We arrived breathlessly at the Vedado home, a stately stone structure with a newly refurbished interior, ready to learn the secrets of Cuban cuisine. My new husband and I were famished in the way that happens when you travel, lost in time and space, not realizing we were hungry until the situation felt dire. We pulled up to the table, lovingly set with custom flatware and bejeweled napkin rings, ready to chop and dice our way into full. But first, Mojito time!
I should’ve known.
Alcohol as Social Lubricant
From my very first international trip—a self-funded excursion to France at 15—drinking had always been a big part of traveling. At bars it was easier to meet people, I often said. Was it really a big deal if that occasionally involved throwing up on them?
I continued to believe that alcohol was critical to my so-called social life, even if, toward the end of my addiction, said life mostly involved knowing where Columbus’ most private bathroom stalls were located. Yet, I worried. Besides travel, I couldn’t imagine how I’d date/make friends/comport myself at fundraisers if I wasn’t able to drink, completely overlooking how the trajectory I was on did not include indoor plumbing.
When at last I did quit drinking and using, and the time to travel actually came, I wasn’t so worried. By then, I had the shelter of a husband who liked to drink. One look at us and it was clear somebody needed to stay sober. I didn’t realize the pressure this relieved.
Until our marriage ended.
Escape to Borneo
That first summer as a divorcee, I was desperate to escape my life, at least for the duration allowed by my accrued vacation time. I wasn’t a fan of group travel, but then I found something called, “The Extreme Headhunters Tour.” Those days I wanted nothing more than to see some heads roll, and though I knew I wasn’t going to get to do any actual beheading myself, the idea that I would learn about others who had was intriguing. Better still, the excursion was billed as physically challenging, while also offering the rare opportunity to sleep overnight at a headhunters’ longhouse. I would meet real Borneans, and other travelers (i.e., men) with the physical stamina and means to book such a tour.
I signed on, only to realize the group was largely comprised of retired female librarians. That was the least of my concerns, however, once happy hour hit.
Our night with the headhunters consisted of playing a little game. I’m sure there was some food, but what I remember was the drinking. The evening’s entertainment was built entirely around tuak, a kind of coconut liqueur that’s popular in Borneo. The game went something like this: buy one for you, then buy one for me. The crowd was visibly disappointed that I didn’t drink, especially since the librarians were in bed. It was so uncomfortable—and then there was the whole divorce situation—that I briefly considered putting us all out of our misery and throwing back some tuak, but I was lucid enough to know I might not make it out of Borneo if I did.
“You’re on Vacation, Live a Little!”
Having traveled the world sober and not sober, I’ve learned that I take my addiction with me everywhere, whether I’m indulging it or not. So it would be an outright lie to claim that those Mojitos in Cuba held zero interest. The glasses had been chilled, crushed ice and fresh mint were on hand, and some beautiful amber liquid awaited my pour. Worse yet, the alternatives were Fresca sweetened with extra sugar and lime juice, or tap water. In my daily life, I pass on sugary drinks like soda. Begrudgingly, I took the water.
I refuse to let fear keep me from traveling. Getting sober isn’t an event, it’s for the long haul, so I have to be able to do the things I love, such as meeting people whose lives are nothing like mine and coming together with them in an everyday way, like over a meal.
The good news is: with some preparation, it’s increasingly possible to avoid these triggering episodes altogether…
But…how? Find out about managing your ego and more in the original article Traveling While Sober: Will I Still Have Fun? at The Fix.