That Time I Got Sober (& Why I Relapsed)

Five years ago I quit drinking, a decision that coincided with a trip to Japan. My travel companion was an avid member of NA and AA so we enjoyed our sushi without beer, attended alcohol-free concerts and went to bed early. Quitting drinking was more of an experiment (lasting precisely a year). I liked being sober, my lucidity and productivity unsurpassed. Still, while sobriety brought clarity, it also invoked the sense of isolation and boredom.  I remember this well, and also, why I started drinking again.

Drinking culture has been an asset in travel, when so much of experience depends on meeting people where they are at.  Alcohol is a ubiquitous and easy social lubricant, giving a structure to new interactions, minimizing awkward conversations, and providing the necessary inhibition to bond in a short period of time. Culturally, though customs may vary, the act of drinking is practically universal and lends to a kind of collective perception—even if that means stumbling, stupidity, or morning regrets.

In Turkey, you will see men and men linking arms, singing and swaying down the cobble streets; in Vietnam, the outdoor bars are packed and teeming; the pubs in London swarm with business men and hipsters, bankers who loosen their ties to release tension at happy hour (there is a reason it is called happy hour). Even in an Islamic country, I am told by a friendly Muslim, “Everyday we say five prayers, and you will hear this call, but after the last prayer, it is time to party.”

I think it was Anthropology 101, when I was instructed by a professor, “If you are ever in a foreign country, with foreign people, or in another’s home, never refuse food or drink. The act of taking what is given to you, is an indication of acceptance and gratitude.”  This is why I had to drink snake whiskey on a 24-hour ride from Nha Trang to Hanoi in a car with eight Vietnamese men.

I had the bottom cot of a triple level bunk, a room (housing six) in the small train car. Unlike other trains I have been on, this train did not have a spare bar car, there were no common rooms for seating and barely any space to wander, except the narrow passage to the bathroom, which was crowded with smokers and crying children. The only real place to settle was on the beds, so it is customary for all six passengers of a room to share the bottom bunks, lined up in a seated position. Insert image: Me, in a narrow room, sitting against the edge of a bottom bunk next to two teenage girls. Facing us, was a drunken older man, an all but mute, teenage boy, and an overly-friendly, smiling guy about 25 years old. Everyone was Vietnamese. People are less conscious of personal space in Asia and I was forced to acclimate quickly.

There was nowhere to buy food on the train, except for the small cart that passed through about every hour, selling rice and sundry items, including candies, beer, water, etc. The smiling man  bought a package of Keo Me Xung (Vietnamese nougat candy with peanuts and sesame seeds) and distributed them to each of the passengers in our car. I nodded my head, said “thank you,” and tried to communicate, though no one spoke English, except a very few words. At one point, I extracted my Vietnamese-English travel dictionary from my backpack, and as a group, we tried to practice, having only the written translations to help with our skewed pronunciations.

Incidentally, there is a section in the travel guide focused on sexual encounters so you can say things like, “Do you want me? Do you find me sexy? Have you been tested? Touch me here.” I am imagining some foreign white guy, fumbling through the book as he tries desperately to communicate with his Vietnamese conquest. Really, if you are resorting to this section, you should consider your other, more pressing issues.

After a few hours, it was getting dark and I decided to buy a beer from the cart lady. Everyone in the car smiled, implying the familiarity that alcohol inspires. I learned that the boy who brought the candy wasn’t even sleeping in our room, but in the room next door, one I had passed several times throughout the day. He asked me if I want to join their party for snake whiskey and Vietnamese wine. Being bored, and sort of curious about what these eight men were doing in there all afternoon, I followed him.

They were already drunk and lit up at the prospect of a newcomer. One of the men spoke English and everything started off innocently: “Where are you from?” (pours a  glass), “Do you have a boyfriend?” (refill), “Do you like Vietnam?” (top off), “Do you want some rice?” (brimming over). It got messy after I had about four glasses. There was dancing, personal questions and picture taking. I think they thought it was funny having a drunk American girl in the room, and despite the potentially dangerous situation, I couldn’t bear to leave such strangeness, even when I learned that the two older men were involved in some kind of organized crime. I didn’t ask for details.

The problem with drinking and traveling is two-fold: 1) It makes the confusion of being intoxicated even worse when you don’t speak the language and/or wake up in a foreign place, 2) Defenses are down and if you are traveling alone, you become a very easy target.

I woke up in the morning on a lower bunk, bedraggled, confused, and for the first time on my trip, scared that I had been robbed, or worse. A few of the men were standing in a circle around me, giving me directives, which I was able to interpret as, “Get off the train, we’re here, this is your stop…” etc. I look around and rub my eyes and start looking for my bags. At the foot of my bed, the men have already collected what looks like most of my things. As I am putting on my jacket, I realize that my laptop is missing. I look around at each of the men, sort of pleadingly, “Where is my laptop?  You stole my laptop? Someone stole my laptop.”

One of the train attendants entered to sort out the confusion and began ushering the men out the door. I was having a minor freak out, which conceivably looked ridiculous, considering it was clear we had been drinking most of the night.

I was in a panic, throwing sheets, looking under the beds, and making a generally embarrassing scene when the man, who had initially escorted me into the Snake Whiskey Room came running in with my laptop, also patting me on the shoulder as if to say, 1) Chill out, its fine, and, 2) Please stop accusing me of theft.

Turned out, it wasn’t stolen…I just drank too much and forgot where it was. In the end, the men were kind, making sure that I found a cab and instructed the driver to my hotel at around 4 in the morning. This situation could have been a lot worse. Not that I like real trouble, but I do like trouble, and drinking snake whiskey, eating raw shrimp with the locals seemed like a mandatory (and justified) Vietnamese experience.

In Turkish, the “hair of the dog” equivalent is, “Çivi çiviyi söker,” which translates into “a nail dislodges a nail.” I think the idea is that if you have a nail stuck, you need to hit another one into get it out. I like that this saying applies not only to drinking and hangovers but to ex’s and getting over relationships. Need to get over a relationship? Have another. Recently I was thinking that hair of the dog should apply to other things: namely, pizza and threesomes.

I didn’t intentionally get on the boat to Halong Bay to have a three-day binger. In fact, it was the opposite. My room in Hanoi didn’t have a screen or a glass window so in addition to it being below freezing on some nights, I had to listen to the sounds of stray cat coitus and the commie-communal wake-up song at 5 am. I hadn’t slept in days and thought that the retreat would provide some respite, escape from the city commotion, and sleep. I really wanted to sleep.

Getting to Halong Bay involved a three and a half hour bus ride from Hanoi that left way too early in the morning. Everyone on the bus was bleary eyed and a bit irritated by the dilapidated state of the Vietnamese highways and absurdly bumpy ride. On the tour, there were two American girls in business school at NYU, a German couple, some newly wedded Norwegians, an older Italian couple, an American couple who were living in Hong Kong, and an Asian woman who I assumed didn’t speak English. On the bus ride, she sat next to me, propped up her boots and kept her eyes closed.

When we got to the dock, the Asian woman and I both wandered to find the bathroom stalls, where they were charging an entrance fee. She just walked in while I was digging for change in my purse. When we left she said in a thick British accent, “I can’t believe you just paid to use the loo. If they asked me to pay I just tell them to bugger off.” In the next breath she says, “Yeah, I was sitting next to you on the bus, I knew you thought I didn’t speak English, but sometimes I just don’t even want to bother so I keep my mouth shut and everyone thinks I’m native.”

We followed the guide through the port and onto what was effectively a dingy boat to take us out to the ship. Jiao’s parents are from China, but run a successful product distribution company in London. I also got the feeling that they have a lot of money when she told me that she owns her apartment building in Chelsea. More importantly, I felt like I found a kindred spirit when she ordered a bottle of wine at lunch: “Well, I lived in Italy, and it’s just a habit to drink a glass with meals.” We split the bottle, then order another, and around 4 o’clock, another. When everyone climbed off the boat to go to the fishing village, we hung back, talked about travel, turning 30, our ex’s and exploits.

Later in the evening we were joined by a few others from the tour group. When our little party drank up the wine from the boat, we hailed the young girls who sold wine from their fishing rafts. The next evening, we were sharing wine with the captain and crew, brought together by our disregard. This went on for three days, Jiao and I sitting out on deck, our boots propped up and wine glasses in hand.

When I arrived in London, I took the train from Stansted Airport to meet a friend at a pub called “The Enterprise” in Camden. Having arrived several hours before my ETA, I decided to park myself at the bar, weighed down by the long flight, several connecting train rides and a lifestyle worth of bags. At merely 3:30, the old, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” line kicked in and I ordered a pint (I was in London, after all).

During the first round, I finished my book, read London’s version of The New York Post (The Sun) cover to cover, and then started sinking into restlessness (I still had 3 hours to go). There were only four of us in the pub: a financial district type man wearing a sweater vest and very pointy  shoes, a homeless looking woman who may or may not have pissed her pants, an old drunk man carrying a large suitcase carrying god knows what, and the bartender, a pudgy, and dour woman with a thick accent who refused to let me use the phone, “Well it’s not fo customahs, yeh?”

When the business man exited the bathroom, he passed my table and said, like a charming Hugh Grant, “You may be having a perfectly good time here by yourself, but if you want to have a chat you should join me.” I apologized, explained the bag  guarding situation and he kindly schlepped my things across the bar to his table.

Chivalry is not dead.

In the next couple hours, I learned that he looks much older than he is (25), he likes classical music (only when stone sober), and that his teeth are much straighter from across the bar (this is no ones fault). He comforted me for three hours (and four pints) while we waited for my friend, who I feared was never going to show. I told him to go on if he wanted, but at the end of each round, we decided to have another: alcohol, again, saves the day, staving off the tension of feeling foreign and alone.

There are some people in the world, who refrain from the first round, let alone the last round, or last five rounds. They get up early and read the paper. They go running and do crossword puzzles. These are the people with the kind of self-control that can inspire envy. They exist in the world to remind us to brush our teeth, perform charitable acts, and make sure the car is washed once a week. In their homes, there is never an overflow of trash, carbohydrates are reserved for the weekends, and showers are taken promptly after an alarm goes off. They follow the tour schedule.

I am not one of these people.

One day in Istanbul, I woke up at three in the afternoon wearing my roommate’s red kimono. We ordered pizza for breakfast and then decided it would be a good idea to hit the hair of the dog at a moustache party in Taksim, then, another party the next night.

There is always something. There was the twelve hour dance party in Melbourne, the late night swimming and mojitos in Bali, sipping Prosecco on the shores of Greek isles, the rooftop party next to the Acropolis, drinking cheap beer with an old Canadian man on the ferry, all night poolside, beer on ice  in Thailand, and whiskey with the captain in Vietnam. Despite language, age, culture, and continental divide, even under the influence, we still are able to find each other.

Our decisions are not always great, but we know who we are.

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