THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

Dry Run

I 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.
All this -- for a drink?
Bangladesh 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Upstairs, 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.
Legal 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.
Yet on my second night in town, I do it. Twice.
A 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.
In 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 "ought").
Azad 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.
My 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?"
I stop, turn, whisper back: "No, bondhu. Alcohol."
He 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%.
I 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 wine.
Seeing the cloth sack, he smiles knowingly. Then he politely declines, of course, noting that drinking alcohol is against his religion.