Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Top Five Unusual Places I Have Drunk

Since I am away travelling for most of this month, I thought it would be appropriate to review a few memories of some of my more exotic drinking adventures. I think I've visited 18 countries outside of my native England. And I have drunk in nearly all, no, all of them. And in many of them, I have drunk some rather strange things in rather odd circumstances.

Here then is a list of...

My Top Five unusual places to have a drink

5)  An outhouse masquerading as a Jamaican beach
OK, a little bit of a cheat this one - not really abroad at all; just a grotty semi-detached house in East London. I've already written about this, in one of my earliest posts on here, nearly 6 years ago. When I was at Bar School in London, I shared a house with the aptly nicknamed Mad Irish Dave - like me, an enthusiastic drinker. One Sunday afternoon, bored out of our minds, we improvised a 'Jamaican Beach Party' - for just the two of us - in the 'Blue Room', a narrow little extension on the house that our landlord used mainly for storing his garden tools. It was cold and pokey, but it was painted in a very restful shade of blue; so we hauled our living room sofa in there, and pinned a Jamaican Tourist Board advertisement for Negril Beach in the middle of the blue wall opposite. Then we laid in stocks of rum and ganja, pooled our handful of reggae tapes... and proceeded to get absolutely blitzed for about 8 or 10 hours.

4)  The veranda of a rock star's bungalow
Yes, a real live rock star. Not that I ever met him. Which might be just as well, given that I had never heard of him, or his band. They'd had one very big, poppy sort of hit in the late 1960s (dimly familiar to me, but I'd had no idea who was playing it; still turns up regularly on Best of the Sixties compilations), and had been able to retire on the proceeds. Not many musicians seem to have the self-restraint to decide that they've made enough money, and just give up like that. This guy, one of the guitarists, I think, had sunk most of his money into a small coffee plantation on the upper slopes of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica. He'd become friendly with an old college buddy of mine (occasional haunter of these comment threads, The Mothman) who was studying means of controlling an insect pest that ate the leaves of the coffee plants, and let him stay in his bungalow high up the mountain whenever he was doing fieldwork up there. I went to visit The Mothman for a couple of weeks after finishing university, and got to spend a night or two in the guitarist's bungalow. Only a small place, but an absolutely gorgeous location - the kind of place where you could lean out of a window to pick fresh fruit for breakfast - and a gorgeous view, looking down on the lights of Kingston far below. We got a bit mashed up on the local rum one night...

3)  The cabin of a Yangtze river cruiser
One of my favourite memories of my first visit to China in the '90s. I was going upriver through the famous Three Gorges (the huge dam project at Yichang was just nearing completion, but they wouldn't start filling the reservoir for another year or two; so, this was one of the last chances to enjoy a lot of the scenery in the gorges before it was flooded) on a mid-price cruise ship - not quite the grottiest possible (not the like the boat I came back downstream on, which was nothing but a tramp steamer), but a long way short of the swanky affairs that the better-off Chinese and nearly all foreigners favoured; I was the only laowai on this boat, and hence something of an instant celebrity. One day, I got chatting to a trio of young men who invited me back to their cabin for a drink. I was staying in the second cheapest class of accommodation - bunk beds, sharing with a noisy Chinese family; but at least there was a little bit of space, and a small TV on the wall. These lads were staying in the cheapest class - two double bunk-beds crammed into such a small space that there was almost no standing room; but at least there were only three of them in a four-berth cabin. We couldn't understand each other much (my Chinese was better then than it is now, but not much), but we mugged and smiled our way through some general pleasantries about international goodwill. One of them, I gathered, had just got out of the army - possibly invalided out after an accident (he showed me an horrendous scar on his upper arm, a large piece of it missing; but it didn't seem very new, and I couldn't make out how it had happened) - and the others were two old schoolfriends who'd come to escort him the last part of the way home. We spent a pleasant hour or two drinking beer and baijiu.

2)  The roof of a train
There's only one rail line in Jamaica, winding through the mountainous interior of the island between the capital, Kingston, on the south coast, and the main tourist centre, Montego Bay, on the north coast. It's a single track, with a passing place at the mid-point, in the heart of the jungle high up in the mountains. One train sets out from each end once or twice a day, and whichever reaches the passing place first has to stop and wait... and wait, and wait. They're not big on keeping schedules, the Jamaicans. No, they're more of a party people. And it's a party train. Vendors pass constantly through the carriages selling bottles of the local Red Stripe beer (very palatable and deceptively strong) which they somehow manage to keep refrigerated. And if the weather's nice - which it mostly is - a lot of people head up on to the roofs of the carriages to get some fresh air. It's relatively safe, since the train only moves very slowly. But it does lurch alarmingly from side to side on occasion; and I wouldn't have wanted to be up there after drinking a lot of beers!

But in the top spot, it must surely be...

1)  A prison cell
I spent a month or so in Fiji when I was backpacking around the world in '94. I grew rather tired of the main island, Viti Levu, which is rather too intensively geared toward the fleecing of tourists, and is overrun with Australians. But towards the end of my stay, I took a boat across to the second island of Levuka (site of the British colonial capital) for a few days, and found that a much more laidback and amenable sort of place. As I mentioned a few weeks back, I had become rather partial to kava, the traditional ceremonial drink of the South Sea islands (it's made from the ground-up root of a plant of the pepper family; it looks a bit offputting - like a muddy puddle - and has a slightly chalky, gritty mouth-feel; but it's quite pleasant to drink, with a mild aniseedy flavour, and a prickly, gently numbing effect in the mouth; and it's very, very relaxing), and was always keen to find somewhere to partake. Asking at my hotel if they knew where I might be able to drink kava, I was told to try the police station. It had seemed as though it might have been a joke, but I didn't see any harm in checking it out. The two young Brits who'd latched on to me during the boat crossing earlier that day were extremely wary about the idea (perhaps having had unpleasant experiences with police stations back home), but I persuaded them to accompany me. And sure enough, the three coppers there - with little or no work to do in such a tiny and well-behaved town - were brewing up almost every night, and were more than happy to welcome us to join them. We had to move into one of the holding cells, though, to keep out of sight in case anyone should come in to report some rustic misdemeanour or other. They told us that they would probably mix another bowl later, if we wanted to keep going all night, but the first one kept us merry until getting on for midnight, and that seemed good enough. It had been a splendid evening, full of memorable conversation (the desk sergeant's tales of the time he spent in Cambodia with a UN peacekeeping force probably deserve a post of their own at some point; he claimed to have been held hostage by the Khmer Rouge). I worry that this experience may have created in me some unduly positive associations with police cells.

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