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An ode to alcohol

Published: October 26, 2007
Section: Opinions


I have been living in Senegal for over two months now, and while the sum of my days here is rather minimal in the grand scheme of my life, there is another aspect to my stay here that makes the 60 odd days that I have spent in this country a little different. Since I stepped off the plane in mid-August, I have not touched any sort of alcohol. It was a decision that I was half-heartedly considering before I left, but after a few days of simply not drinking and a manner of course, I made a resolution of sorts to simply continue the streak, and so far the results of that pronouncement of mine have been interesting, to say the least.

It is something that I have pondered from time to time since college began for me all of three plus years ago: Can I have fun without booze? Obviously the question is yes, as amusement can be derived from all sorts of activities that are completely unrelated to drinking, but it is foolish to completely discount the role that alcohol plays in even our own very puritanical society. Alcohol is something that can be used to get drunk and allow us as individuals to do stupid things that we would normally never do, but the freeing aspects of liquor are not limited to activities that involve the loss of ones pants. Alcohol is an essential part of fine dining, celebrations, and any host of other important life events that basically rely on the slight loss of peoples inhibitions. Booze has the power to bring people together and create happiness from where there was once resentment and tension, but as we are all reminded time after time, the opposite is also frequently true.

The subject of alcohol consumption in the United States is a controversial one, but since I have reached that magical age of 21 and am now, according to the government, free from all forms of immaturity and stupidity for the singular reason that I happened to born in 1986, the controversy is less applicable to me. That, however, is not the case in Senegal, a country of somewhere around 11 million people, 90% of which are Muslims. Now that fact alone means a lot of things, but it does not necessarily serve as a blanket statistic about the attitudes of drinking here. Catholics (most of whom drink socially) make up the other 10%, and as one owner of one liquor store (where I buy my gum) says, Never believe the Muslims here when they tell you they have never had a drink. I have a lot of Muslim customers;

they just look two ways before they come in here.” Simply put, many members of the Islamic faith here do in fact drink, they just do so very quietly and rather discreetly.

Even in knowing this, my drive to stay sober for as long as possible continued for a myriad of reasons. I have wondered what it is like to remain dry at my age, and it is also interesting to witness the actions of the inebriated from the outside (not to mention that drinking could affect my relationship with my host family). I quickly discovered, however, that this decision of mine has had unintended consequences, and that my willingness to be different has in fact created a situation where I find myself (unwillingly) on the outside looking in on a social scene that I could have easily been a part of had I continued my old habits.

Being ignored at social engagements and remaining almost unable to contribute to a conversation at a bar due to my feeling awkward as the sober kid is a new experience for me. A year ago I never would have predicated that I would rather stay in on a Friday night and read then go out with my friends, but the lack of booze has had that effect on me at times. Someone recently asked me Hows that whole sobriety thing going for you? and due to the fact that I had been sitting in silence for about an hour surrounded by loud and obnoxiously drunk Americans, I responded Shitty, thanks for asking.” Interestingly enough, that seemed to be the communal response from the Senegalese at the bar as well.

My personal history with alcohol is a rather normal one in many ways. I had my first drink when I was about 10 when my parents began serving diluted wine to me on the weekends during dinner. After that, the water began to disappear and by the time I was 15 or so I was allowed to sample other drinks in the world of liquor with the consent of my parents, and from time to time I assumed their consent when I was curious. When I was 16, I went to Ghana and experienced being trashed for the first time, including the wonderful feeling of vomiting into an open sewer when the heat and smell of a developing tropical country combined with a few to many Guinnesss. Throughout High School I drank at the few parties that actually managed to scrounge up booze, and by the time of college I had enough experience that I at least would not look to stupid at my first basement party.

My freshman year was a strange one and the alcohol did play a part in its weirdness. I took advantage as so many new students do, to the freedom of unsupervised usage of beer and liquor, and from time to time I paid the price with a sick stomach and a splitting headache. By my sophomore year I made the strange move of increasing my spending on alcohol while drastically reducing my consumption. What resulted from this was my tradition of creating a decent-sized bar in my room, usually consisting of two bottles of blended Scotch (Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label), two bottles of Single-Malt Scotch (Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain), a bottle of Cognac (Pierre Ferrand), a bottle of Armagnac, a bottle of Gin (Bombay Sapphire), a bottle of Vodka (Grey Goose), a bottle of Rum, and a bottle of Tequila (Patron). Added to this would always be two bottles of nice French red wine (usually Bordeaux) and a bottle of Martini and Rossi, plus the appropriate glasses and stemware. Amongst this massive storage of top-shelf liquor I actually managed to rarely get drunk, and instead I used this bar to introduce friends of mine to a lifestyle of appreciating alcohol through the enjoyment of the finer tastes of liquor that are available within its vast and diverse world. My normal weekend night became one of two glasses of Scotch, a cigar, and a small conversation (all of which are things that I sorely miss now).

Without alcohol their have been times when I feel absolutely out of place and almost miserable, especially when I go out to bars with my friends here. To be blunt, its a horrible existence to be the person sipping on diet cokes or soda water while everyone else is enjoying themselves. Add on to this my discovery that I am incredibly boring and very hesitant around women without the aid of a glass of wine over dinner or a Cognac for dessert, and this decision of mine was becoming even harder to keep up. It was later on however, that I discovered the true value of this streak of mine.

I like it that I wake up feeling good the next morning after going out. I like that I get a lot of work done on the weekends. I like that exercising the morning after a night out is just as easy as a school night. I like the fact that I never have to worry about stumbling home or making up an excuse for being hung-over to my Muslim host family (one of the few cultural misunderstandings that I have avoided). It is hard to have fun late at night without that faithful crutch of alcohol, and I refuse to admit otherwise, but with time it is an adjustment that I am getting used to living with (even if it basically guarantees celibacy as well). I will not firmly say that this will continue all the way to the end of my trip like I would like it too, instead Ill use that clich one day at a time ideal and press on for as long as possible. In the back of my mind during this extended sobriety of mine, I remind myself that what I am doing is making my life easier here in Senegal, and at the end of my trip I can go over to a bar in the Atlanta airport (where I first re-enter the States), and sit back and enjoy a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label;

straight, no chaser.