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 Smoothhills 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.

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. Read More…

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