Three Hindu Women on One Bike in Search of a Drink
Arak in Merita
It is noon in Amed, Bali and I have a motorbike that needs repair and a heart that is smitten. Pari is 27 years old, cynical, and has a face that appears to be constantly in thought. He is fixing my bike, making fun of Russian tourists, and is of the opinion that I need a drink.
“You have a bad day, yes? You need a drink. You go to Merita.” I bump and nod and think about things to talk about, but he makes it clear that the drink is not with him. “I don’t drink. You go to Merita for arak number 1.” I wait for my sister on a corner, yell something at her about following local footsteps, and we are off. Merita, a few miles from Amed, is on the East Coast of Bali. It is the hometown of arak, Bali’s drink of choice. There are three types of arak, arak number 1 being the finest, most sought-after, and difficult to find option. After three hours in Merita spent biking in hope and dehydration, we have almost given up. “Arak number 1?” I shout arbitrarily at people on the street, getting in response wide smiles and cheery shrugs. Finally, a middle-aged woman with red hair comes up to us. “You, arak?” she says. I nod aggressively. “Why?” she says. And I am stumped.
“You Hindu?” she says. “Yes! Hindu! Brahman!” I scream. She is pleased. I salute gods I haven’t acknowledged in years, and we are off once again, three Hindu women on one bike in pursuit of a drink. We reach a big house guarded by mango trees and a skeptical young woman named Amy. After initial reservations, she is happy that we recognize the inscriptions on her pillars, I compliment her jacket, and she agrees to let me in on her family secret.
Arak number 1 is made in a few houses in Merita, a village of about a hundred families. There are many kinds of arak in Bali, but they are what the people of Merita deem “impure” and “tasteless.” Amy’s family—the Mertas—have been making arak number 1 for more than a hundred years.
To make one liter, the palm flower (tuak) is distilled for four hours through a rusty metal pipe and allowed to settle for another hour. The result is a strong, pungent spirit that is ideally drunk in shots. People from all over the east of Bali come to Merita to buy from the family. Bartenders, hotel owners, young men like the one I met. But It is up to them to sell or to not.
“Sometimes we don’t sell our arak, we keep it,” Amy tells me, indicating that I am supposed to shoot my drink, not sip it. “It is special. It is not for ruffians.” I nod at her, proud to not be considered a ruffian. Arak number 1 is what the Lonely Planet will not tell you about Bali. Every time I take a shot, the drink tastes different, my mood elevates and falls with alarming suddenness, and here it is, the essence of Bali, devoid of simplification.
We are drunk and grateful, and my sister does a sudden curtsy, sending everyone into fits of laughter. They believe we are about to do a dance. And so we do.