Thursday, December 31, 2015

Alcohol in Ecuador

Alcohol is part of daily life in England for most people. Even if you're not drinking yourself then others around you will be and the pub is the heart of so many of our social functions. 

In Ecuador it's a different story. Alcohol is more taboo, for example it is illegal to buy it from the shops on a Sunday (although most small tiendas will sell you a couple of beers, when you're desperate). The middle-classes do not drink like they do in England and there is very little wine culture. Of course there is plenty of drinking and at the fiestas there is almost a self-destructive element to it. It's not uncommon to see people lying in the street, paralytic.

There's nothing like a good, long soak

Most crucially, in Ecuador there is no pub culture.

How I missed the pub when I was in Ecuador. Of course Ecuador has pubs of a sort... but not really. Pubs in Ecuador mean a soulless room where you can buy bottles of lager. Lucy once translated them as 'beer shops', which is completely accurate.
George Orwell wrote an essay on the perfect pub, he calls it The Moon Under Water. It's my perfect pub too. Here's a few of his thoughts:
"To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece — everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century. In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian lay-out of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room.  In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.
The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women—two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone ‘dear,’ irrespective of age or sex. (‘Dear,’ not ‘Ducky’: pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)"
Quito's beer shops don't quite match my moon under water fantasies. Of course, in Mariscal there are bars frequented by expats, backpackers, students and even Quitenos looking to score with a Gringa. Even in these upmarket establishments I've had a few adventures - once I was tear-gassed, on another occasion a girl projectile vomited over my feet while her friends laughed. Once a guy was dry-humping his missus on the seat next to ours. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he knew of a motel nearby. Without blinking he gave me directions before resuming his 'canoodling'. You'd never see that sort of mucky business at the Moon Under Water.
Returning to London I've noticed most pubs are becoming increasingly gentrified with their wasabi peas, 'craft ales' and gastro-menus. By doing so they lose some of the old spirit of the public house. They price out the riff-raff and make the 30-something parents believe it's acceptable for them to let their toddlers run riot around the bar.

In Forest Hill, where I'm now living, there are two pubs opposite one another. The hipster Sylvain Post and The Bird in Hand. One is gentrified and the other is a local boozer with fruities and Sky Sports. It's bar apartheid, with a clear line of division that cannot be crossed. The class system is alive and well. 

But however much I missed British pubs in Ecuador, what I didn't miss was the violence associated with British drinking culture. After five beers in the UK, some men seem hell-bent on a scrap. The atmosphere sours and becomes unpredictable, often you can smell the danger in the air. In Ecuador, people just want to dance... or pass out.

A case in point. During the World Cup the centre of Quito was taken over by beer swilling football fans, some Ecuadorian, some Colombian, some miscellaneous (like myself). Everybody was drunk, the football was showing and yet the atmosphere was chilled. There was no threatening chanting, no posturing, no lobbing bottles... but there was music and dancing. I was trying to imagine what it would be like in an English market town with just half that number of people and alcohol.

When England got knocked out of the World Cup in 2006 I found myself in a small market town called Ashby and the mood in town was uneasy. Gangs of lads had been drinking heavily and were pissed off and pissed up. I went for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and by the time I emerged the atmosphere had nose-dived. In the short walk from the restaurant to the hotel about three different men tried to engage me in mortal combat. The funny thing was I didn't say anything unusual in this... it was par for the course. Much better in South America. Over there it's the ones who haven't been drinking you need to look out for - you can't go express kidnapping after 10 pints of export strength lager.