Attack of the hospitable holiday hosts!
Simon Reeve describes the dangers of being plied with too much food and drink when travelling and suggests some clever ruses to avoid it
LP - Christopher Herwig
The ex-Soviet bloc vodka offer can strike in any place at any time
I call it vodka terrorism. It is a common type of attack in the countries of the former Soviet Union, for example, where it stands for the application of extreme and overwhelming alcoholic hospitality to a weary traveller, often me.
Attacks can occur at any time and in seemingly any situation. You might be waiting for a train, trying to secure a business deal or visiting the family of a new friend. Just as Brits would offer a cuppa, so ex-Soviets will reach into a pocket or a cupboard and produce a bottle of lethal rocket fuel.
On one occasion a BBC team and I went to film at a primary school somewhere in the Caucuses. I have a hazy memory that we were supposed to witness the singing of patriotic songs by tiny proto-Communists, but really I have no idea, because the school head produced vodka and insisted we drink. It was 8.30 in the morning, and the rest of the day is a complete blur.
Now I don't mind a drink, even if I am a complete lightweight. But here's the rub: when Soviets open a bottle, it has to be emptied. And their alcohol is strong enough to French polish your insides.
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Another attack came when I went to meet the president of Moldova. He lulled me into a false sense of security by inviting me to join him fishing at a lake in his garden. The only other time I had been fishing I was 12, when I slipped off the bank, fell into the River Piddle (seriously) and then had to walk through the local village while the locals lined the pavements laughing at me.
The president helped exorcise those demons with a few lessons, but then insisted I join him on a tour of his wine cellar. It must have been a quiet day in Moldova, because the leader reached for vodka and his favourite brandy. We were on the third bottle when his wife came in from the shops, complete with plastic carrier bags, and told him to stop torturing the foreign film crew, and we staggered out.
I like people from the ex-Soviet bloc and I've missed them over the past few years while I've been travelling in the tropics. I miss their hard shells and inner warmth. I miss - to risk perpetuating the odd cliché - their resigned shrugs and their ability to talk without using any facial muscles.
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And now for the food...
But spending time in the hot parts of the planet has at least shown me that former Soviets are not the only ones practised in the arts of vodka terrorism. Arabs and north Africans are also past masters, although they usually manage it with food rather than alcohol.
I have struggled through feast after feast in the Arab world, gorging myself until my buttons popped, because hosts sat opposite me watching and refilling my plate. Eat, they say, eat!
Scarred by such experiences, I have learned the importance of an outright refusal. Travelling through southern Libya, following the Tropic of Cancer around the planet, I went to scout a deep well that I hoped we could film as part of a sequence on ancient Saharan tribes. The well was, well, just a boring hole in the ground, so I made my apologies and started to leave.
However, hearing I might be dropping by, a group of local historians had sparked a barbecue next to the well and they insisted I join them to eat. I explained that I was very flattered, but that I had to rejoin my crew to catch a flight. They took my arms and began to frogmarch me towards the meal.
Just stay for a bit, they hissed, then admitted the goat wouldn't be cooked for another three hours. I felt panic rising. I slipped one arm free, and they tugged on the other, then began pulling as I resisted. Our team driver leaped out of his battered car and pitched in to save me, and I became the rope in a tug of war. They circled the car, outraged. We fled.
So if you lack the stomach of a feasting whale, saintly patience and the alcohol tolerance of a Siberian miner, how can you survive a vodka terrorism attack or its culinary equivalent?
One tactic is subterfuge. As glasses are being refilled for the umpteenth time, put yours under the table and tip the drink over or into something, be it napkin, dog or floor. Everyone else will be too trolleyed to notice. On the Tajik-Afghan border I once filled my boots with spirits during a vodka terrorism attack at dinner by the friendly Tajik secret police.
Lie or line your stomach
If you are forewarned and desperate, you could also try the method of a senior KGB officer I once knew, who claimed he would swallow lard before boozy meetings with crucial contacts, because the fat would line his stomach, prevent absorption of alcohol and keep him sharp and focused.
When it comes to over-feasting, you need to realise, as I eventually did, that your plate is only being refilled because you keep emptying it. I now make a show of pushing a quarter-full plate away, then loudly proclaim the superiority of my hosts' hospitality, to their enormous delight.
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But my favourite technique in most of these situations is to lie. Say your religion/ancestors/mother forbids over-eating or drinking. If you start boozing but then want to stop, lie some more - claim, for example, that you have an unspecified medical problem.
When Soviet attackers tell me that, in their culture, an opened bottle cannot be left until fully drunk, I nod sagely and then tell them that in my culture the bottle must be left half-full so I can take it to greet new friends. Say it with conviction, say it with pride. It really does work.
Author and TV presenter Simon Reeve has visited more than 100 countries and has circled the world three times for the BBC TV series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. He is currently travelling around the Indian Ocean for a major new BBC series.
Read more reflections on travel from Simon Reeve
If you lack the constitution of a Siberian miner, find a ruse to avoid excessive alcoholic hospitality
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