step off the curb and into a puddle of thick, black sludge.
No doubt this multi-species feces is a slurry of every
disease that keeps my mother up at night, and it's
rushing into my bloodstream through raw mosquito bites
on my ankle. Within seconds, I imagine, my immune system
is fending off attacks by hepatitis A through Z, the dreaded
chicken flu and undiscovered strains of deadly whateverthehell.
this -- for a drink?
is a country of 140 million that sits snugly between India
and Myanmar. With an overwhelming 85% Muslim population,
it's little surprise that 100% of the laws abide
the restrictions of Islam. Most important to this tourist
is the rule against drinking alcohol.
few minutes after the black sludge incident, per my concierge
I'm walking past the fruit market, then through
a small warehouse district. As I wander about, the locals
laugh and leer; I feel like a mini-skirted floozy passing
a crew of construction workers. Finally, at the end of
the block, I spy an armed security guard standing vigil
at a locked door.
sentry demands a baksheesh, or tip, at the exact
moment I'm offering him a cigarette anyway. He checks
the brand name; satisfied, he removes the padlock that
keeps undesirables out of this illegal watering hole.
Once I'm inside, he replaces the lock, and I make
a mental note to offer more than a three-cent counterfeit
Marlboro when leaving.
it's a long, dark space with two-dozen tables finished
exclusively in Formica and ringed by accidentally retro
chairs that would make Williamsburg types salivate. Waiters
serve cans of Tiger beer for 180 taka apiece, or about
$2.50; three mobsters straight from a Bollywood movie
sit vigil at the cash register, eyeing their customers
and staff with equal suspicion.
bars in Bangladesh aren't unheard of; they're
just rare. In Dhaka, the capital city with a population
of 12 million, I know of exactly two. (Not counting the
members-only "drinking clubs" at the foreign
embassies, which are off-limits to casual tourists.) The
more expensive spot is downstairs at the Sheraton Hotel,
where a can of Heineken runs a whopping $7.80. In an atmosphere
befitting an international hotel chain -- bright, mirrored,
soulless -- paying more for a beer than my own hotel
room in the old district is ludicrous.
on my second night in town, I do it. Twice.
better deal is found at the Hotel Peacock, across the
street from the Sheraton, where warm cans of Foster's
are reasonably priced at 160 taka, or about $2.25. The
Peacock is a typical sinners' den with dim lights,
tinted windows and no direct line of sight from street
to clientele -- as to protect drinkers from the judgmental
eyes of their fellow Muslims.
the beach town of Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh's
most popular vacation destination, I don't bother
with the two legal bars (both, again, attached to hotels).
There, a wristwatch repairman named Azad introduces me
to a cinnamon-flavored moonshine called mot (rhymes with
is the quintessential Bangladeshi: incredibly friendly,
eager to talk, even more eager to play host to wandering,
solo Americans. One afternoon, he leads me through a labyrinth
of narrow, dusty paths that would scare the hell out of
me after dark. At his friend's house, at a long
wooden table with five children, ten dogs and 20 chickens
scrambling around us, we drink the surprisingly smooth,
rice-based rotgut from mess-kit metal cups. We're
soon both drunk -- and I'm just $2 poorer.
favorite drink in Bangladesh wasn't served by mobsters,
nor was it handed over in a tin cup. Back on the streets
of Dhaka, near the end of my month-long visit, a man whispers
to me, Washington Square-style, "Hey bondhu,
you want marijuana? Hashish?"
stop, turn, whisper back: "No, bondhu. Alcohol."
offers to sell me a bottle of wine for the low, low price
of 1500 taka, or $21.50. No stranger to buying illicit
goods, I pay off my "brother" and make direct
contact with the dealer, a chubby Chinese kid named Win.
I'm not surprised to learn the middleman's
mark-up was almost 300%.
take the 550-taka bottles, considerately concealed in
a cloth sack, and hire a rickshaw back to my hotel. There,
I offer the helpful concierge a glass of the sweet red
the cloth sack, he smiles knowingly. Then he politely
declines, of course, noting that drinking alcohol is against