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.
"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.
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.