Friday, February 19, 2010

Dhaka, Pre-electric Pubs, and The Hunter becomes the Drunker

The moment we left Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) international airport the overwhelming density of people is staggering.  Just outside the terminal doors, there is a set of metal bars.  This is nothing to do with customs, or any other official airport-like business.  It is simply there to hold back the hoard of people who stand outside, put their arms through, and gesticulate wildly at the passing foreigners.  The construction creates the illusion of a prison, packed to the brim with bangladeshy nationals, except there is no wall on the other side, merely around the airport.  Imagine, a whole nation of poeples seemingly imprisoned by nature of their inability to access the airport.

Later, I found out that this was completely the wrong impression, and infact there is no such structure outside the departure gate, and those gesticulating Bangladeshis were most likely taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, and operators of the various scams that I'm sure befall many as they set foot in the meat grinder of Dhaka.

After meeting up with our friends Sharmeen and Farhan, who had recently been married and were continuing the celebrations with their family in Dhaka, we decided that it might be a nice idea to have a cold beer.  This is where we started to go horribly wrong.  Clearly, there was not going to be an abundance of alchohol, considering that 99% of the population here are the non-drinking muslim variety.  The hotel did serve us a beer or two, but at 250 Bangladeshi Taka ($4.20AUD) we expected it to at least be cold.  After draining the last sip Pat (for those who haven't had the pleasure, Pat is about the same height as me, Irish, and has a penchant for meeting french girls in his underpants) and I wandered off in search of a more suitable location for a refreshing ale.

On the basis of a third hand recommendation from someone who didn't even live in Dhaka, we found "La Diplomats".  The name conjured up images of smartly dressed expatriats reclining in ornate furniture, sipping the congac, smoking cigars, and discussing world affairs in the comfort of modest lighting.  Needless to say, the bar fell short of all these expectations, except for in terms of its lighting.  In this respect it completely surpassed anything I had seen before.  The room was at the back of a long tunnel underneath a hotel, and it was pitch black save a lone fosters sign which cast just enough light through the crowd of mosquitoes that you could make out that there were other customers.  Mainly huddled in the dark corners, quiet, their presences only given away by the orangle glow of their cigarettes.  After our first luke cold Heinekien we noticed the coasters were advertising a beer called "Hunter".  Deciding that things couldn't get much worse we called the waiter over:

"Two more Heineikens?" He said.
"No, we'd like to try a couple of Hunters" Pat said, pointing at the coaster.
After a confused look, he replied "No no, you don't want.  This Bangladeshi beer." He said, with clear disgust of his own countries brewing abilities.

After much reassurances that we really did want to purchase said beer, he disappeared reluctantly into the blackness, and came back with two cans which looked exactly the same as fosters, but with the word Fosters replaced with Hunter in the same font, and a little man with a loin cloth replacing the brewery logo (pictured right).  Pat managed somehow to finish his before closing time, but to both our horror, when the lights came up for the cleanup to begin, we got a clear look at the tepid, bubbless, broth in the half a glass that I had not managed to drink.  At that moment my head started to pound and I think I experienced the most instantaneous hangover of my life.

Later we found our that Hunter actually began as an energy drink, akin to red bull, however unbeknownst to the company selling it, the "energy drink" actually had an alcohol content of around 4%.  It was then that they decided that rather than going back to the drawing board and continuing in the energy drink market, they would simply re-market it as a beer.  Genius.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pushkar, Beer Delivery Underpants, and a Poisoned Ganesh

It's Christmas eve, and we're driving from Jaipur (Rajastan) to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh).  There is absolutely nothing that feels remotely like christmas here.  It's a beautiful place, but it's beauty is not aesthetic.  At first glance, India seems a dirty, run down, third world country.  But there is something inherently fascinating about the way the society hangs together, despite the constant flow of baksheesh (which means bribe or tip depending on the context), the slow crawl of traffic, and the incredible poverty of a large proportion of people.

My first impression of Dehli was a short one, but the hotel that arrived at was reasonably well appointed, and directly across the road was a small slum. Among the rubble a family sat next to a ramshackle tent and cooked their morning meal.  Across the road, backpackers lived in relative luxury, enjoying warm showers and western style breakfasts.

Straight off the plane from Moscow, I met Adam and Kelly and we embarked on our journey across the north of India.  First stop, Pushkar. The city is famous for it's holy lake. A place of worship and daily ritual for the predominantly Hindu population. As the signs clearly state, alchohol and meat are banned within the city limits. However it is becoming apparent that there are many ways to bend the law in India, and some of these included ordering the "special" coke, that was available on the menu at our first restaurant.  In the hotel things were more clear cut. Upon asking at reception we were told that we could order beer an inflated price (about 200Rs).  We were told that the beer would be delivered to the room, little did we know that the beer would indeed arrive at our room, but some time later, and stuffed down the pants of one of the bell boys so that no-one could see him bringing it.  Apart from being incredibly amusing to watch a rather small Hindu man trying to walk around with three 700mL bottles of beer stuffed down his pants, it was interesting to see the contrast that exists in india; First, how seriously they take particular laws, and yet how willing some people are to break them for the right price.

The other interesting story to arise from Pushkar was the recent events which had led to the lake being bone dry.  With the climate change zeitgeist looming in my mind, my heart immediately went out to the poor peoples of Pushkar, another traditional lifestyle falling victim to slow march of drought.  You could imagine my surprise to find out later, that the lake had actually been drained on purpose after being poisoned under tragicly ironic circumstances. Although I heard several versions of the story, the one I like best came from our Camel driver, Lala (pictured right), who painted a vivid picture as the sun set over the desert behind us. Lala described the scene on the day of the festival of just prior to the wet season, in which all the Hindu's in the town bring floating Ganesh statues down to the water and set them adrift in order to give thanks for the life giving rains.  Unfortunately, this year, unbeknownst to the thanksgiver, his giant Ganesh statue was actually constructed from poisonous materials, which, upon sinking into the river, released a toxin into the water powerful enough to kill all the fish overnight.  The next morning, the exclusively vegaterian town of Pushkar awoke to the rancid smell of rotting fish. The markets were closed for weeks, and the clean up operation began. Conspiracy theories flourished, involving a deal between the cleanup company and the government for a contract that was made in prior to the poisoned Ganesha being delivered. However, in time the lake should fill back up, and these events will fade into the quickly forgotten Indian past, but for now I'm happy to fill the gap in my experience with the postcard photos version displayed proudly in every hotel and shop stall, showing thousands of brightly coloured sari clad women hunched on the Ghats beside a sprawling lake, ringed by the haphazard white town of Pushkar.

A tail of two Aeroflot employees..

So it begins, in a ubiquitous Irish bar in the Moscow airport transit lounge.  My first, and only, impression of Russia was the first lady of the Aeroflod transfer desk (pictured left).  Her primary function, it seems, is to look entirely disinterested in your plight, whatever it may be.  Secondary to this in her job description, is to raise a tired finger and point at the sign on her desk, which reads: "(For) GATE NUMBER LOOK AT THE MONITOR", highlighted in several colours to aid readability.

It seems that no-one has ever asked to change seats on an Aeroflod flight before, and upon many gesticulations I got my point across to her younger minion.  It turns out that this girl was actually a diamond in the rough.  Despite the clearly taxing beaurocratic circles in which she was run on the phone, she actually came back and informed me that for the handsome sum of 700 rubbles it may indeed be possible to change my seat.  She seemed genuinely surprised at this discovery, and then decided to go into bat for a foreigner who was way out of his depth against the might of the Aeroflod seat changing procedure.  I eventually worked out that 700 rubbles equated to about 16 Euro, and was a bargain for the piviledge of 8 hours of sleep on the flight to Dehli.  I exchanged $100USD (ironically the only other currency that holds weight in this airport) for a chicken sandwich that tasted like the ashtray that it was sitting next to, and 2500 Rubbles.  After leaving me alone for a 20 minute walk with my boarding pass, and my newly exchanged cash (only slightly nerve wracking considering it also served as my Visa to be in Russia on transit), my favourite Aeroflod employee returned with a proud grin on her face, and the newly assigned 27B seat on an entirely Russian looking boarding pass.  I asked what thank you was in Russian, and promptly attempted to repeat it.