The Trials of a Sober Backpacker
(page 2)So I volunteered, talked to locals and invited new friends out to film festivals instead of the pub. And when I made the effort, I found that plenty of other travelers shared my wariness of the party scene. Some avoided it because they were also sober, others for financial reasons, and some simply because, like me, they were seeking an experience that couldn’t be found at the bottom of a bottle. "When I got to South East Asia it wasn't my goal to hang out and drink with people like me," said Lauren, 27, a student from California who unwittingly booked onto a booze cruise along Vietnam's Ahalong Bay. When I spoke to her, she'd just returned from a happy encounter with a group of Lao primary students outside Luang Prabang: "You can go to a bar anywhere in the world. I'm here for what I can't find anywhere else.”
Originally I planned to spend New Year’s Eve at a Full Moon Party. When I discovered that it was really a non-stop bacchanal of house music, body paint and cheap alcohol, I chose to stay in Cambodia, where a chance encounter led to a Khmer punk concert at a fancy hotel.
On a wildlife safari in Eastern Thailand I met Rick, 58, an American with an impressive beard and the serene eyes of the spiritually fit. He occasionally tokes back home in Philadelphia, but resisted the temptation while traveling through India. "This is such a high trip, with a lot of high experiences. I get to see waterfalls and temples and wild dogs; I really don’t need drugs,” he told me. “I was offered marijuana in Kerala, but I heard it’s part of a scam where they sell it to you and then you get arrested and the dealer gets a cut of the fine."
A desire to stay out of trouble and pain is a good reason for any traveler to abstain or moderate. Your money goes further, too. And having a fully-functional frontal lobe has endeared me to plenty of locals who are weary of badly-behaved drunks. Even my persistent Cambodian hosts eventually concluded that I was “a good woman.”
Going out of my way to avoid the party scene has led to some of the best experiences of my trip. When I visited the notorious party town of Vang Vieng, Laos, I volunteered at an organic farm instead of taking part in drunken tubing down the Nam Song. I munched on crickets with my kind Lao hosts, helped build a bamboo fence, and silently thanked the universe every night as I turned my face to the awe-inspiring limestone cliffs nearby, jutting out into the starry sky.
While everyone else at the hostel bar in Phnom Penh was downing shots and listening to imported hip hop, I was taking in a bout of Khmer boxing with a friendly tuk-tuk driver.
When I heard that Sihanoukville was the party spot of the Cambodian Coast, I headed to chilled-out Kep instead—where local families asked me to join them on the seashore and eat fresh-caught crab.
Originally I planned to spend New Year’s Eve at a Full Moon Party, hyped as the quintessential experience for travelers in Thailand. When I discovered that it was really a non-stop bacchanal of house music, body paint and cheap alcohol, I chose to stay in Cambodia instead, where a chance encounter led to a Khmer punk concert at a fancy hotel.
Occasionally I tell people the full truth: that my “spiritual reasons” for not drinking are born of a background of addiction. Nobody has run in the other direction. I’ve found explaining addiction to normies can be as rewarding as talking to another alcoholic. Just as many of the travelers I’ve met have helped to change my stereotype of “backpacker culture,” I may have helped to change their stereotype of alcoholism. Today I am not just a backpacker who doesn’t drink; I’m a sober drunk who travels.
Am I still terrified of relapse? Well, yes. Or maybe terrified is the wrong word; I keep it at the front of my mind. I strive to remember that the reinvention travel brings doesn’t extend to my basic body chemistry. But travel does reinforce some of the greatest gifts of my recovery: acceptance, flexibility, faith in the universe. And when I’m feeling spiritually sick there's usually a quiet temple within walking distance.
Gratitude is easy to practice. I used to be angry that my disease caught me so young, that I could never enjoy another stumble through the alleys of Prague or mushroom trip in Amsterdam. But I suspect that if I hadn't stumbled into sobriety at 25, I wouldn't be alive at 30, much less clear-eyed, content and currently watching monkeys dance along the telephone wires of Pushkar, India.
A few days ago I was sitting in a rooftop restaurant in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan when a member of my tour group offered me what looked like a shortbread cookie. I thanked him and bit into it. The girl next to me started giggling.
"You eat pot cookies, Miss 'I-Don't-Drink'?"
Cue a splutter and a shower of crumbs. Relapse, intentional or accidental, seems like it's always around the corner. But thanks to the Internet, so is support. Meetings happen worldwide, but they’re sometimes few and far between; recovery literature and online meetings help fill the gap. And occasionally, I get to speak to another alcoholic who's also living the dream.
Gordon, 50, an Australian expat, has been sober for 22 years, living in Thailand for the past 10. "All I'd need to screw up my expat life is half a beer," he says. "The AA tools have helped me through a lot of trials by fire, as has an occasional meeting in English. It's surprising how many two-man meetings happen. We are legion!"
Caledonia Dawson is the pseudonym of a freelance writer who is currently on a nine-month trip around Asia and South America. She blogs here. This is her first article for The Fix.