While in Vietnam, Victoria Allman was offered a shot of rice liquor containing a still-beating cobra heart.
“I had to graciously decline,” says Allman, a Florida-based chef.
Not all offers can be so deftly refused, however. During a trip through southern Jordan’s deserts a few years ago, cultural anthropologist Dr. Adrian McIntyre and his research team took a rest in a local’s tent where the family’s patriarch offered the group a drink.
“He picked up a grubby metal cup, banged it against a rock to knock the sand off, then strode over to a camel tethered nearby and milked the camel directly into the cup,” McIntyre recalls. “Grinning broadly, he brought us the steaming, stinking beverage, pausing only to skim off a hair that was floating on top. We passed around the cup, and everyone took - or pretended to take - a polite sip before handing it to the next person.”
“I mean no disrespect to our host, whose intentions were quite good,” McIntyre adds, “but that was probably the most revolting summer cocktail I’ve ever been offered.”
Both libations are clear examples of things you should be wary of on vacation. But sometimes, the decision to drink or not to drink isn’t always clear cut. Herein, a selective world tour.
Watch what you sip in Iceland.
Nicknamed “Black Death,” Brennivín is a “horrid, throat and gullet-searing schnapps made from fermented potatoes and caraway” that’s best avoided during a vacation to Iceland, says Trip Chicks tour guide Ann Lombardi, who recently returned from the country. Most Icelandic people stay clear of the drink as well as an accompanying snack, fermented shark, unless they’re trying to “impress unsuspecting visitors,” says Lombardi, who says she and her fellow travelers “should have known better about both. After being conned first into eating several chunks of the fermented shark we thought nothing could taste worse. We were dead wrong. I almost passed out after just one small sip [of the Brennivín], and the offensive odor stayed in my mouth for days.”
Wonder where your corn has been in Peru.
Sometimes sold as non-alcoholic fruit drink, chicha, dispensed in Peru as well as Ecuador, Bolivia, and other parts of South America, is sometimes served as a fermented alcoholic beverage. In which case, you’ll want to know how your chicha was prepared, urges traveler Anny Chih, who learned while on a recent biking trip in Peru that “some people make chicha by chewing and spitting out the corn into the drink. The beer is fermented by the saliva in the mouth.” While chewing the corn is thought to be the traditional way of fermenting the drink, chicha’s basic components of corn and water - and sometimes yeast, sugar and other ingredients - will begin to ferment if stored in a container for a few days. Best to ask which method your host is using.
Know how to hold your water in Australia.
Rain water is a safer to drink than artesian well water in Australia’s outback, says author Laine Cunningham, who spent six months camping alone there. The continent’s underground water “is very mineral laden. It comes out cloudy, it smells chalky, and nothing - not instant coffee, not drink mixes, or even tea - can eliminate the horrible taste. Depending on the mineral content, the amount of dissolved sulfites can cause headaches or stomach problems,” she says. As an alternative, Cunningham says, the Australian government “has placed giant rain tanks at strategic spots on most major highways.” She adds that travelers roaming Australia’s western coast will encounter desalinated water, though desalination facilities don’t always fully remove the salt. While the salty water’s potable, stick to your stored rain water.
Be wary of the liquor in India.
In India two years ago to participate in a rickshaw race, virtualtourist.com General Manager Giampiero Ambrosi discovered that the country, “outside of [its] cosmopolitan centers, is somewhat averse to alcohol. There are roadside 'liquor' stores that dispense the cheapest and most suspect versions of basically bathtub vodka, whiskey, and white lightning.” If you dare, “drink it in a pinch, as it's often your only choice, but risk a blinding hangover and well, maybe blindness too. There's even a commercial version of grain alcohol called ‘white mischief.’”
“We can confirm,” Ambrosi says. “It does lead to mischief.”
A word about the Harp in Ireland.
“I would never drink Harp in Ireland,” says Candace Driskell of Lonely Planet’s sales team. “What Americans think of as Ireland's most famous lager is actually regarded as undrinkable swill on the Emerald Isle. In fact, if you find yourself in a bar in Ireland with Harp on tap, you should consider leaving - you've wandered into a tourist trap.”
Don’t try the tea, Argentina.
Saying no can be hard to do, but if you’re offered a tea-like drink called mate, yerba mate, or chimarrao while in Argentina, Uruguay, or Southern Brazil, there are some “sticky situations” you might be able to avoid, says Suzanne Garber of International SOS, who spent time living in Brazil and working across much of Latin America.
The pampas grass in the aforementioned teas is “dried into leaves and then placed in the bottom of a hollowed out gourd, with boiling hot water poured over them,” Garber explains. While the smell of liquid cow pasture overpowers you, to aficionados, the taste is a divinely soothing and social tea.” The tea is then passed around and sipped through a metal straw, the heat of the water and the toxicity of the metal supposedly killing germs, she says. “However, Garber says, I wouldn't advise being the last person to take the sip after the tea has cooled somewhat,” especially if the person before you appears to be sick. “While it’s considered rude not to partake, you can excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or, better yet to avoid being culturally insensitive, ask that more boiling water be poured into the gourd right before you sip.” However, as a foreign visitor, you’ll likely be offered the first sip anyway, she says.
Beware of the New Orleans Monsoon.
“Never drink anything bigger than you are,” Patricia Pickett says, thinking back on a New Orleans trip she took with her boyfriend last year. While waiting for their table at a local restaurant, Pickett decided to wet her whistle with a Monsoon as she wanted to “take that big cup home as a souvenir.” As for what happened next, she notes, “okay, I'm 50 years old. I've been to this rodeo. No problem,” but ordering the drink was “about the last thing I remember,” she says.
“Reportedly I enjoyed my dinner,” Pickett says. “The bartender leaned over to my boyfriend and said, ‘Man, I thought I was helpin ya’ out, but I think I overdid it.’ I vaguely remember standing up and saying [that] ‘someone stole my feet’ and insisting on walking back to the hotel.” Pickett and her boyfriend eventually returned to their hotel by taxi. “I didn't even wake up hung over,” she recalls. “Damnedest thing ever.”