden administration of President Jacob Zuma appears increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional. Zuma has also set up a shadow state of spies and intelligence networks while the repressive policing of grassroots communities who organize politically is pervasive.

These are the things we live with, but often try to drink away.

Drinking is something that South Africans—according to the World Health Organization, the 19th booziest nation in the world last year—do well. This tradition stems from celebrating life—especially when it could be taken so quickly by the apartheid state’s police and army in previous decades—by living hard. This inclination now often begins with “Phuza Thursdays” (Drink Thursdays) all the way through the weekend into “No Regrets Mondays.”

South Africans’ red eyes and the bleariness of the past few weeks have not been from a typical hangover, though. It started with the national mourning of Ahmed Kathrada, the anti-apartheid struggle veteran and Robben Island prison contemporary of Nelson Mandela.

At Kathrada’s funeral, politicians and activists held him up as a paragon of the anti-apartheid struggle, a non-racialist whose ethics and morality were disappearing from a new generation of politicians more interested in self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption. The president was criticized for destabilizing the economy by pursuing a kleptocratic agenda of “state capture.” This was to allow his network of businessmen cronies to gain control of government through their politician lackeys and then pillage the state’s coffers.

The country was on tenterhooks, expectantly waiting for Zuma to drop the hammer on the much respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, considered one of the few remaining people in the Cabinet standing in the way of widespread looting.

A few days after the funeral, Zuma did sack Gordhan. In the dead of night. He announced a Cabinet reshuffle that sent South Africa’s currency, the Rand, plummeting, and saw ratings agencies downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status.

Borrowing, and drinking, was going to be a lot more expensive.

People were riled. Leaders of Zuma’s own party, the African National Congress, broke ranks and criticized his midnight reshuffle. Opposition parties took to the streets in protest, and even the chattering classes left their dinner tables for the barricades, all calling for Zuma to resign.

Public opinion was turning against a man more interested in the fortunes of his family than that of the country. But this just sent Zuma’s own spin machine into overdrive. “White monopoly capital” had to be destroyed, his defenders said, for “radical economic transformation” to happen: hence Gordhan’s sacking. Government was going to act in radically new transformative ways so as to address socio-economic inequality, the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, said. The ostensibly radical Black Land First movement, which had been chanting down capitalism while calling for urgent land redistribution, went off to defend the mansions of the notorious Gupta family—Zuma’s businessmen cronies—from protesters.

South Africa is a country of absurdities, my friend Master T agreed, pouring a double-shot of Glenmorangie whisky into a glass.

Absurdities, indeed. The kind that started to flow more easily than the amber nectar down our throats. The new buzzwords of “radical economic transformation” to destroy “white monopoly capital” was dreamt up by an anodyne-looking blonde working at a British publicity firm, Bell Pottinger, it was revealed. The campaign—paid for by the Gupta family—had extended to “paid Twitter” and “bots” trolling relentlessly on social media and the setting up of pro-Gupta online news sites (the family already owns a news channel and a newspaper). Even the Black Land First movement was allegedly nothing more than a Gupta front. Gigaba, the new finance minister, reprimanded one of his advisors for suggesting that the amorphous, yet to be defined, “radical economic transformation” could include nationalizing mines and the Reserve Bank and appropriating land. Then Gigaba jetted off to Western capitals to reassure investors that not much had changed.

Whisky brings warmth and lucidity, but there is never enough ethanol to act as an eraser for the absurdities of this life.

I took another glut, nevertheless, and asked Master T why he had also bagged us some 2M beers from Mozambique. “To drink to Zuma’s days in exile there,” he chuckled.

South Africa is a place of absurdities, but we have learned to laugh in the face of them. Whisky helps.

More of a Capitalist Parasite Than a Fascist, TBH

Apr.28.17

More of a Capitalist Parasite Than a Fascist, TBH

by Aleks Eror

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Bourbon in Belgrade

Earlier this month, Serbian citizens went to the polls to elect their new president. Reigning prime minister Aleksandar Vucic was more than just a clear frontrunner: he was already the president-elect in all but name. The election itself was a mere formality, and no one with a shred of political literacy truly thought that he could be denied the presidency. Instead, the vote became a referendum on Vucic himself and his five years in power.

Optimists saw it as an opportunity to build some momentum around a long-feeble opposition that could perhaps weaken his stranglehold on government at the next parliamentary elections. But the playing field wasn’t just uneven, it was farcical: the campaign period would last a mere 30 days–the absolute minimum allowed by law. In that time, each opposition candidate had to scramble together 10,000 signatures to get their name on the ballot slip, all while Vucic was out on the campaign trail.

I watched the results roll in from the comfort of my sofa in Berlin as I sipped on a bourbon, my standard evening ritual. The result was expected: a landslide victory for Vucic, totaling 56 percent of the popular vote. But despite its predictability, the outcome still outraged a sizable minority of the electorate, prompting thousands to take to the streets to protest “against the dictatorship.” The protests continued daily, reconvening every day at 6 p.m. to march through Belgrade and other towns and cities, demanding Vucic’s resignation. Their numbers grew steadily until Easter rolled around, and then… well… then they decided to take a break for a few days, drawing much condescension from cynics.

Labeling Vucic a dictator gives him too much credit. Dictators have an ideological grounding, whereas Vucic is a hollow man who believes in nothing but his own interests. He’s not a fearsome autocrat in the Putin or Erdogan mold—he lacks the vision for that. His main aim is to get rich, consolidate power, and construct a system that will remain subservient to him after he has left power so he stays rich and never has to do a day of honest work in his life. He’s more of a crony capitalist parasite than a fascist, that’s not a redeeming quality.

Those that took to the street weren’t contesting the result; they were incensed by the nature of the victory. No candidate had ever won the presidency in the first round. Vucic’s effortless and unsubtle win reeked of arrogance and showed how little he fears his neglected populace. It pierced through the veil of plausible deniability that allows Serbs to avoid facing up to some uncomfortable truths.

The protests were rudderless, lacking direction and a tangible purpose. They were a howl of impotent rage rather than a coordinated campaign of civil disobedience. Many want to see Vucic deposed, but no one has any idea of who or what could realistically take his place. Vucic is the target of their anger, but he’s only an avatar that represents the dashed hopes of the post-Milosevic years. A former minister in Milosevic’s government, one who stood before the national assembly in 1995 and threatened to kill 100 Muslims for every Serb hurt in the Bosnian war, Vucic is a reminder of how little has changed 17 years on. The question is if things ever will.

Some three weeks later, I am back in Belgrade visiting family, and yet another protest had been scheduled on the evening of my arrival. The city is choked by a thick world-weariness that always seems to hang in the air, but the protest’s rallying point offered up a small oasis of defiant camaraderie. I can’t say I fancy their chances, but I’ll hope for the best as I sip on my bourbon in the evenings.

Photo by: Lazara Marinković

India’s Dying Breed of Raspberry Soda Purveyors

Apr.27.17

India’s Dying Breed of Raspberry Soda Purveyors

by Rohit Inani

Raspberry soda in Bombay

“VS Naipaul once said that Bombay is a crowd…” I began to say, but G wasn’t listening to me. She was looking out of the taxi window to the sea and, farther away, to the Bombay skyline. It was the end of February and it was an unusually hot afternoon, and a breeze was lapping her face, throwing her wild afro-curls out of the window.

We were battling a heavy hangover and decided to visit a bookstore in Colaba, an old British quarter still wearing the badge of colonialism with pride. Just a week before we downed a couple of beers each at Alps, a cheap bar with long hanging lamps just across the road from the Taj Mahal Hotel. Later, under the shade of tall, leafy trees in the backyard of a 19th century library, we sat on a concrete bench and listened to two men debating Donald Trump and democracy. Blah, Blah, Blah. TRAMMPP, one of them said. G looked at me and frowned. We left, looking bored.

It was a Sunday and the bookstore was empty. We bought a few books. In the evening we walked to Horniman Circle Gardens, a large, leafy park surrounded by India’s premier banks, high-fashion luxury brands, and a few iconic cafes. But that evening there were also two or three police vans, curious onlookers and paparazzi marveling at a possible high society party at the classic Town Hall. The building is also home to the Asiatic Society of Bombay, where the original manuscript copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy is preserved. In 1930, Benito Mussolini offered the society a million pounds for the copy but the society bluntly refused. Mussolini was furious.

G said she strongly felt it was a Page 3 party and walked up to a cop to enquire. Bollywood and Dante under the same roof? Hah!

We left the scene and asked a man at the next turn for Jimmy Boy. Located at a quiet and breezy street, Jimmy Boy is an old Irani cafe founded in 1920, and then known as Cafe India. In 1999, the family changed the name to Jimmy Boy, keeping in mind the changing times, and put Madonna and the Spice Girls on its evening playlist. Jimmy Boy is one of only a handful of Irani cafes—the once-ubiquitous canteens set up by India’s Zoroastrian Irani immigrants—still operating in Bombay.

We sat at a marble-top table looking out on the street and marveled at the trademark bent wood chairs, high ceiling and a slightly tilting crystal chandelier. G loves Irani cafes. Outside, it was turning dark now, and we asked for two raspberry sodas. A quintessential Parsi beverage, it is fizzy and plays havoc with one’s sweet tooth. Bottled by the Pallonji company since 1885, today it is on the brink of extinction, thanks to a lack of demand and the gradual decline of the Parsi community. Some still call it the Rose of Persia.

“How do you like it?” I asked. But G wasn’t listening. She closed her eyes in excitement and drank through the straw, grooving her head in slow motion, and outside, on the empty street, night fell.

Not Bursting with Flavor, But Goes Nicely with Impeachment Celebrations

Apr.26.17

Not Bursting with Flavor, But Goes Nicely with Impeachment Celebrations

by Mitchell Blatt

Beer in Seoul

The long, grassy square in front of Gwanghwamun gate was filled with people raising candles and waving signs. Some were sitting on the grass enjoying beer or soju and snacks. At the very front was a stage where rock and pop artists performed. “Alright, it’s a glorious day,” one singer crooned.

The cause for celebration? South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye had been removed from office that morning following her impeachment over a massive corruption scandal. It was the first time a Korean president had been removed by democratic means, and it was due in large part to the protesters at Gwanghawmun, who came out in the hundreds of thousands for candlelight vigils.

I was drinking a large can of Hite beer, mingling with the cross section of society reveling in their victory. Two men in their 40s, Kevin and Kyu, invited me to sit and eat street food with them.

The contrast between their youth and the scene in front of them couldn’t be greater. In the 1960s and 70s, activists who protested against the authoritarian abuses of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who rose to power by military coup, could be arrested and tortured. In 1980, Park’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan, sent the military to suppress an uprising in Gwangju, causing hundreds of deaths. After the sacrifices of so many, South Koreans finally won democracy for themselves in 1988. These past few months, the power of people exercising their democratic rights was on full display.

While Korean beer isn’t bursting with hops and flavor, it does have a nice smoothness that makes it cool and satisfying. Hite is the best-selling beer and has fueled American and Korean soldiers out on the town and democratic activists through the past half-century. Today’s Hite Brewery got started in 1933 as Chosun Brewery.

That night, with the music, the spirits, and the historic occasion, the beer couldn’t have tasted better. After three months pressing the legislature for Park’s impeachment, then three months more waiting for a ruling by the Constitutional Court, the mood of Gwanghwamun changed from one of anxiety to celebration.

A traditional Korean music troupe played the zither and banged drums and danced in a circle. Park’s critics posed for pictures in front of a papier-mâché statue of Park in prison garb. When the music stopped, Koreans gathered in the middle of the square held fireworks in their hands and set them off in a shower of red, yellow, and green.

Nothing Like a Little Unmediated Animal Flesh to Send You Running for the Fruit Pavilion

Apr.25.17

Nothing Like a Little Unmediated Animal Flesh to Send You Running for the Fruit Pavilion

by Rob Kunzig

Kvass in Riga

Step this way, into the Fish Pavilion at the Riga Central Market in Latvia, where the stench of fish oil and smoked flesh fills the room to its vaulted ceilings and immediately manifests as a metallic tang in the back of my throat. Vendors in rubber aprons smack around live carp, which smack back, gills heaving. I watch a bucket kick itself across the tile and catch a glimpse of wet black fin inside. And here’s a semicircle of severed pike heads, apparently decorative, vaguely conspiratorial.

If you’re someone like me, this is a strange place for an afternoon snack. But I’m here to sample two Latvian institutions under the roof of a third: smoked sprats and kvass, a sweet near-beer, all washed down under the roof of one of Europe’s largest bazaars.

Kvass seems to have its roots in Russia, though good luck selling that to a Latvian—they’ll say it’s a Baltic thing, or an Eastern European thing, and while we’re at it, the Russians didn’t invent pickles, either. Like prison wine, kvass is easily brewed at home: combine rye bread, sugar, and brewer’s yeast, and let ferment for a few days. The result is a sweet, mildly yeasty beverage that couldn’t get a toddler drunk. In the summer, Latvians sell it from drums by the roadside.

A half-liter pour costs 80 euro-cents (or 90 American cents) at the fish pavilion. There’s space nearby to stand and use it to wash down my plastic-bagged kilogram (2.2 pounds) of smoked sardines. It’s a little sticky on the lips, but not syrupy, with a pleasant fizz that almost makes me forget that this could have been brewed under someone’s bed.

Like kvass, smoked fish is a pillar of the Latvian diet. Much of the fish Latvians eat is caught, processed, and sold in Latvia. Plants line the coast, and Latvian expats will cut off a finger for a tin of Rigas Gold, a particularly famous brand of smoked sprats (small herring) preserved in vegetable oil.

I pinch apart the sprat’s gold foil skin to get to the dark, greasy flecks of meat inside. It’s pungent, salty, and meager. Like steamed crabs, this is a deliberately difficult meal, meant to be enjoyed slowly over conversation. It counters the lingering sweetness of the kvass, and I can briefly imagine having one more.

Far from the poise and polish of Riga’s old city, the market feels unvarnished, post-Soviet. Wide-eyed American tourists expecting a wholesome farmer’s market should prepare instead for Russians in tracksuits to flick cigarette ash on them. Inside the pavilion is a picture of abundance, even if it looks like a grindhouse flick: see the trays of jello-like livers, or the basketball-sized cow’s heart, or the various animal appendages impaled on meat hooks.

I’m an enthusiastic carnivore, but like most Americans, I’m used to a little mass-market mediation between me and my animal flesh. Seeing it—smelling it—makes me want to move on to the fruit pavilion. I manage one sprat, but I can’t do two, forget the full kilo.

I bring the bag to a Latvian friend and ask him if he likes sprats. He gives me a look I’m now familiar with.

“Of course,” he says.

The Universal Struggle to Get to the Bar Before Happy Hour Ends

Apr.24.17

The Universal Struggle to Get to the Bar Before Happy Hour Ends

by Saba Imtiaz

Wine in Amman

It is 5 p.m. in Amman, and I’m frantically dialing my bank in Pakistan to complain why a transfer hasn’t gone through. My Urdu seems accented and strange, as if I haven’t spent most of my life speaking the language.

I rush out of the house. It’s a Thursday night, the start of the weekend, and I want the same ritual as that of people working in offices everywhere–to get a drink. I emerge to the beginnings of rain, and shrug on a jacket and wrap my head in a scarf. It’s April, and yet I am still dressing like early winter.

I almost run to the stop for servees cabs: the shared-taxi service that runs in older Amman neighborhoods. There’s a queue stretching down the pavement. The servees cabs seem to be practicing their version of surge pricing. One servees says it won’t go downtown. Behind me is a guy dressed in head-to-toe workout gear, and incongruously holding crystal prayer beads.

We shuffle along in the queue. A guy passes by with a roll-on suitcase with a seemingly pregnant woman in tow, wearing a burqa and niqab. They ask for directions, and the queue is split between saying it’s a 10-minute walk and advising them to take a cab. They head off on foot. “Some people like walking,” says crystal beads man, to no one in particular.

I am itching to get going. What if happy hour is over and I have to pay full price—money I really can’t afford to throw away–for a drink?

A servees rolls up, and I don’t even care if it’s not going downtown. It’s going somewhere. Four of us pile in and pay the driver; a little over a quarter of a dinar for a ride that would cost four times that in a cab. I then take another servees to go to a different neighborhood. My head is throbbing slightly; I’m starting to wonder if the running around is worth it for a drink.

I disembark at Café de Paris in the Jabal al Lweibdeih neighborhood. Nine years ago, when I last lived in Amman, it was perhaps the only café here, a bare-bones place that served passable coffee, with large windows looking out onto a sleepy little neighborhood. Now this district is where the hipsters and expats hang out, and Café de Paris is now a bar—all dark wood and old-school stools. In the corner, a street artist sips his beer.

I strip off my jacket and ask the bartender: “Is it still happy hour?” “Until 8,” he says. I could have taken my time, I guess, but I’m here now. My glass of red wine arrives. I watch out the window. Other people come in and light cigarettes. The staff brings in what seems to be a week’s worth of vegetables.

I take a sip. It’s okay wine, but this is my sole luxury this week. I am glad to not be home writing another pitch or checking my bank account. It’s finally 5 p.m., and I’m like everyone else, trying to let go.

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