Having really built yourself up to take a shot of a blood-coloured, viscous tipple, the last thing you want to hear later on is that it may have contained grated tortoiseshell, which some people in Dominican Republic like to use as an ingredient in mamajuana, this local tipple.
My Spanish is non-existent save for gracias and so I had my first sampling of mamajuana (note that second “m”, not an “r”; this was not an illegal substance people) without the benefit of actually knowing what was in it, knocking it back as I did at a ramshackle but atmospheric place called Babanuco’s, near Cabrera on the north coast of the island.
When the owner of Babanuco’s poured it, there was a glint in his eye as he waited to see what we thought of his home-brew – herbs, port, honey and rum were what we could make out from the ingredients he reeled off in Spanish. But none of us knew the Spanish for tortoiseshell – so if he did mention it, we’d never have known. Having laughed a lot after the shots and still blissfully ignorant, the next night at Amanera – Aman’s new 25-casita resort – we were going in for another shot. But this time, it came with an explanation in English, as we were told about some of the other things locals like to put into their mix – including another part of a tortoise I’d rather not mention… Thankfully – Amanera’s own blend is animal-free and they assured me it was highly likely Babanuco’s mixture was too.
Both my mamajuana-fuelled nights were equally as fun. And mixing stays in rarefied luxury hotels with a night in a little local bar in this way is exactly what we hear affluent travellers are looking for these days; Josef Forstmayr, managing director at Round Hill Hotel & Villas in Jamaica, says his clients love a Red Stripe at Pelican Bar, a driftwood shack on a sandbar five miles off the coast.
Sometimes you just find these moments when you’re travelling, when no one quite knows what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re all smiling. And that’s a fairly universal language few of us need lessons in.