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The eye of the beerholder: David Whitley

The collection of cheap, tacky souvenirs buried at the back of the wardrobe really should be consigned to the bin, but the memories always mean they stay

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The foam beer holder had a photograph of a gurning couple printed on the side of it. I didn’t recognise the couple and, frankly, I’d no idea what this boozy shrine to them was doing in my spare room. Mentally, I could only file it in the category of bizarre, unexpected souvenirs I’ve somehow dragged home with me over the years.

But I could vaguely remember haggling for the clearly fake Guatemala football shirt. I know the bottle of hot sauce that stood untouched in the cupboard for three years was a somewhat foisted gift from a convivial Rastafarian chap in Grenada. And the Scatman John CD was a product of both boredom waiting for a train and having euros to blow in Avignon.

Homes across the globe are full of such tat, utterly useless and generally buried at the back of a wardrobe. They really should get the heave-ho in a spring clean, but sentimentality ensures they stay buried under Christmas decorations and clothes that don’t fit any more. They aren’t just items — they’re memories.

The beer holder, however, had no memories attached. But I couldn’t throw it out until I’d remembered who the couple were. The eureka moment came, fittingly, over a rum-soaked discussion of Bond films. The conversation turned to GoldenEye, and the fight scene at the end on top of a big radio telescope dish. That’s the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, I blathered, and ohhhhh… Puerto Rico.

Vague, patchy memories started coming back. I’d gone into Old San Juan — one of the most charming places on Earth — in the morning. It was my first full day there, and I’d fully assumed jetlag would kick in to make 9pm sleepytime inevitable. It’d just be an early dinner, a drink and then the bus back to the hotel.

That I woke up at said hotel at 10am the next morning, fully clothed, with shoes still on and without even the vaguest attempt having been made to get into bed, had always been a mystery up there with the popularity of Hard Rock Cafes.

But the beer holder proved the key to unlocking hazy recollections. A divey rum bar, graffiti all over the walls, with measures served over ice cubes in plastic cups. A random selection of oddballs to talk to on the barstools. A honeymooning couple from Chicago, as roaring drunk as I was, who were handing out spare beer holders they’d had made as wedding reception gifts. A lot of bad singing.

I suspect I’m in rather a lot of their honeymoon photos. And I suspect they can’t remember who I am. The inexplicable souvenir wasn’t just a memory trigger, however — it was a valuable life lesson about the perils of alcohol. Or, more precisely, the right time to indulge in the perils of alcohol.

The worst nightlife advice you can follow is something along the lines of ‘don’t even bother going out until 11pm — that’s when it starts to get busy’. No great night has ever started at 11pm. The rule of crowds comes into play — the more people there are, the harder it is to get chatting to any one of them.

If you want to talk to people, you need to seek out the ones who are out way before it gets busy. The people who go out for a quick drink after work and are too weak-willed to go home when the next round appears are the golden ticket to entertainment. Happy hours aren’t just happy because of the cheaper drinks — they encourage people who stopped by for a sneaky afternoon drink to keep going. Those who haven’t gone home to get changed are always the ones with the best stories.

That applies across the board — from outrageously indiscreet Congress staffers hitting the pubs of Washington DC’s Capitol Hill to rural rum shop bar-proppers in the Caribbean. The most enjoyable nights start in daylight, then career recklessly along the bumpy roads of whim, impaired decision-making and chance encounter.

And if that leads to the happiest memories being things you can’t actually remember, so be it. A rifle through those unloved souvenirs in the back of that wardrobe, however, may bring back the crucial missing episodes.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)