Fictional Bars in Factual Places

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April 14th 2013
Published: April 14th 2013
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Maybe it’s the heaviness of the wood, the solidness of the brass. Perhaps it’s the feel of the glass in your hand, the smoke of the mirror or the muffled corner conversations that you can only hear the good parts of. Perhaps it’s the smell of the liquor itself, faintly sweet, or the salty sea breeze that floats casually through the curtained window somewhere near the door. Perhaps it’s the way the bar stool fits you just right, shaped by some chair artist fifty years ago when they knew how to build them right. Perhaps it’s the light cast by the globed lamps, mounted correctly on the wall next to the mirror behind the bar so the light is reflected from the smoky glass and doesn’t hit you straight in the face or maybe it’s the soft warmth of the fire that burns just right in the hearth, the light softly changing from yellows to oranges and soft reds. Maybe it’s none of these, or all of these.

You always remember the first one you found. After crossing the Atlantic for the first time, on your first ship, you wandered the streets of Rota, dark except for the neon signs, quiet except for faint music from the jukeboxes playing inside the row of bars. You didn’t have the money then, but you had the thirst, both for the adventure and the drink. You saw the sign, carved a hundred years ago above the door. Muscatel, simple and descriptive and you knew that was the one. You went in and it was warm. There were only a few people, all men of course. Most with beards, some with berets.Despite the wood stove burning in the corner, they keep their coats on, as if they might need to make a hasty retreat. No bottles in this place, only two huge kegs sticking through the wall behind the bar. You were nervous when you approached the bar; you hadn’t earned your spot yet. You want to be accepted but you know that takes time. It helps when the bartender nods at you from the other end of the bar before he makes his way towards you. You didn’t know a word of Spanish then, you didn’t have to. There is only one thing served here and it comes in shot glasses for a nickel each. The stool fits perfect, made for sitting in for a few hours or until your troubles are gone. The wooden rail is the perfect height, forcing you to lean into the curved, worn edge of the bar. Besides the stove, the only light was filtered through the blue haze from cigars or pipes that hung just below the yellowed ceiling. You watched the men drink, not wanting to look foolish or weak. This isn’t a place for the weak. They sip slowly and that’s how you need to do it. You take your first drink. It was strong, bitter, don’t make a face, they’ll know you don’t belong. Finish one before you make eye contact and then only in the mirror. They see you without looking at you. After you have a second, another comes quickly. The guy at the table salutes you with his glass. You’re accepted and it feels good and you’re never going back to the way it was before.

You read fiction about the great bars and at some point you go to find them. You followed Hemingway to Key West first at Sloppy Joe’s and then to Bimini and the Compleat Angler before it burned. He showed you that corner bars were good at El Floridita but bars in the middle of the street were better at La Bodeguita del Medio. You went with Tennessee Williams and Faulkner to New Orleans and even Kerouac to La Cucaracha in San Miguel de Allende and Vesuvio in North Beach. You drank with Jack London in Oakland and Alaska. They found some good ones and described them well, but ruined them for everyone after. They owned these bars and you needed one for yourself.

You liked the beach bars for a while. A cold beer with your feet in the sand fit just right then. You drank with the fisherman in Louisiana. You learned what you like and how to order it. Cooling Gin and Rum in the summer.Warming Whiskey and Scotch when it’s cold. They take it straight or mixed with water or Coke. No extras necessary and anything in a blender is a seen as frivolous.

You got older and settled down. You travelled to beat the boredom now. You had more money, but less freedom, and certainly less time. The destinations become more expensive, more exotic. Get in quick, get out quicker. You have places to be and you have to leave before you want to. Memories are etched in photo albums instead of your soul like they should be. You still have the thirst, but could only quench it for short periods.

You found the classics in the hotels built for the British in the hot countries. Proper waiters who appear when necessary and stay out of the way when they’re not. Crisp linen and dark wood. The Sarkie Brothers did it best. The Eastern and Oriental in Penang, the Strand in Rangoon or Raffles in Singapore. They knew their clientele and how to attract them. They came by train or ship and stayed for more than a night. They created a world that wasn’t like home, but certainly wasn’t like where they were.Raj bars in India designed in another era when bars were clubs and made a statement to anyone watching that they would last 100 years. White marble floors and shiny brass fittings and plenty of palms.Always a fan over every table.Expensive glass and wide doorways and awnings to keep the breeze flowing and the heat out.

You travel full time now. You sit in a corner café in Melaka watching the backpackers share a bowl of some cheap curry. You listen to the table of men talking politics or money moving their share of the common soup to their smaller bowl. They eat with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other. They put ice in their beer and laugh at you because you don’t. Two old men sit at separate tables staring out at the world with tired eyes. They see what was and not what is. It’s been hot all day and all week and probably all year. Two weeks is too long in Melaka and you are just passing time until you move on. You realize that no one is watching you and you are accepted here. It’s what you were looking for when you began your journey long ago. Perhaps this is the perfect place or perhaps this will become a distant memory soon. Always searching for new adventures and trying to fit in in some new place. You realize that is what the best bars are and why this one, at least for today, is yours.

It was a bit of a slow week in Melaka. We leave for Borneo on Tuesday.

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14th April 2013
Melaka Scarves

nice one
grat shot - well done:-) B&T
14th April 2013

Congratulations on yet another eloquent blog. I particularly liked the line re the hotels built by the Sarkie brothers "They created a world that wasn’t like home, but certainly wasn’t like where they were." I reckon that description is equally fitting for another colonial construction, the Phoenix Hotel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
14th April 2013

Thanks for your kind words. We're heading to Yogyakarta after Kuching and Bali. David's checking out the Phoenix Hotel online; the 1918 Lobby Bar sounds like the place for us! Nanci
14th April 2013

Great pics and great read
Great pictures and read. The opening paragraph entices you, like a riddle, to continue reading. Again, waiting for the next chapter...
14th April 2013

Pack me up!
Time well-spent in Melaka, I think. Eloquent sharing of the traveler perspective - look, feel, smell, connection, disconnection. In my busy-busy world, making the time to read your blog is like a mini-vacation in itself. Thank you! Jane P.S. The photography is world-class.
14th April 2013

Fabulous essay!
Wonderful reflections on bar life through one's life! I'm not one for bars--too expensive for my backpacking ways, but you've given me a proper appreciation for them. Glad you found a welcoming one in a town where staying a month wasn't required. Great photos too, especially that first one of the women in scarves.
15th April 2013

Your blogs read like poetry. Along with the imagery (both written and photographic), it's hard not to be taken up, as if by boat, to the rhythm of you writing. Another great blog. Thanks for sharing.

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