Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the Wagon

As I walked through the VSO office on my way to meet with my Program Manager, one thought resounded – these guys are all alcoholics. Desk after desk was adorned with quart bottles of familiar tipples: Gordon’s Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, Bacardi Rum. It was like walking through the aftermath of a fabulous Christmas party, where the only other evidence of the previous night’s debauchery can be found in the sheepish grins of those who overindulged and the photocopies made of various parts of their anatomy. Sitting down across from my Program Manager, I surveyed his desk for Tylenol bottles, AA brochures, pictures of his bottom or any other sign that he may have been one of the guilty revelers last night. But aside from the enormous bottle of Jim Beam next to his laptop, I could find no clues. “Before we begin, can I get you anything?” he asked, “Would you like a drink of something?” Allllll right!, I thought, Let’s get this party, er, meeting started. I always knew I would enjoy being a volunteer here.

Of course, the contents of his bottle (and all others in the office) proved much more innocent, and we both enjoyed a stiff glass of water as we reviewed my work plan for the upcoming year. Any sense of disappointment I may have had was mitigated by an appreciation of the irony presented by the situation. Alcohol is forbidden in this country, at least for Bangladeshis, so the use of derelict liquor bottles to hold water is a scene straight out of Prohibition. I half-expected Eliot Ness to come crashing through the front door and my Program Manager to exclaim, “Cheese it! It’s the coppers!” At which point, I would grab the nearest gat and take it on the lam. All of which would have been much more interesting than discussing my work plan.

The ban on alcohol is a reflection of the strict Muslim prohibitions in effect and is reinforced by the country’s legal code. Look behind the bar at the Dutch Club in Dhaka, and one will find a sign stating clearly “We are prohibited by law to serve alcohol to Bangladeshis”. Now, the fact that there is a bar at the Dutch Club in Dhaka does provide a hint that alcohol has not been completely banned in the country. Its permitted use has been restricted to foreigners, but this segregation has not allowed its widespread sale and availability. Only a few hotels are licensed to serve alcohol, so it mostly falls to the clubs catering to various foreign nationals to serve the demon elixir.

Even in Dhaka, a city approaching 15 million people, the locations where one can purchase alcohol for home consumption are so rare that they have taken on mythical auras rivaling the lost city of Atlantis. Not to be denied in their Arthurian quest for the Holy Ale, VSO volunteers have proven to be as adept at finding these oases of booze as airport dogs sniffing out a different kind of vice. But even their combined talents have yielded only one legitimate place in the capital city where alcohol can be bought without a club membership, hotel reservation or mob ties. My curiosity piqued, I had to pay a visit to see it for myself.

As with many places that are much discussed in advance of the actual experience, the Duty Paid shop had already been built up in my mind. I saw endless rows of fine wine from every vineyard worthy of mention, a selection of beers not seen since the last Oktoberfest and a collection of hard liquor that would shame a Monte Carlo casino. Having been warned that the shop was difficult to find, a fellow rookie and I enlisted the help of a more seasoned volunteer, though one many years our junior. Hopping into a CNG, the three of us set off on our journey across the city. True to its reputation, we missed the shop on the first pass and had to request that our driver turn around to make another attempt. Not willing to waste time by following silly traffic laws, our driver spun around on the spot and drove us back against traffic on a one-way street. I could see the headline: “VSO Volunteers Killed on Beer Run” with the sub-header: “Said They Were Really Thirsty”. Luckily, the CNG is small enough to drive on the shoulder of the road, so we avoided the transport trucks and other vehicles large enough to crush us like an empty can of Moosehead.

Arriving at the shop, it turned out to be a bit different than expected. No gleaming bottles on display or counters set up to provide tasty samples. In fact, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the shop from a post office or other government office. We were greeted inside by a pair of friendly clerks who presented us with the list of alcohol on sale. Given the restrictions on alcohol in the country, the list was passable, but any wine connoisseur would be slightly disappointed, as the choices were red and white. One bottle of each. Beer enthusiasts were slightly better off, with a half-dozen selections, and hard liquor was also adequately represented by at least one well-known brand in each category. The prices were steep, as one might expect from any place having a monopoly on imported alcohol, but we weren’t about to be denied at this point. True to the law, we were asked for our passports to prove we weren’t Bangladeshis in disguise, and we handed over our documents for inspection. Our purchases were delivered to us outside and we sailed off once again in the alternate direction down the one-way street, singing the old standard “24 Cans of Beer on the CNG”.

Much like Prohibition, the ban on alcohol for Bangladeshis hasn’t ensured its disappearance, only its growth underground. Those who wish to drink have managed to find an alternative by setting up stills and making it themselves. Local versions of rum and whisky can be found for sale at different establishments in Dhaka, and rice wine has proven popular throughout the country. I had the chance to sample some rice wine at a party for VSO volunteers in April, and its alcohol content would set sailors on their rears. Its potency tends to be accentuated when one makes the unfortunate error of mistaking a glass of rice wine for Sprite, as some volunteers did at various points in the evening. Though its taste will never be confused with a buoyant glass of Chardonnay, the rice wine does have the advantage of doubling as a durable floor polish.

None of this is meant to paint a picture of lonely volunteers seeking a respite from their difficult assignments by getting blotto on a regular basis. Most volunteers are perfectly content with the prospect of living without a drink or only raising a glass occasionally. But being able to enjoy a nice glass of wine with one’s meal or a cold beer on a hot afternoon is something that is taken for granted in most of our home countries. When it no longer is available, except through extraordinary means, one realizes the role that alcohol plays in our social lives, for better or worse, and its absence requires an adjustment in how we interact with each other. Sober conversations last throughout the evening, rather than devolving into karaoke singalongs or Austin Powers impersonations. And though the dancing remains a bit more self-conscious, there are fewer limbo-related injuries.

So, the experience of living in a “dry” country remains more of a curiosity than an inconvenience or trial. Though the lack of alcohol has meant a minor shift in the customs of the bideshis living here, the adjustment hasn’t been onerous. And our floors have never looked shinier.


Anonymous said...

Stirred, not shaken. Or is that shaken, not stirred? I don't do martinis and never remember the right formula.

Recently, while sitting at a bar [I hate bar stools -- my feet dangle], the bartender questioned whether Bond drank a vodka/gin martini.

My companion insisted on vodka only! He persisted on a combo.

While flipping TV channels, I happened upon Casino Royale. The bar scene popped into view, and our rugged Bondman -- Craig of the tight body and ill-fitting tuxedo [he doesn't suit well; lacks Connery's suave, Moore's smirk; no nuance, just muscle] -- insisted on vodka and gin, with a twist.

The bar kid was right. So much for experience.

Bengali laws remind me of old days in Ontario. I moved here from NY in 1969 to find alcohol sold in "package stores".

You walked into a dingy place run by government employees in blue-grey uniforms. There were rows product names with numbers, arranged by type -- gin, whisky. There were forms in little pads and stubby pencils.

You filled in number, name, price, and quantity. Nothing personal; everything anonymous, as grey as the wall paint and linoleum floor tiles.

Products were on shelves in the back. You were not allowed to see bottles.

You paid at one end of the counter; a uniformed clerk [a product tester with ruddy face, rheumy eyes] retrieved your purchase, put it into a brown paper bag, handed it to you.

There was no sin here. You simply felt dirty.

To buy booze was not a sin, because the government would never willfully promote sin. It was, however, a bit like masturbating in public [just speculating].

Every stage was slinky. You felt soiled, like the greasy-haired fellow in the alley cadging money for a micky.

You saw yourself mirrored in the watery eyes of the man who slid the bottle into the brown paper bag. A shiver went up your spin.

Hardly the setting for a bachanalia, the clinical atmosphere gave the impression of an asylum. The purchase of "fun in a bottle" in the least fun-filled way.

Now the LCBO has realized booze is big business. Market capitalism triumphed to make alcohol respectable and the purchase of alcohol pleasant. Slink has given way to slick.

There was no sense of responsible drinking in the past. You drank; you were a slug. If you weren't an alcoholic, they made you feel like one. Then alcoholics weren't sick; they were morally corrupt, lacking in character. So you should feel dirty when you left that store with that brown paper bag. It's the closest thing to buying porn at the candy store.

There are still dry parts of Ontario, even Toronto. The Junction remains steadfastly dry. Newbies hold periodic referenda to change the rules, but always lose. Locals do not want booze in their area.

Urban legend says you are not allowed to buy booze outside the Junction to bring home in the trunk of your car. Supposedly even personal consumption in the privacy of your home is illegal.

I recall in my early days being told you were not allowed to carry an open bottle of beer onto the front porch of your house. Nor were you allowed to be seen drinking alcohol through the window.

Until recently, beer could not be poured in ads, and alcohol could not be sipped by actors. You could not be seen having fun with booze -- no cause and effect.

Most food laws [hallal, kosher] are about health, not sin or righteous living. To obey God's laws leads to clean living. Not a bad idea.

Our alcohol traditions are about social behaviour, with guilt as a prime corrective. If you believe what you are led to believe -- that buying booze is an act of moral turpitude [symbolized by the brown paper bag] -- then why stop there -- go whole hog and wallow in it. Entering the precinct was already unholy; buying the bottle was already unrighteous; becoming polluted [drunk] is truly dirty. Abandon everything all who enter here.

Enough. It is Friday; the sun has come out; it is time for a cocktail.


cochrane said...

Alcohol. Bah! Too much trouble. I stick (though not exclusively) to coffee and share my favorite with Steve Martin: "a double decaf, half caf, with a twist of lemon." Take that, Starbucks.