I’m a Recovering Alcoholic. Any Tips on Dealing with Social Situations While Traveling?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel
03.10.06 | 12:15 AM ET
I’ve enjoyed your writings for some time now and want to set out on my own travels, but I have a “limitation”: I’m a recovering alcoholic with 13 years clean and I was wondering if you could give me any advice concerning dealing with social situations where booze and drugs are part of the culture. I wouldn’t travel with the aim of insulting people, but I also don’t want to go on an intercontinental bender. Any tips?
—Brian, New York
You ask a great question, since travel is by nature a social endeavor, and alcohol is a social lubricant in every part of the world.
It shouldn’t be too hard, however, to have socially rich travels while still staying “dry.” In some places, such as North America, most of your hosts will understand and respect your desire to avoid alcohol. In other places, such as Muslim and Hindu lands, avoiding alcohol is a religious virtue, and tea or coffee is the primary social drink. For this reason South Asia or the Middle East might make great destinations for you (not only to avoid awkward drinking situations, but because these places are culturally rich and famously hospitable).
There are some parts of the world, however—and I’m thinking of East Asia and Eastern Europe in particular—where drinking is such an ingrained part of the culture that it might be difficult to continually turn down alcohol. In these situations, it might be best to just tell them you’re allergic to alcohol.
Admittedly, this will be somewhat of a lie—but it will be very effective, especially if you can improvise a few details such as “dangerously swollen glands” the first time you took communion, for example, or a “near-death experience” at a junior high keg party. Your hosts will click their tongues and commiserate about your “allergy,” but they probably won’t force any drink on you.
One additional thing to consider in these social situations is how comfortable you can remain when everyone else is getting drunk. Can you teetotal when other people are drinking? Can you spend lots of time hanging out in bars or nightclubs without drinking? If not, you might want to avoid drinking situations altogether.
Since alcohol is such a popular diversion among travelers and vagabonders themselves, you might consider traveling with other teetotalers from time to time—or at least keeping in email contact with a sponsor or support community back home. That way you can stay grounded in your decision not to drink (or use drugs), even if everyone around you doesn’t understand your situation.