Beer, it is said, predates bread, and so it is perhaps with good reason that alcohol is called aqua vitae or ‘living water’. The word ‘alcohol’ comes from the Arabic word ‘Al-Khul’ (Khul or khol means powdered eye paint), and it was only in the 18th century that people began referring to alcohol the way we do. The purists like to call it the “body eating spirit.” I, for one, think of it as a tipple that frees one’s spirit from the fetters of reticence. A spontaneous spirit is vital for a traveller, and the ale is just an able aid.
I am a teetotaller (98 per cent of the time), but when I have my travelling shoes on, no matter where I am in the world, I invariably gravitate towards the bar long after the sun goes down. For it is here, over a drink, that strangers become momentary or life-long friends. Candour becomes the password and camaraderie rules the roost. Skeletons waltz out of closets and everything kosher soon becomes alien. The bar is where I meet people who are twice the fun than those who are not. Language is no barrier here, and I get to revel in stories that range from the bizarre to the mother-of-bizarre.
In my family, alcohol was considered the liquid avatar of Satan. During summers, though, when male cousins from different parts of the country gathered at the ancestral home in Kerala, I would tag along on their clandestine drinking sojourns. I was their youngest and only female cousin, and this had become our annual travel ritual. Long after the elders had retired for the night, they would sip smuggled spirits from teacups. If somebody walked in on them, they’d always say, “Just having some tea, want some?” I was the official tea-carrier who saved the group when someone replied, “Yes, please”.
My favourite grand uncle, a disciplinarian and the retired principal of a school, considered it his duty to smoke out those who enjoyed a drink on the sly. But even he was known to enjoy more than a drink or two when he travelled. “When you travel, a drink is mandatory. It breaks barriers,” he would say. When he would come visiting us in Chennai, my dad always bought him brandy, double-wrapped and in a canvas bag. It would be smuggled into the house as if it was an illegal bar of gold. Uncle would pour a ‘large’ into a steel tumbler and sip it slowly. He preferred the steel tumbler to the snifter glass because he felt the former lent the brew the gravitas of a medicinal drink. After the second ‘large’, the reserved man would garrulously regale us with his travel tales and break into Malayalam folk songs without missing a beat. The combination of drinks and travel, as a result, has always carried a positive connotation for me.
It was at R-block, a small strip of land by the Vembanad Lake in Kumarakom that I first tasted fresh toddy (and hated it). I couldn’t go beyond the first sip for I felt the brew tasted sickly sweet and smelt like unwashed armpits. But that single sip was enough for the men at the toddy shop, which also served delicious seafood, to see me as one of them. The proverbial curtain was torn down, confines removed, conversations flowed and stories hit the high notes. I ended up going fishing with them. I soon learnt that even as a teetotaller, a drink in one’s hand can help you gain access to unperceivable assemblies.
Ordering a local brew—a Bia Hoi (Vietnamese beer), Raicilla (local liquor of Mexico) or coconut wine in the Philippines—can give you great insights into the local culture and community. In Reunion Islands, people infused traditional rum with ingredients ranging from jackfruit, dried flowers, ginger, garlic and oranges. These were considered to be great digestives. Some drinks were infused for decades. For instance, I met a 40-year-old man with an infused bottle of rum that was older than he was.
A drink makes socialising painless for travelling introverts. It ensures an easy pass to know the land and its people intimately. A drink makes travel experiences cosy. It also lets you ease into a new place and makes you sleep comfortably. The trick is to drink without getting drunk. A traveller who enjoys her drink while on the road once said to me, “Know your limit and always drink one drink lesser than your limit.” Or you can always be a teetotaller with a drink in her hand. That’s what I did for the longest time. Nowadays, I must confess, a glass of vodka does it for me.