On Traveling Sober

01/27/2017 07:29 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2017
Sunset over San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
J Hansen
Sunset over San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Many people book their vacations with Mai tais and margaritas in mind. Others relish the thought of late night carousing, bar-hopping, or all-night clubbing while away from their job and their daily life stressors. While it is true that most vacations are meant to be stress-relieving, it is difficult for some to imagine this without the help of alcoholic beverages. People have straight up asked me, how could I “bachata” into the wee hours of the night in Cuba, yet not drink their rum? I experienced Pura Vida on the beaches, volcanoes, and mountains in Costa Rica without a drop of alcohol or drugs in my system. Booze-free travel is possible.

Travelers are usually on holiday or traveling for extended periods of time and are not on a regular schedule. So, I am asked, why wouldn’t I want to drink and celebrate during my holiday? I understand the confused looks I receive. The thing is, I was that person over 20 years ago, stumbling and bumbling through Europe and the UK and boozing it up everywhere I went. Drugs, all night parties, and blackouts happened constantly while I traveled around foreign countries back then. In London, I blacked out and lost my passport and wallet. In Munich, I awoke in a giant circus tent hostel with some new friends. An officer and I got into an unfriendly disagreement in Prague that almost led to a jail stay. And Amsterdam, oh Amsterdam, oh how I lost my mind. I finally managed to leave there days after my intended departure. A fierce and banging hangover led to a rash decision to work on a farm in England with some South Africans I had just met. There were a lot of hangovers and moments when I needed booze more than I cared about experiencing life in these new places. Fortunately for me, I made it out unscathed.

I have been sober several years and have traveled a good number of those years. My first sober trip was to attend the wedding of a friend in France, at the time only one month sober. The traditional French wedding took place on the Ile d’Oleron and involved three days of reverie including the wedding night. Not one person at the wedding could understand why I could not indulge in a glass of fine French wine or bubbly. No liquid courage for those moments of anxiety, no crying in my beer over frustrations; I experienced a completely new way of travel on that trip. Initially, it scared the crap out of me, but since then I have put together tools of coping methods to keep on the water wagon whilst on the road. Starting in 2005, I have taken summers to make my way through Central America, one country at a time. The trips I take are usually solo, sometimes to smaller, remote places, and for a few weeks at time.

There are certain things I do to keep myself sane, safe and sober. One of the first things is, I “out” myself as a recovered alcoholic to other travelers whenever possible. By stating that I do not drink or do drugs, I feel like it takes the pressure off people asking me to have a drink. However, many times people forget or they just don’t get it. Hostels are a wonderful and cheap way for solo humans to travel and meet others. However, many times, there is a crowd of partiers at these places and it can be difficult to establish my non-drinking status.

Another method to staying sober while traveling is finding others like me. I look up support meetings before I visit a new place and see if I can make at least one while traveling through that country. If emails are listed, I email ahead of time and try to make contact with a real live human. Although recovery meetings aren’t for everyone, they work for me and I enjoy finding community in far flung places away from my homeland. It is also really interesting to see how things are done in different countries.

I bring my morning inspirational readings, because I do these at home. Consistency can be very stabilizing on the road. Each morning, I luxuriate over coffee and mindful literature. If possible, I squeeze in meditation time before I venture out exploring the new glorious day.

Even though I try to disconnect from the interweb and its distractions while I wander the Earth, I do try to stay in contact with at least one person, usually my sister. I send her updates every few days or weekly (depending on how remote the country is) on my mental state and what I am doing. This also keeps me accountable and connected to my life back home, so that I don’t all of a sudden think, “what happens in Vegas…”

Additionally, I try to follow basic travelers’ rules and not put myself in dangerous situations, like going to a bar alone. I do go to restaurants, clubs, and bars while I travel, usually with other humans I have met along the way. When I do go to a bar or club, I immediately buy myself a juice or club soda so that others do not buy me drinks.

Waking up clear-headed and knowing where I slept is extremely satisfying to me. Rising with the sun, rather than the moon, enables me to really get to know a place that I am visiting. Being coherent allows me a much safer journey than my previous way of traveling. Sober travel allows me to recall sunsets over Volcan Masaya in Nicaragua, Green Turtles laying eggs in Costa Rica, swimming on Starfish Beach in Panama, and participating in a Mayan planting ceremony in Guatemala. The absence of a hangover allows me to savor museum exhibits rather than rush through so I can find my next cocktail. Not always needing to find a toilet is a plus, too. Certainly, traveling sober is a heck of lot cheaper than when I was a boozehound.

Travel has always been freeing for me. Being on the road allows me to disconnect from electronics, frees me daily stressors and work responsibilities. There is no pressure to respond to a text or return phone calls. Travel enriches my life, by forcing me to engage in face to face conversations with people I would not normally meet. Alcohol can unite many people, especially strangers. But I have found that I meet, remember, and enjoy company better now that I’m sober, and that is a freeing feeling.

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