Some names and circumstances have been changed to protect my ass.
Not too many things get your heart beating like downing a half a bottle of Black Label whiskey and being hugged by a killer…
In the bathroom I called my friend who worked for the Sri Lankan government. It was 3 am and yet somehow he answered. “Where are you?”
“Have you ever heard of (name to remain anonymous)?”
“Of course I have. Where are you?”
“I’m in his suite at the (fancy hotel to remain anonymous).”
“What? Get the fuck out of there! I’m coming to get you.”
Whiskey does strange things to people, and after downing a half a bottle the world seemed like a gentle, gummy bear filled place. A night out, or rather in, with a group of gangsters sounded like a great idea. I hung up on my friend with assurances I was OK and headed back to finish the rest of the bottle.
Clubbing in Sri Lanka During the War
I have always had a problem with curiosity, and the chance to drink with a group of gangsters just couldn’t be passed up. I was worldly; I could take care of myself. Who knew the evening would end with me worrying for my life. Well, probably a sober me would have known that. But Whiskey Todd went with the flow and didn’t let anything stand in the way of a good time. After club hopping amongst Colombo’s hip, sweaty, young and extremely wealthy with the gangster’s nephew for the evening, I was ready to head anywhere.
Truth is that I had no idea who I was out with that night. He was a friend of a friend and needed a drinking buddy for the evening. With my wife away for the week on business I stepped up. Nothing good happens when wives are away.
At that time Sri Lanka was still embroiled in its 20 year civil war. The Tamil tigers had control of over a third of the country, and the tropical city of Colombo was packed, corner after corner, with checkpoints. Young soldiers with automatic weapons stopped everyone who approached, hoping one of the frequent bombings didn’t occur at their checkpoint.
We left our last club for the evening with the nephew asking me to join him. “My uncle’s in town and I need to say hello. It’ll just take a few minutes.”
As we approached a check point in his large black Mercedes-Benz ML5500 SUV a soldier waved us over. We were both drunk. “Should I run it? I’m drunk and have an arrest warrant in Slave Island.”
“No, stop.” I was lucky I got it out in time. I was starting to get my first hints of whom I was with. Yes, like I said, a half a bottle of whiskey dulls the brain a bit. “They only care about bombs, and as soldiers they won’t call up your info.” Thankfully he stopped and a few minutes later we were on our way across town.
Into a Gangster’s Room
“Listen, I have a confession. My uncle is a big deal, and not exactly on the right side of the law. Just keep your cool and you’ll be ok.”
I followed him into the enormous roof top suite and into a world one assumes only exists in movies and cheesy crime novels. The Boss, his Lieutenant and the Muscle sat around a coffee table drinking Black Label. South Asians love their Johnny Walker Black Label. The bedroom door was open and a passed out Ukrainian hooker lay sprawled across the bed. (Please don’t read into the fact that I called her a hooker. I’m sure she was a perfectly nice person).
Everyone except for the Muscle was smart and handsome. I sat in the free spot next to the Muscle, who could only be described at thick and slow. I kept quite as the family reunion took its course. Inquires into business, questions about family, affectionate offers. Next it was my turn.
“Do you want a hooker? I can have her call a friend.” The Boss nodded toward the bedroom.
I declined politely.
“Don’t like Russians huh? How about an Asian?
I explained that I was married.
“We can hit the Casino and I’ll get you a Chinese hooker.”
I convinced him I only needed the whiskey.
The Love of a Killer
Suddenly, the Muscle next to me shot straight up and lunged at me, giving me the strongest hug I’ve ever experienced in my life. That is if a hug and being squeezed to death were the same things. The boss jumped and everyone tensed.
“It’s OK.” I gave the Muscle a hug back. “I like you too.”
“Let him go” the Boss said quietly but forcefully.
“It’s OK,” I repeated. Was I trying to convince them or myself? The Muscle squeezed tighter, not wanting to let go. The boss stepped forward and looked the muscle in the eyes. He finally released me, sinking back into the couch in a drunken haze.
“He’s too drunk, and he killed someone the other day.”
Oh…I just realized where the fuck I was and it was time to leave. I sat through offers of being taken to the north to meet the rebel leader, offers of drugs, offers of guns, and more offers of hookers. After what I assumed was a polite amount of time, given the circumstances, I made my way to the door promising to meet them again when they returned to Sri Lanka from their homes in England.
The sun was rising, and the nephew walked me out to catch a cab. Just a friendly tip to anyone who finds himself or herself in a similar situation: When you have made it out of a criminal suite alive, leave it there and don’t pick a fight.
I don’t know how it happened but between the suite and the road the nephew and I ended up in a screaming match. I spent the next week trying to smooth things over behind the scenes before my wife returned. It took 6 months before the nephew and I could be in the same room together, and I could stop worrying about suddenly disappearing.
Eventually things got worked out. But I learned a lot about choosing my drinking partners more carefully, especially during war time.
What is your craziest drinking story while traveling?
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