Drinking in the World
My favourite, and not-so-favourite cocktails from around the globe.
Peru and Chile have long battled over who owns the Pisco Sour, but regardless of its origins, anyone who gets the chance to enjoy it is a winner. The cocktail is made from the clear distilled grape brandy pisco, blended with fresh lemon or lime, egg whites, syrup or sugar, and a dash of bitters. It’s refreshing yet a little sour, much like a margarita, and served in a short whiskey glass, any time of day. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, who claim that Chile stole the recipe from them during a war in the 1800’s. That being said, the best Pisco Sour I had was in Santiago, from a homemade Chilean recipe. Perhaps it’s time both countries sit down and discuss the issue over a cocktail.
In many parts of the world, locals forego major liquor brands for their own homemade moonshine. Such is the case with raki in Albania. Raki is also found in Turkey, and known as arak in North Africa and the Middle East. Every year in Albania, there are cases of people going blind, or even losing their lives after consuming a particular nasty batch of raki, which is distilled from grapes and flavoured with aniseed. Not that you’ll be able to taste much, as this traditional aperitif disintegrates everything it touches in your mouth and throat. In Albania, homemade raki served in a glass decanter made my mouth burn and my nose run, but fortunately, left my eyesight in tact.
Georgians don’t know which came first: Wine, or the people to drink it. Archaeologists have discovered traces of wine in jars that date back 8000 years, implying that tiny Georgia, bordered by Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the birthplace of wine the world over. The country has 200 endemic species of grape, producing many types of wine that are found nowhere else. Toastmasting is a proud tradition, as is the cultivation and production of wine in underground casks that date back generations. Saperavi is its most famous red wine, along with the white Rkatsitelli. Both are sweet, almost dessert-like wines, high in sugar and alcohol. At a traditional dinner, I watch four men pour out their lauded toasts, draining at least a dozen bottles without tipping over. France and Italy may make the finest wine, but little known Georgia lives and breathes it.
Legend has it that the powerfully strong mampoer is an able substitute should you run out of battery acid. Known as a type of peach brandy, mampoer can be made from any fruit, including apricots, plums, figs, prickly pear, pineapples and marula. Its origins go back to the Dutch settlers of South Africa, who allowed soft, sweet fruit to rot in barrels for three weeks, before boiling it up a couple times to distil the alcohol from the mash. Mampoer, which is still made by many farmers in South Africa, has an alcohol volume between 60 to 80%. No word on whether they use it to power their tractors.
A drink can only be called tequila if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila itself. Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink called pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted the native drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor produced from the agave. Tequila is a type of mescal produced only in one region, refined, and perfected, much like cognac is to brandy. Jose Cuervo began production in 1795, and its La Rojena distillery is still in operation today, the oldest in Latin America. Here you can see how tequila is made, learn about its correct consumption (sipped, never shot), and drink from the family’s private cellar, where the smooth, rich sample has the fragrance of tequila, but goes down like liquid velvet.
Fermented Horse Milk
The chief of the nomadic tribe calls me into his traditional circular ger tent. It’s pretty spacious considering it can be dismantled and packed onto horses in just a couple hours. On the walls, made of fabric, are pictures of famous Mongolian wrestlers, embroidery, and cracked mirrors. We sit at a table, and from a porcelain jug, he pours into a small wooden cup some of his most treasured elixir. I smile, maintaining eye contact, and bring the cup to my mouth. A sour odour reaches my nose, the eye-watering stench of ammonia. The liquid touches my lips, burns, the tartness stretching my tongue and forcing a muffled gag reflex. I shoot it back, closing my eyes, somehow keeping it down. I regain focus, breathe out a noxious gas, and silently congratulate myself. The chief is so impressed, he immediately pours me another cup.
There’s nothing quite like seeing South Korean businessmen on a soju binge. This vodka-like drink, produced from rice or other starches like potato or wheat, is poured into a shot glass, and after a toast, consumed in one gulp. Etiquette dictates that you must not fill your own glass, that it must be held with one or two hands depending on status, and poured and received in a particular manner too. With all the rules, dating back to the 1300’s, it’s odd to see basic courtesy go out the window as the soju takes hold, and men descend into a state of alcoholic madness. I saw suits and ties passed out in the bushes on Seoul, or carried unconscious over the shoulder by colleagues, all on a weeknight! Korea’a Alcohol and Liquor Industry reckons each Korean adult drinks more than 90 bottles of soju a year, where it is viewed as a positive energy source for the country.
I am the passenger and I ride and I ride
I ride through the city's backsides...
Next time you're walking through a crowded subway, tune a little Iggy Pop into your headphones. We are all passengers, and we all ride and we ride. The last time I rode the tube in London, I got thinking about the world's major subway systems, asking questions that this blog post would later answer:
One of the oldest and largest urban transit systems in the world, New York’s subway currently has 468 stations in operation, with approximately 660 miles of routes clocking in at over 1.5 billion rides annually. It’s one of only four subways running 24 hours a day in the USA, vital for shepherding New Yorkers (and tourists) around the city, especially in Manhattan, where traffic is choked during rush hour and parking exorbitant. New York has the world’s largest fleet of subway cars (around 6200), and is probably the most recognized system thanks to being featured in movies like Saturday Night Fever, Ghost and the Taking of Pelham 123. Here’s a neat fact: New York’s subway has only 60 stations less than all the combined subway stations in the United States.
The oldest underground rapid transit system in the world is the London Underground, known affectionately as the “Tube.” Its first sections were built in 1863, and the Northern Line was the world’s first electric train. The tube currently has 270 stations and 402 kilometres of track, covering central London and stretching way into the suburbs, Heathrow airport, and even surrounding regions of Essex and Buckinghamshire. Linking seamlessly with an excellent bus system and above-ground trains, including rail and the Docklands Light Rail, the map of the iconic coloured lines of each route have become a design classic. Be aware the Underground map doesn’t correspond to geography above-ground, which is why some tourists might spend 45 minutes taking the Tube to a destination just a ten minute walk away.
China’s largest municipality (over 23 million people!) is served by the world’s longest metro network. The Shanghai Metro’s 11 lines and 278 stations delivers over 2 billion rides annually, at about 5.5 million rides a day. Three lines converge at the busiest station, People’s Square, located near the popular Nanjing Road shopping district. Fares are based on distance, and allow you to transfer between lines, as well as railways and buses. Transit cards can be purchased as stations, convenient stores and banks, and can be used to pay for buses and even taxis. Connected to the Metro, although it is not included in the system itself, is the Maglev. Reaching a speed of 431 km/hr, the train’s magnetic levitation system makes it the world’s fastest commercial regular service, and a 30 km thrill ride from the airport.
25 Stations opened in 1966 in time for the 1967 World Fair. Today, the Métro de Montréal has 68 stations running on four lines. It is Canada’s busiest subway system, third in North America after New York and Mexico City. Designers looked to Paris for inspiration, and Montreal’s rubber-tired efficiency has in turn inspired other Metros like Santiago, Lyon and Mexico City. Rubber tires were chosen because they are quiet, turn at higher speeds, and reduce vibration for passengers. They also allow faster speeds than conventional steel tracks. Due to winter weather, the 759-cars run entirely underground, and are not weatherproof. Although public art in stations was popular in communist countries, Montreal was a pioneer introducing stained glass, sculptures and paintings to western metro stations.
With millions of people flocking to the capital from around Russia, Soviet leadership in the 1920’s recognized the potential for the Moscow Metro to be more than just a transportation necessity. It was designed to serve as an ambitious vehicle for propaganda and communist ideology. The Moscow Metro opened with 13 stations in 1935, with 285 000 passengers using it that day. Today’s Metro receives a 6.6 million passengers each day, the second most heavily used transit system in the world after Tokyo. It was Stalin who commissioned some of the era’s greatest architects and artists to design stations that would inspire and overwhelm the proletariat with the power of the state. Unlike the functional transit systems that were being developed in other major world cities, the Soviet goal was to build underground palaces, reflecting a radiant future to all who used it, designed and lit up like grand ballrooms. Visiting the most famous stations - Ploschad Revolutsii, Komsomolskaya, Mayakovskaya – is a must for any visitor to the city.
Distinctive by the Art Nouveau entrances of some its stations, the Paris Métro is one of the world’s most compact transit systems, cramming in 245 stations and 87 kilometres of track within the city itself. First opened in 1900, by the 1940’s, there was no more space to expand lines within the city, and so faster cars were introduced to increase ticket sales. You can choose your direction on the 14 lines, distinguished with colours and numbers, by selecting the destination terminus. 4.5 million passengers use the Métro every day, so you won’t be alone. The Métro does not run 24 hours, which is why locals call the last train the balai, the “broom” that sweeps up the night’s last passengers.
The busiest subway in the world – over 8 million passengers daily – has a map that is a labyrinth of lines and colours, leaving many visitors confused and disorientated. With over 880 stations on the extended rail network, it’s a Sudoku puzzle figuring out where you want to go. During rush hour, white gloved “train packers” jam people into every square inch of space so the doors can close. Just getting around the stations can be quite a trek, and because each mode of transportation in Tokyo is operated by a different company (including two subway systems), you’ll require a different fare ticket if you transfer. Your best bet is to buy a Suica, a pre-paid card that works on every system, and can even be used for vending machines. Alternatively, the Tokyo Free Kippu allows one day of unlimited travel on all subways, trains and buses.
Canada’s oldest and largest subway system currently has 4 lines, 69 stations and 70 kilometres of track. Typically named for its nearest artery, it carries over a million passenger rides each weekday, and is integrated with streetcars and buses throughout the Toronto Transit Commission. Hanging around the platforms, you may notice some of the two-dozen artworks that breathe life into the system. My favourite is the opposing murals at College station entitled Hockey Knights in Canada. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs eternally face off on opposing platforms. Artists have used glass, tiles, and paint to create wonderful works in stations like Spadina, Dupont, St.Clair West and Eglinton. The busiest stations: Bloor (Yonge-University), Yonge (Bloor-Danforth) and St George (Bloor-Danforth).
With an average of 7 million rides each day, Seoul’s Metropolitan Subway is one of the world’s busiest transit systems. Many of its 18 lines are still expanding, with a current total of 560 stations operated by seven different organizations. All signs are in Korean and English, and helpfully for tourists, all announcements are made in Korean and English too. Along with single-journey tickets, various transportation cards work across all the systems, with discounts for kids and seniors. Navigating is fairly easy: each station has a name, number and colour. Transfer stations are clearly marked, and trains are generally very efficient. Ever pushing the technology envelope, the Seoul Subway introduced the world’s first virtual subway supermarket, where passengers use their smart phones to scan QR codes of products (laid out like a shopping shelf) which can be purchased and delivered to their homes.
South America’s most extensive and expanding subway system is in the Chilean capital of Santiago, with 105 stations servicing five lines and over one hundred kilometres of track. Inspired by Montreal, three of the tracks use rubber-tired cars, and like Montreal, art features prominently inside the stations. Over 45km of new track will be laid in the next few years alone, highlighting the success of the government’s overhaul of the city’s public transport system. Line 1, servicing downtown Santiago, is the city’s busiest track. Bike lockers at various stations have further eased the traffic congestion in the city. When a massive 8.8 Richter scale earthquake hit Chile in 2010, the Metro held up strong, with only station closed for superficial repairs.
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The Great Wars of Europe killed around 40 million soldiers, and as many as 70 million civilians. Without attempting to understand all this carnage, all I can say is that then, as now, somebody had to something about a situation that had become unacceptable. Somebody, in that case, was the domain of brave young men, including too many Canadian boys cut down in their prime. We remember them with over six thousand Canadian war memorials, honouring their names and sacrifice. Here are a few important ones you might find overseas, and the stories behind them.
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Vimy Ridge, France
Canadians lost around 65,000 soldiers in the human meat grinder that was World War 1 trench warfare. Their proudest moment at Vimy Ridge is one that many historians credit with establishing Canada’s identity as a young nation. Canadian battalions joined together for the first time to attack fortified German positions, sweeping forward with small victories, gaining as little as 100m at a push. The casualty count was high, but Canadian grit persevered, and the Germans were eventually overrun. In gratitude for their efforts, having contributed to a pivotal victory in the war, France gave the battlefield to Canada to forever establish a memorial, to both the soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge, and those who died elsewhere in the country without receiving a proper burial. Located 8km outside of the town of Arras, the 250 acre site is one of the few places to see actual WW1 trenches, although much of it is closed because of unexploded ammunition, and other safety reasons. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the memorial every year, be they proud Canadians, military buffs or veterans honouring the past.
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The Brookwood Memorial, England
The UK’s largest is military and civilian is Brookwood in the county of Surrey. It contains a 37-acre military section with memorials and burial grounds for over 5000 soldiers, mostly from the Commonwealth. Over 2731 Canadian soldiers are buried here, the vast majority from the Second World War. Located on green and peaceful grounds, the impressive circular Brookwood Memorial was unveiled by the Queen in 1953, with the names of 3500 soldiers "to whom the fortunes of war denied a known and honoured grave". The Canadian High Commission holds a Remembrance Day service here each year.
Gapyeong Monument, South Korea
When North Korea invaded its southern counterpart in 1950, Canadian troops became a significant part of an international force assembled by the United Nations. Some 27,000 troops were involved in the conflict, comprising members of air, sea and land divisions. While there is still conflict in the region, the armistice has held since 1953. Today, a South Korean and Canadian flag fly together at the Gapyeong Monument, which contains two additional memorials on either side, honouring the 2nd Battalion for the their efforts in the Battle of Hill 677, and naming all participating Canadian units respectively. According to a plaque on the main monument, Canadian forces suffered 516 deaths, and 1255 wounded during the war. It further mentions that “these valiant Canadians embodied their country's commitments to safeguard the fundamental principles of the United Nations.” Much as they continue to do today as part of the international forces securing Afghanistan from the Taliban.
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The war against an internationally condemned regime continues in Afghanistan, which, like all wars, dooms its soldiers, civilians and victims to violence and struggle. In Kandahar, where Canadian forces have been particularly involved in operations, a Memorial Inuksuk and plaque honours the 152 soldiers who have perished thus far in the country, along with other coalition soldiers who have fallen.
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Malta Memorial, Malta
At the entrance to Malta’s capital city of Valetta, a memorial honours 2298 Commonwealth air crew who perished in the battle over the Mediterranean, with no known graves. A striking bronze-plated Golden Eagle sits atop a circular column, with panels on the base inscribed with the names of the fallen, including 285 Royal Canadian Air Force members. The inscription reads: over these and neighbouring lands and seas the airmen whose names are recorded here fell in raid or sortie and have no known grave. A further Latin inscription, translated into English states: An island resolute of purpose remembers resolute men.
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St Julien Memorial, Belgium
The use of poison gas is so despised today that it helped form the basis of the USA’s decision to invade Iraq. Even in the bloodiest of wars, soldiers have honour. In World War I, Germany pioneered using mustard gas against the Allied forces, resulting in utter devastation and horror. In Belgium’s St Julien sits a park with a memorial to Canadian forces who were instrumental in defending the Western Front against some of the first poison gas attacks in the bloody Battle of Ypres. With the gas unleashed, Allied lines scattered in panic. Before the German infantry could attack, the First Canadian Division assembled into position, frantically holding the line in the wave of repeated attacks. They held the line for 48 hours before reinforcements arrived. Over 6000 casualties, and 2000 dead. Carved in rock, the memorial is a striking 11m high statue called The Brooding Soldier, his head forever lowered in memory of his comrades.
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Passchendaele Memorial, Belgium
November, 1917. In 16 days of heavy fighting, the Canadian Corps were hit with 15 654 casualties and over 4 000 dead, all in a quest to occupy the high ground and capture the town of Passchendaele. Heavy rain and poor drainage turned this offence, part of the Third Battle of Ypres, into a muddy, bloody quagmire. 4000 young men with dreams, hopes and families. Men who could have worked the land, started innovative businesses, built homes for future generations. Standing waist high in cold mud, their friends falling around them, they continued to push on, eventually capturing the high ground. When the Italian army were badly beaten elsewhere, British Commanders diverted operations to support them, abandoning the momentum created during two phases of battle, and at a great cost of life. Passchendaele became an international symbol of senseless violence. The Memorial, located on the Crest Farm about 40km from Lille, is a large block of Canadian granite, surrounded by maple trees. Surrounding it are peaceful green fields. Enough blood has been shed here. As Churchill said not long after the horrors of World War I: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And we did.
You’ll find Doctor Fish in spas from Croatia to Singapore, Belgium to China, on the streets of Bangkok and Siem Reap. My own consultation was in Seoul, where several dozen little fish were gleefully dining on my feet. Literally, chomping down with gusto, hold the mayo, extra toe jam please. They’re called Doctor Fish, also known as “nibble” or “kangal” fish, although the scientific community calls them garra rufa. Originating in Turkey, these bottom feeders are sought the world over by sufferers of psoriasis, an icky skin condition. Reason being: they just love to to eat flaky dead skin cells, rejuvenating your feet in the process to leave them soft and shiny.
Unlike piranhas, which have trouble distinguishing disposable edibles from your essential body parts, Dr. Fish have evolved to only nibble what you don’t need, attracted to dead skin, calluses, corns, and other delightful things you like to share with your neighbours in the local public pool. Although they don’t heal skin conditions, they are known to relieve the symptoms. Lord knows I’ve eaten enough fish in my time, so it was time to give something back to a species that has given me so much.
Like many spas in Seoul, the Sea La La Spa and Waterpark is a haven of relaxation. There’s various types of saunas, dozens of jet pools, steam baths, pools, Jacuzzis, meditation rooms, even coffin-sized private caverns where you can slide inside and doze off free of distraction (unless you choose the caverns with the TV sets and DVD players). The Dr Fish pool is located at the back of the giant indoor pool plaza, and costs about $10 for a 15-minute soak. There are two ponds, one containing the garra rufa, and another containing a larger species of fish called Chin Chin. Although the spa claims both eat your dead skin, I subsequently learn that Chin Chin (or kissing fish) are impostors, nibbling away without actually giving any of the medicinal benefits. In fact, some experts reckon they could actually spread diseases instead, which makes sense considering they spend their days kissing complete strangers. I approach the garra rufa pond, sit down, dip my feet in the water, and wait for the feast.
After an initial tasting by one bold fish (who must have been an important food critic), dozens proceed to munch away, selecting the heel, toe or underside the way we might select a cut of steak. The sensation is one third pins and needles, one third tickle, and one third “holy crap, I’m being eaten alive by tiny hungry fish.” It’s important to remain still, after all, we don’t like it when our dinner plate moves around either. When your time is up, your feet are left refreshed, radiant, free of excess dead skin, corns, and other itchy conditions you might find in a locker room.
The Chin Chin in the other pool may not be real Dr Fish, but this species of tilapia actually have teeth, which means their bite is worse than their, em, blow? They approach my feet like bandits, and this time I practically hit the roof as they attack. I haven’t squirmed this much since I mistakenly told a Bolivian political leader his wife looked like goat cheese (it was a slight mispronunciation).
Turkey passed a law protecting garra rufa from “commercial exploitation” over fears of they’d be exploited, but it’s not as simple as filling your bath tub with the fish to start a spa. Conditions, ranging from water temperature to diet, have to be ideal before the garra rafa will want to feed on your scales. I once knew a real Dr Fish, and I was mentally spiralling out of control at the prospect of a dermatologist named Dr Fish treating his patients with Dr Fish.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.