Welcome back to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
I’ve been on and off Koh Tao for years now. A lot changes, but one thing remains the same — my first stop is always Banyan Bar, my life’s own version of Cheers. Upon my most recent return in August, Brian, one of the owners — and one of my dearest friends — paused to introduce me to the new crop of bartenders. “And we have you to thank for this one,” Brian said, gesturing towards a bearded Canadian named Ian Brown. Ian, it turns out, had stumbled upon Brian’s own Earning Abroad interview while researching bartending in Thailand in order to continue his impressive streak of seasonal jobs. He went on to message back and forth with the Banyan boys, who told him to stop in for a drink if he ever passed through Thailand. He did, and now he sits at the other side of the bar. I was super thrilled by this small world story, and excitedly peppered Ian with questions about which other of my posts he had read — the answer was a flattering zero.
When we both participated in October’s inaugural Koh Tao Writer’s Retreat, I asked Ian if he’d be willing to regale us with tales of his sordid summer bartending in the party town of Lagos, Portugal. Lucky for us — though unlucky for anyone who cringes at tales of excess alcohol consumption and general good-time having — he said yes. Over to Ian!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
IB: Lagos is a small town nestled in the South Western coast of Portugal’s Algarve region. It’s notorious for its stunning coastline, vibrant nightlife and for once being considered the “end of the world.” Every summer the village is overrun with raucous backpackers eager to lap up the good times, which makes it a perfect place to obtain short-term employment, especially at a bar or hostel. I did just this, and found myself working at Three Monkeys, a high-energy cocktail bar where I had some of the best nights of my life while meeting what could be some of the best people in the world.
At Three Monkeys, and Lagos for that matter, the only thing resembling routine is the hangover. Typically the bar opens between 1:00PM and 4:00PM, when one staff member sets up and orders stock while reflecting on the previous night’s debauchery. Due to the rowdy nature of the clientele, minor repairs are often necessary. Sometimes this individual is lucky enough to prepare the bar in peace, but more often than not they are subject to booze fiends getting naked and running amuck. At 9:00PM this poor soul is released into the wild and replaced by the four or five bartenders required to manage the evening carnage. At this point, lights go down, music goes up and the next five hours are a blur of rock ‘n’ roll-fueled excess. The toughest part of the night is getting everyone out at 2:00AM and counting the money while staggeringly inebriated.
Due to exorbitant alcohol consumption, I used to dread the afternoon shift because making it there on time would require me to cut-down on my much cherished sleep. Plus, when it’s midnight, the bar is packed and you’re raising glasses with best friends, it’s impossible not to have a good time.
How long did you work there?
Like most people I arrived in May to kick off the season and stayed until then end, which falls around September/October. Trust me when I tell you, that’s about as much as even the strongest livers can handle.
How did you come to work in Lagos? What inspired you to find this job?
The summer prior, I spent one week in Lagos, basking in self indulgence while nearly meeting my maker through alcohol. I stumbled out with red eyes, trembling hands and an aching liver, vowing never to return. I’ve decisively concluded this was the worst I’d ever felt in my life.
When I returned home six months later with ambitious intentions of rejoining the civilized world, I quickly realised it was impossible. I began to examine my time in Lagos through the rose coloured lens of hindsight and found myself focusing less on the suicidal come-down and more on the postcard beaches, whitewashed cobblestone streets and the close-knit community of seasonaires. By that point, the decision was made for me and I tossed a one-way ticket on my credit card as fast as my wi-fi connection would permit.
Once in Lagos, I spent every night drinking at Three Monkeys, so it only made sense to seek employment there. After a quick chat with the owner, I was instructed to return the following afternoon for a formal “interview.” To call this the most entertaining interview of my life would be a drastic understatement. To begin, I was instructed to make the majority of the cocktails on the menu, consume them in a timely fashion and spend the next hour chatting about music. That night, I was given a “trial shift” to see if I was capable of performing the necessary tasks while navigating the sea of aggressive alcohol consumption. Five hours and a million shots later, I found myself with a new job and a family of close-knit staff members.
How did your family and friend react to your initial departure?
I felt like I was on trial at Nuremburg. My mother spent days crying and the only other time I’ve seen my father so upset was when I polished off the last of the leftover lasagne in ’98. In their minds I was throwing away my college education in favour of becoming an alcoholic beach comber, which I suppose wasn’t entirely untrue. But after traveling for a year, the thought of spending forty hours a week doing something I didn’t love was a joke. And since buying a home and car are the last things on my to-do list, I decided to opt for lifestyle over money. As for my friends, some of them understood but the vast majority assumed I had abandoned all hope and chosen the life of a hobo… which again I suppose isn’t entirely untrue. But at least I’m happy.
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
I was making enough to get by, but let’s just say we won’t be seeing Donald Trump behind the bar anytime soon. As bartenders, we would take home 30 euros per night, plus tips. So on a good night, you are walking away with 50 euros. I shared an apartment with four friends, which was interesting to say the least. We had three beds, one inflatable mattress, a sofa and what seemed like a minimum of two house guests every night. The apartment had two balconies, a TV, an inflatable pool and we paid 100 euros each per month. When you do the math, after only two bar shifts you’ve sorted out your accommodation for the month and the rest of your wages can be spent frivolously on contraband. Although, it is worth noting that we managed to dupe our landlord into cheaper rent by convincing her that there were only two of us living in the apartment. Since most of us looked similar (long hair, beards, hollow eyes) we successfully convinced her that the five us were in fact just two people and somehow managed to keep up the gag for the duration of our stay.
Most of my disposable income was spent on eating out since you would be more likely to find someone having sex in our kitchen than preparing anything fit for human consumption. A lot of my friends back home wondered how I could afford to drink so much, but everyone in town is so tight that you know all the bartenders and you therefore rarely pay full price. By the end of the summer I had enough cash poked away to take a trip to Germany and Holland, but generally you can expect to break even.
What kind of legal hoops did you have to jump through?
I, like most others, was visiting Portugal as a tourist and working illegally. To my understanding, getting caught would have meant a hefty fine and deportation. Luckily for me, Portugal is wildly corrupt, so whenever immigration was making its rounds, we would get a phone call and jump to the other side of the bar until the fuzz finished their inspection.
Canadians are only permitted to stay ninety days in the Schengen Area of Countries in Europe without a visa, but after five months I pranced through customs hassle-free. I can’t guarantee this will be the case for everyone, but all my acquaintances have and continue to ignore this rule with no consequences.
What skills do you need for this job?
Thick skin, an understanding of music, a personality and most importantly an iron liver. Even though the bar has a strict “no asshole policy,” a surcharge for bad manners and a reputation for, quite literally, soaking patrons with poor etiquette, you still have to be able to tolerate a loud and very intense working environment.
Three Monkeys became infamous for the “tidal wave shot” that we would deploy with gusto when the time was right. Since Lagos is a backpacker’s hub, many bars compete on price and some tourists are silly enough to approach the bar and try to negotiate free shots. Take my advice and don’t do this. If you do, the bartender will politely ask if you would like a “tidal wave” on the house, to which you will eagerly agree. “Finally a free drink!,” you will think to yourself before getting a pint of ice water to the face and a free escort to the curb side. In fact, this advice applies globally: please never go to a bar and ask for anything free unless you hate yourself and want to be punished.
Three Monkeys is exceptionally busy every night in high season and you have to be able to work VERY FAST, wash glass, DJ, count money and keep the bar stocked while consuming enough booze to pickle your liver. If you’re interested, here is a good test. Down a bottle of Jameson, funnel two or three beers and try and calculate 4.50 x 7 + 2.50 x 5 with your stereo on 10.
What were the best and worst things about bartending in Lagos?
The best thing is, hands down, the people. Lagos is a melting pot of like-minded hedonists who are simply there for a good time. There is something quite raw and visceral about getting vulnerably intoxicated every night with the same people and I honestly feel closer to friends I met there than some that I’ve known my entire life. Plus, living in paradise didn’t hurt either. Hangover or not, something about plunging into the crystal-clear Portuguese water makes everything OK. The hardest part was simply the self destruction. I’ll let you in on a little secret: alcohol isn’t healthy, and when you consume it literally everyday for five months, it hurts… a lot. There was many a morning when a shot of hot lead to the brain seemed like the only way out. Lots of people arrive in Lagos, only to realise they simply cannot handle it and are left with no choice but to saunter away with their tail between their legs. Having said that, if you are up for it, I guarantee you’ll have the best summer of your life.
What would your advice be to someone looking to do the same?
It sounds cliché, but just do it. Don’t worry about trying to sort out a job before you arrive, it will all work out once you get there. Show up in May with a smile on, order a drink and brace yourself.
What do you know about Portugal that a tourist wouldn’t?
To be honest there was a lot more I learned about myself rather than Portugal specifically. Prior to this experience, I had always thought that long-term travel required a strong reserve of cash. When backpacking how many times have you heard the classic, “I’m going home to make some more money and then leave again” story? In Lagos, I learned that this wasn’t the only way. I showed up in Portugal with about $1000, lived decadently for five months, attended a prolific music festival and spent cash quite frivolously yet managed to leave with more than I started with.
As far as Lagos is concerned, there’s a whole other side that I didn’t experience when I was just passing through. You will inevitably befriend the locals, who besides being some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet, will teach you all the offensive slang you could ever require and take you to some pretty under-the-radar events. For example, every two weeks, there is a jam session at this abandoned farmhouse that starts around midnight and goes well into the morning. These nights will make you reevaluate how you define “weird.”
Are there differences between working in Canada and in Portugal?
Without question. At the most fundamental level, my Portuguese job requirements would probably get me locked up in Canada. Believe it or not, the Canadian government doesn’t take kindly to browbeating people to take shots, lighting the bar on fire and drinking on the job. As I previously mentioned, corruption is rampant in Portugal to a degree that I would never see at home.
But the biggest difference was probably that I didn’t have to shovel my driveway to get to work every morning.
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream workforce?
For me it was impossible, so I refused to even try. Since leaving Lagos, I’ve continued to work seasonally, which better suits my needs rather than trying to force myself into a role that would, more than likely, make me miserable.
After leaving Lagos I did a brief stint volunteering at Oktoberfest in Munich before returning to Canada where I moved to Whistler to enjoy a season of snowboarding. For money, I continued bartending and also worked as a zipline tour guide.
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
One day, while suffering through the frigid Canadian winter, I was daydreaming of South East Asia and stumbled across this magical blog called Alex in Wanderland. There was an interview with the owner of an establishment called Banyan Bar in Koh Tao, Thailand. After an entertaining back-and-forth with the owners, I moved to the island, have been here for five months, and don’t see a departure in my imminent future. Life is too great for me to start taking it seriously now.
Thanks for sharing, Ian! Let’s leave him some love in the comments…