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The Trials of a Sober Backpacker

Five years into my recovery, I'm on a nine-month trip through Asia and South America. And amid the drunkenness of the backpacking scene, I'm learning to be sober in a different way.

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Relapse and loneliness are not the only options. Backpacker via Shutterstock

By Caledonia Dawson

01/27/13

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"You are a guest in my country and you must drink my country's beer," insisted my pompadoured Cambodian beau as he brandished a can of Anchor Smooth over my glass.

I looked around for help. The few tables decorated with Christmas lights in the courtyard of a private home in the coastal town of Kep were empty, except for me and the two men who had escorted me there. "No thank you, really." Earlier, as we sped along the dark seaside on his motorbike, I’d explained to him that I didn't drink. Ever. He’d said it was ok.

"This is a good night. You are a good person. It would be better, however, if you drank," said his friend, a tuk-tuk driver with equally alarming hair.

"I'm sorry. I'm grateful for your kindness. But I do not drink at all, for spiritual reasons."

In the past two months of travel through Asia, “spiritual reasons” has become my default excuse for turning down drinks. Never mind that my spirituality grew out of addiction, alcoholism, recovery and 12-step work—nobody forced the issue.

One night, far from home, I could easily pick up a bottle of Chang beer and get a long, international relapse started. After all, nobody knows me here.

But the Cambodians were persistent. My date's handsome face creased into a pouty frown. I sipped at my soda and smiled harder. Later that night, I would disappoint him again, but that's another story. This trip—nine months of travel through 11 countries in Southeast Asia, India and South America—was meant to celebrate 30 years of life and five years of recovery. So far my journey has seemed a whole lot like early sobriety: uncomfortable, surprising, nothing I could ever have imagined, and totally worth it.

I’m having the time of my life. I’m terrified of relapse. Back in California, my career, social life and daily routine all revolved around recovery. I thought I was prepared for the challenge of leaving my comfort zone behind; I have a lot of practice recognizing when my disease is speaking to me. What I didn't anticipate his how loudly it would speak through my fellow travelers.

"I hear a lot of people say, nobody knows me here, I can drink all I want,” said Bob from the Netherlands as he nursed a hangover in the hostel bunk above me. Bob, 25, is a lightweight but often gets pressured by other travelers into drinking more than he should. The night before I'd made a narrow escape from a quartet of bawdy New Zealanders, as they swept the hapless Bob into a Lao bowling alley. Southeast Asia is rife with 20-somethings enjoying cut-rate hedonism. Boozy hostel common rooms, marijuana-laced “Happy Shakes” and beach parties where they sell buckets (literally) of grain alcohol are endemic.

One night, far from home, I could easily pick up a bottle of Chang beer and get a long, international relapse started. After all, nobody knows me here. Nobody knows I'm an alcoholic. And I want to fit in.

Memories of a trip to Madrid kindle my anxiety: Traveling by myself back in 2009, I fell in with a group of fun French teenagers who were annoyed by my refusal to drink. They flirted, shimmied and gulped down sangria. I stood by awkwardly. Eventually they forgot my presence and began to speak among themselves in French. Later we got separated in a crowded club and I made my way back to the hostel alone.

The rest of that trip was little better. Everywhere I was greeted by potential friends who were taken aback when I wouldn't join them for a social beer. Many times I went to bed ridiculously early, only to be awakened by carousers in the wee hours. In the morning I would creep around their prostrate bodies, trying not to exacerbate their hangovers as I prepared for a day of solo sightseeing. Never, since the earliest days of my recovery, had I felt so conspicuous and isolated.

So for my first few weeks of this trip, I avoided other travelers. I spent hours online, chatting with my sober friends or my sponsor back in the States. Meetings were hard to find in the tangled streets of Northern Thailand; the fellow alcoholics I met were mostly older expats with Thai wives, and we had little in common. There were plenty of moments when I was grateful for my recovery, but mostly I was lonely.

This couldn't go on. Maybe backpacker culture was naturally boozy, I decided, but there had to be an option other than relapse or solitude. “Backpacker culture is an oxymoron,” quipped one sun-weathered Australian on the slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand to Laos. He cocked an eyebrow at an older, shirtless American clutching a whiskey bottle at the prow. “There are as many different approaches to travel as there are travelers.”

He had a point. I realized that I’d been looking at travel through the lens of my early twenties, when I set off to "find myself" in Eastern Europe. I usually found myself coming out of a blackout on the floor of a hash bar. The company I kept both accelerated and disguised my alcoholism.

Back then I found louts, drunks and loudmouths because I was looking for them. They made me look normal. On this trip, I decided look for a different kind of traveler.

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