Travelling While Sober Is Not Easy

Gillian May

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When I was drinking, I would use alcohol as a way to ease almost every aspect of travel. It was the perfect salve for homesickness, culture shock, and the discomfort that often comes when you’re in a new place.

I also used drinking to help make new friends, feel a false sense of freedom, and have an excuse to sit in a bar and people watch.

Now, as a sober person, I’m looking for new ways to approach the challenges and discomfort of travel. I also want to find ways to enjoy new places without needing to have a drink to make everything more “shiny.”

Travel is not the only situation that challenges our sobriety, but it’s a unique issue that we must address as we navigate new sober terrain.

Having arrived here in Colombia only a week ago, I naturally want to venture out, try things, and meet new people. Almost immediately, we’ve had many offers of a drink as a polite way to welcome us to this new place.

I appreciate these offers and have felt bad about turning them down. After all, drinking is a universal way of meeting and greeting in almost every part of the world. So then, how can we still immerse ourselves in a new culture while maintaining our sobriety?

I’ll admit that much of this will be as new to me as it is to you, but I can share some of my thoughts and techniques that have helped me so far.

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1. How to politely turn down the offer of a drink

As soon as we arrived at our Airbnb, the host generously offered two beers to welcome us. This is always an uncomfortable situation because you don’t want to appear rude — especially when you’re being hosted in someone’s home or rental unit.

Here’s what I think could work really well. First, depending on the language spoken, learn the phrase, “I’m sorry, but I don’t drink any alcohol.”

Fortunately for us, my wife is fluent in Spanish, and I have conversational competency. But, if you don’t know the language at all, it’s worth doing some preparation ahead of time to learn some key phrases in the local language.

There are tons of apps and dictionaries out there that can help you learn phrases and words. I highly recommend doing this before you depart.

Next, instead of flatly turning down the drink and leaving it at that, figure out how to ask for something else instead of the alcohol. This not only shows that you’re accepting the hospitality, but it opens some dialogue that takes things in a new direction.

In our case, we asked, “I would love to try some local fruit juice, though, if you have it?” Or, to make this less complicated, you could simply figure out how to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t drink any alcohol, but do you have juice?”

2. How to navigate new terrain without alcohol being the center of everything

This one is difficult, and I admit that I’m still learning as I go. What I do know is that I will likely not put myself in the position of sitting at a bar or restaurant where alcohol is front and center.

Instead, I’d rather engage in activities like tours, hikes, or photography and art walks. Also, going to coffee or ice cream shops, or sitting in town squares where people are hanging out are often places where alcohol is not the focus.

The beach is a tricky one because who doesn’t love to sit at the beach?! But unfortunately, booze is everywhere in beach situations. For us, we just have to turn down offers of drinks politely. Again, we can ask for local fruit juices, smoothies, or sodas.

Just the other day, we were sitting at the beach when a young man from Venezuela offered us some coco locos. This is a drink I used to love for how quickly and thoroughly it would obliterate me…sigh.

We politely turned it down and instead had a great conversation with him about how he got to Colombia from Venezuela, a country that has been in some recent turmoil. He asked us about learning English, and I talked about my desire to learn more Spanish.

We had such a sweet talk, and we both learned some things about each other. It absolutely made my afternoon, and I found hope that we could meet people without alcohol being the only trusted social lubricant.

3. Making friends with sober people — or at least people who don’t make alcohol the center of everything.

Yet again, I am still learning about this, and I’m no expert, but I do have some ideas. This is a critical issue for us because I absolutely know that I can’t hang out with people who drink a lot. This is not a judgment, this is simple self-care and protection of my sobriety.

Besides, at this point, I really don’t have anything in common with people who are heavy drinkers. This is not to say that I reject people who drink a bit, just that I can’t be around people who prioritize alcohol over everything else.

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Here are some ideas that I’ll be exploring in the next few months:

  • Find groups that identify as sober.

I’m not sure if they exist here, but I’ll be putting out the feelers to see if they do. Many sober people know that we need to find each other for a good reason. With that said, I’ll be googling Facebook groups or checking for postings in hostels or places where travelers go for information.

  • Make your own sober Facebook group.

If I can’t find any sober resources, then I might consider creating my own group for sober foreigners. This requires work and upkeep on my part, but it might be a great way to pave a trail for myself and others.

The only thing I worry about is that it might alienate people who are light drinkers and with whom I’d still love to meet. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone enjoys getting obliterated, and so I’d still like to meet people even though they may drink lightly.

  • Consider meeting people through activities where they’re less likely to drink heavily.

A few years ago, I went on a bird-watching trip to Panama and met some truly remarkable people who did not prioritize alcohol at all. Birders don’t seem as preoccupied with getting drunk at night. This is because they’d much rather get to sleep early and wake up before sunrise to catch the best birds early in the morning.

This works out well for us because although we may not be serious birders, we really enjoy bird-watching and hiking through remote trails to find wildlife. And we’re in a fantastic place known for its biodiversity.

Hopefully, we can meet people who prioritize their health and energy, because you really need this if you want to appreciate the environment you’re traveling in.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking for groups who are serious about wildlife viewing. I can’t say for sure that they won’t be heavy drinkers, but I’m sure some of them will not see alcohol as their only priority.

Traveling while sober can be challenging in some ways, but it’s absolutely not impossible. In fact, it can enrich your experiences so much more than when you use and abuse alcohol as a way to cope with challenges and new situations.

I’ll keep posting my experiences about traveling while sober, and I welcome any new ideas that others may have.

Sobriety has given me a much deeper connection to the places I’ve traveled to. When I abused alcohol, I never realized how oblivious I was to the culture, people, and history of these new places. For this reason, I’m so grateful to my sobriety for giving me a new lens to view the world and all its beauty.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9. I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.

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