There's basically only one kind of beer sold in Bali, Indonesia. Bintang is legendary among expats and serial Australian tourists, garnering its own urban myths. ("They put formaldehyde in it, man. How to you think it stays fresh so long, getting sold on every island in Indonesia? Hmm?") It's good enough—dry enough, full-bodied enough, strong enough for most social occasions.
But if you're a traveler who'd rather taste the local life, eventually you'll find yourself sitting cross-legged on the floor, being passed a little plastic cup with a shot of the Balinese moonshine known as arak.
The first time I tasted arak, some American NGO workers introduced me to the young, hip leaders of a Balinese community organization. There was a book launch with live music, and afterward, one of my new friends invited me out.
"Out" meant to a friend's kos, a rented room with its own bathroom and nothing else. Tenants share a kitchen, which is just a room with a counter and a portable gas stove. Like most Balinese buildings, it was made of stone, with tiled floors, and a tiled roof.
The rooms surrounded a courtyard, with a portico where we sat in a circle around a slightly crumpled one-liter water bottle. There were small packets of single-serving peanuts in the center and packs of clove cigarettes with enough tar to feather your lungs. The young people I sat with spoke some self-conscious English, and I replied with some self-conscious Indonesian.
Drinking in Bali, there is only one glass— in this case, a single-serving plastic cup that once contained spring water. During these informal drinking ceremonies, one person is in charge of pouring a shot and passing it to the next person, clockwise, until the drink-pourer becomes too drunk to remember his duty and everyone is napping. The drinkers observe the round-robin with a mixture of anticipation and dread as the little shot cup makes its way around.
I gulped it down. My face puckered. My eyes watered. My throat burned. My armhairs curled. My stomach flipped. It was awful. Everyone laughed.
I didn't know all that the first time. Being a guest, I was passed the cup right away, as the Balinese are incredibly hospitable. "Want to try arak?" asked the man extending the cup my way.
"Yes, thank you," I said. It smelled faintly pungent and a little sweet. I gulped it down. My face puckered. My eyes watered. My throat burned. My armhairs curled. My stomach flipped. It was awful. Everyone laughed.
Unrelated to the stuff of the same name found in the Levant, Balinese arak is made in MacGyvered backyard stills. Indonesia is still a pretty lawless land, so many of these operations have no license and don't pay taxes. (Neither do most people, come to think of it.) Producers harvest palm fruits or flowers—or even rice or palm sugar—and boil the juice in metal cooking oil cans. The steam rises up through bamboo pipes and distills into bottles tied to the end. Since the process varies from producer to producer, the flavor, alcohol content, and intoxication experience varies wildly from place to place.
The first few rounds, I felt nothing but perhaps a little more comfortable among the strangers I drank with. I was the only Westerner (as white tourists generally call themselves along the Asian tourist circuit). There was just one other woman with us—traditionally, women don't drink alcohol or smoke, but younger folks are a little more relaxed about social conventions.
It was nice that the arak made the situation a little less awkward. But after several rounds—whoa, I had to stop. I was getting loaded really quickly. Then Dania—a tall, Rastafarian-looking man with dreadlocks piled in a crown on his head—asked me, "Want to go to the north coast tonight?"
We arak-napped on the portico and left before dawn, passing by farmers starting their work in the rice fields on the plains. Our car climbed through the hills until we reached the north in the early morning. In the rain, we stopped for a breakfast of rice, chicken, and shredded coconut in a little bamboo shack among coconut palm, bamboo, and bougainvillea groves. Someone produced a little dented water bottle and a tiny cup. We sat on an open-air platform, under a thatched roof, and listened to a little girl singing as she did chores.
Properly shored up, we went to the beach and swam in our clothes in the rain. Sauced, I then bartered my wet clothes for dry ones at a food stall. We ate noodles for lunch, and the rain stopped. The rest of the day was a blur until I found myself at a beachside fish grill, flopping around in the sand like the fish we had for dinner.
As I got to know my friends better, I learned that each of them had a favorite place to purchase arak. These places looked like any of the other stalls in Indonesia where people purchase beer, cigarettes, and single-serving packets of roasted peanuts—an essential for a night of arak drinking. Constructed from wood beams, they display packets of shampoo and laundry detergent and bottles of water and soda in the front. At one place I visited, they served roast chicken, and live chickens pecked at discarded bones on the dusty ground.
There's no apparent sign that a place sells arak, because sellers rely on word-of-mouth advertising and customer loyalty, but one sure indication that a place sells arak is the constant traffic of men on motorcycles pulling up and leaving, a lot of cooking oil cans littered about, and perhaps a group of inebriated Balinese men smoking cigarettes and talking much too loudly nearby.
You may wind up on your belly, hanging off a ledge, vomiting into a tangle of weeds, hoping that no one notices, begging God to put you out of a misery that continues for days afterward.
It's important to buy arak at a reputable place. In 2009, at least 25 people died, including American painter Rose Johnson, when an unscrupulous producer cut arak with methanol to lower costs. Since then, dozens more have died and many others have been hospitalized and gone blind. Most of those cases occurred in the tourist ghettos of southern Bali.
Of course, legitimately made moonshine is tricky for anyone unaccustomed to it. Having one cup passed around gives enough time between shots to process the drink, but even then after numerous rounds, you may feel nothing. I entreat any traveler to Bali not to be fooled. Drinking more to move things along will only prove disastrous. You'll do things you'll regret, especially since Balinese people don't generally twerk or argue when they drink. You may be stupidly tempted to get on your rented motorbike, risking your life or someone else's. Or more innocuously, you may wind up on your belly, hanging off a ledge, vomiting into a tangle of weeds, hoping that no one notices, begging God to put you out of a misery that continues for days afterward. Trust me. It's happened.
Another time not to drink arak is at the mushroom bars in the tourist traps in the highlands. In this case, not only are you not getting drunk enough on your magic mushroom-infused arak screwdriver, but you also aren't tripping, so you get into an argument with the bartender and then the owner of the bar, who gives you a stronger drink to shut you up, and you wind up clinging to the back of a motorcycle taxi driver, sobbing in the rain, and then spending a sad and endless night alone with a bad case of the fears.
When you drink arak, do so after your new friends have had shots, so you know you won't go blind and/or die. Drink very, very slowly. Drink lots of water and enjoy the roasted peanuts that will invariably be scattered in the center of your new friend circle. Everyone puts their cigarettes, snacks, and drinks in the center to be shared communally—enjoy this tradition and bring something to contribute.
Even better, spare yourself and your friends some misery by purchasing a few bottles of Bintang to share cup by cup in the round-robin. Your new friends, and your liver, will thank you for it.