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Traveling In Style : The Mangled Martini, And Other Safari Scandals

March 20, 1988|AL MARTINEZ | Martinez is a Los Angeles Times San Fernando Valley columnist

It was when I learned that the Kikuyu bartender had put sweet vermouth instead of dry vermouth into my martini that I decided what American tourism needed was a realistic compendium of survival equipment necessary for a civilized African safari. To begin with, bring your own vermouth.

I was seated on a canvas chair in Meru National Park, across the river from a family of baboons that were screaming and flashing their red behinds at me, when the sweetness of the mixture struck my taste buds.

I can accept many discomforts during the cocktail hour, including but not limited to baboons that scream and flash their crimson posteriors, because they aren't too different, in that respect, from people in singles bars and girlie shows.

But a sweet martini is true obscenity, and I decided then and there that something ought to be done about the fringe problem of social survival in Africa.

It was our first night in Kenya. We had taken a long and tedious flight to Africa by way of Amsterdam and then had vibrated over miles of rippled roads in an ancient Land Rover to reach our camp, and I was in no mood for anything sweet.

"When do we hit the main highway?" I recall shouting to our driver as I bounced through the open roof of the vehicle. It happened every time we hit a rut, which was often. Rut-bounce, rut-bounce, rut-bounce. I felt like something out of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, bobbing down the road and over the horizon.

"This is the main highway," the driver shouted back, grinning and twisting the wheel sharply to avoid what looked like the Olduvai Gorge. "Wait'll we get on the riverbed; then you'll see something."

He said it proudly, as though a test of manhood were involved. No wonder Hemingway loved Africa.

"I never thought I'd miss the Hollywood Freeway," I said to my wife, who somehow never seemed to be jostled.

"Try not to be tense," she said.

By the time we reached Patrick's Camp, our destination in Meru, my already-strained good nature had dissolved to the temperament of a water buffalo, one of which, I learned later, had killed a travel agent the day before our arrival. My mood exactly.

I was in a little better frame of mind after a hot shower and even managed a twisted smile when a martini was placed in my hand, despite the screaming and red-mooning of the wild baboons.

But then I tasted the martini. To expect a dry martini and get a sweet martini is a shock to the human system not unlike kidney failure or a bullet in the brain. It is accompanied by severe nausea, a sudden drop in blood pressure and an overwhelming sense of betrayal.

"What the hell!" I exclaimed, when the synaptic connection was made. "They've poisoned me!"

"What're you talking about?" my wife asked.

"They've given me a strawberry martini."

I took my complaint to the African who had mixed the drinks. As far as I know, there is no Swahili equivalent of the phrase dry martini, but my Berlitz guide book did offer a sentence indicating I didn't like sweet things.

"Sitaki kitu chochote kilicho kitamu mno ," I said.

He looked at me suspiciously.

"Maybe I pronounced the words wrong," I said to my wife.

"Careful," she whispered, "you may be promising to steal his sister."

I began again, only this time louder. It is well known that shouting helps foreigners understand what's being said: "SITAKI KITU CHOC. . ."

"Don't yell, mister," he said in English. "What is it you want?" His speech was impeccable.

I explained that a martini ought not to be sweet. He replied that sweet vermouth was all he had. No one had told him specifically what kind of vermouth to buy. But since Americans ate so much ice cream, he assumed sweet vermouth would be the obvious preference.

I willingly admit that the absence of dry vermouth should not be counted among the world's more serious discomforts, but it did lead me to consider composing a list of essentials not usually mentioned by organizations that arrange tours to Africa.

Not once, for instance, did anyone at Born Free Safaris even hint at the possibility that someone might try preparing a dry martini with sweet vermouth.

The most I got from Born Free, as I recall, was passing mention that part of the fun of traveling in Africa was the unexpected. I took that to mean rhinos might skewer a tour guide, not that African bartenders wouldn't know a martini from cherries jubilee.

There is also the problem of cigars. I do not smoke cigars regularly anymore, due to a worldwide Pavlovian response of coughing and hand-waving whenever anyone lights up.

Every once in awhile, however, I feel like relaxing with a nice panatela. But not only did I fail to find a cigar anywhere in either Kenya or Tanzania, but I also even had difficulty communicating what a cigar was. Not everyone spoke English as well as my Kikuyu friend.

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