A Deadly Encounter – My Personal Story, How Poison Alcohol almost Killed Me
A Canadian backpacker shares her personal story of an encounter with poison alcohol in Indonesia. Unknown to most poisonous cocktails are common and widespread in the vacation mecca of Indonesia. Injury and death are caused by methanol-laced alcohol.
February 1, 2019
By Ashley King
Kuta, nestled on Bali’s coast, is a vortex of sights, culture and parties. It’s where my friends and I celebrated the last night of the Indonesian leg of my year abroad. It’s also where I was poisoned.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in August 2011, and the party district of Kuta is as lively as can be. Backpackers, Aussie tourists, and Bali locals fill the streets, a majority either sipping on the Country’s local beer, Bintang, or a spirit of their choice.
A 20-minute cab ride away from the Denpasar International Airport, and you’re in the heart of it all. Streets flutter with welcoming chaos as vehicles roll inch by inch and traffic congests the narrow roads. Motorcyclists, weaving their own lanes of traffic, wiz past offering transport to people passing by for just a few Rupiah.
Although a picturesque travel destination, Indonesia has its dark side.
We head to an ironically popular nightclub, The Bounty, also known for the tragic 2001 Bali Bombings. However, a continuous stream of intoxicated partygoers’ stumble in and out of its doors, indicating anything but dismay for the hotspot.
But terrorism isn’t what makes this bar dangerous. As a tourist hub with an underlying poverty and corruption problem, it’s the perfect environment to produce a silent killer to fly under the radar and plague the archipelago.
We spend the rest of the night here, carelessly dancing as we all indulge in the mixed cocktails on special – an unremarkable, lack-luster tropical punch line turned into a cheesy cocktail name I can’t recall. It’s a mixture of tropical fruit juices and various hard liquors served in plastic water bottle-like glasses, perfect for spill-free dancing.
You wouldn’t know the sloshing cups held something more sinister, a direct result of hospitality operators’ attempting to save a few bucks.
Amidst the tourists and locals heading to bars and restaurants for social gatherings, a few unlucky patrons are unknowingly served poisonous cocktails with fatal outcomes.
I became a victim of the cocktail roulette. Although a night no different from any other, my life was about to take a drastic turn. I unknowingly consumed a poisonous cocktail made of methanol-laced spirit, a harmful chemical found in tainted, home-brewed alcohol. The drink put me in critical condition where I found myself fighting for my life, and then, left blind in both eyes.
Among the developed countries of the world, methanol can be found in windshield wiper fluid, paint thinner, or antifreeze. But in many developing countries, methanol is increasingly being found in home-brewed alcohol.
While the process of home brewing isn’t dangerous, the harmful byproducts produced within the initial stages of distillation are a concern. While it’s standard to remove these byproducts, instead to speed up on production time and create a higher volume of alcohol, underground distillers are skimping on this crucial step.
Consuming the tasteless and odorless chemical can cause irreversible damage, as little as 10 ml can result in blindness, organ failure or brain damage. While only 30 ml – about the amount of a shot – can cause death.
With the backyard distilleries among the Indonesian black-market overruling in a country facing high import taxes and a widespread poverty rate, the problem continues to grow. The tainted liquor can be unknowingly purchased at liquor stores throughout the country, but it’s become most common among bars, restaurants, and hotels, many either refilling bottles with the tainted liquor or serving the country’s homemade rice wine, Arak.
The most recent numbers show there has been a dramatic increase in alcohol poisoning from methanol in the country – a 226 percent rise between 2013 to 2016 compared to figures from 2008 to 2012. According to a report by the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) 487 people died from illegal alcohol poisoning.
It’s been happening for decades, but only just recently has it been gaining public attention. Several international bodies have all warned that in recent years some deaths and cases of serious illness among tourists visiting Indonesia have been caused by drinking local spirits, such as arak, spiked with methanol.
As methanol continues to plague the countries hospitality sector, restaurants, it’s relatively unheard of by tourists. Consuming alcohol in Indonesia comes with high risks.
Seven years ago, at the time of my visit, information on illegal brewing hadn’t yet surfaced leaving me at the mercy of corrupt establishments.
Looking through my static-skewed vision, I’m constantly reminded of that ill-fated night, but I’ve learned to turn this experience into an opportunity to advocate for awareness.
While my story might seem unique, it’s a narrative any traveler could find themselves in.
Ashley King is a freelance journalist based in Calgary, Canada. As she continues to travel the world, she uses her own experience as a platform to help improve awareness surrounding methanol poisoning in Indonesia. To connect with Ashley or to browse her other works, you can find her on Twitter @ashleykingmedia, on Instagram @ashkng, or on her online portfolio at www.ashleykingportfolio.com