Archive for the 'Sobriety' Category

Expatification: My First Week Goes Live

So remember what I was saying a few weeks back about y’all having to follow more links? I wasn’t lying.

I had two pieces about my first-week adjustments go live this week on Matador. The first, “How To Rock in Phnom Penh,” is about tromping off to the Dengue Fever show while I was recovering from a stomach flu, and sussing out the very peculiar social scene here. It’s also about realizing, “Holy shit, I’m here.”

The second, “How 12-Step Slogans Helped Me in Phnom Penh,” is a far dorkier account of using program tools to keep myself from totally using losing my cool. (Don’t mention specific programs, so Tradition 11 is safe and sound!)

It was weird to practice restraint and not post my first-week experiences immediately on my blog (sucker for the instant gratification). But it’s something I’ll be getting used to.

It’s also nice to have these go up this week, as I’ve been feeling monumentally frustrated with the freelance process. You know—you pour all this time and energy into pitches and submissions, and you think they’re pretty good, and at least half the ones you send never even earn responses. So it’s not even like you can figure out what you did poorly or how to improve. It can get really demoralizing.

But it’s all part of the game, part of the hustle, and besides—this is the path I chose. And I can always unchoose it, go back to waiting tables in the States. (Or not.) So, yeah, just nice to feel a little gratification is what’s otherwise been a dismal month in the life of a freelancer.

So read away, friends.

April 25: Sobreity and Getting Stolen From

Didn't take many picture in Vientiane. So here's one of people on the exercise equipment along the riverside.

Vientiane, April 25th: it was one of those perfect days. Until I found the money missing.

April 25th is my sobriety birthday, the day I get to think to myself—”This is the number of years my life has been getting better.” This year was eleven. Eleven years of slowly, sometimes painfully, learning to live in the world and in my own body without killing myself. It’s a pretty good thing to celebrate, not in a balloons-and-cake kind of way, but in a way that’s stiller, sweeter.

The theme of the day, I’d decided, was self-cafe. Which didn’t seem like it would be hard to achieve in Vientiane. We’d arrived the previous morning, slept off our 24-hour-bus-ride aches and spent the afternoon strolling around the town, eating at the local night market, reveling in all the differences from Cambodia (“Sidewalks!”).

The air was lighter, softer in Vientiane. We were farther north, and it was cooler, an oppressive edge eased. The streets were free of rubbish, and the traffic was mellow, orderly even—girls in sarongs riding side-saddle, holding frilly sun umbrellas. With its shady streets and fountain square, its cafes and riverside promenade, the city felt—I hate to say it—European.

Everyone had talked about how insanely mellow Laos is, how when you cross the border you exhale this breath you hadn’t know you’d been holding. And it was like that for me. So I decided to mellow out with it. April 25, there’d be no hard-core traveler shit, just doing things that felt good for me.

So I spent a couple hours writing in the morning, then went for fruit shakes and Western salads. We took a tuk-tuk out to a fitness center recommended by the guidebook; I ran sprints on the treadmill, swam in the pool, read in the sun, drank fancy coffee, got an hour-long massage. We went back into town and my friends treated me to Indian food. Cool air blew off the river, and I felt healthy, serene, filled with a simple kind of gratitude you don’t need words for.

“This has been a fucking great day,” I told my friends as we walked back to the guesthouse. “Really, guys—thanks for sharing it with me.”

I needed to stop off at our room to grab some more cash. I’d changed a bunch of US dollars the day before, and I never like to walk around with too much money on me—a lesson learned, I suppose, growing up in Oakland. I know you’re not supposed to leave anything of value in hotel rooms, but it always seemed a toss up to me. And in six years of traveling, I’d never had a problem.

Housekeeping had come, we noticed: fresh towels and soap packets. I reached into my bag, a pocket that I’d left, admittedly, half-zipped. I pulled out the book I’d tucked my cash into—as it happened, my favorite recovery daily reader (yeah, that’s right). I flipped to the page I’d stuck my money in—as it happened, that day, April 25.

And it wasn’t there.

“God. Damn. It.” I closed my eyes, dropped my arms to my side. “My money is gone.”

I commenced what I knew was a fruitless effort, digging through all my shit. Alicia and Suki joined in. “Did you put it here maybe?” opening another pocket, lifting up another pile of dirty laundry.

It was gone. $150, about 5 days worth of travel. And I knew there was nothing I could do. Every hotel room I’d ever stayed in, this one included, has had signs telling you they weren’t responsible for missing property. I had travel insurance, but how do you prove you had cash stolen?

And it was partially my fault. I hadn’t been careless, per se, but I hadn’t been as vigilant as I should have. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling, right along with leaving your bags unattended or keeping money in your back pocket.

I went down to reception, even though I knew, just like searching through the room, that talking to the manager would be fruitless.

I told him about the missing money. “I know there’s nothing you can do, but I just thought you should know.” He went through the motions of calling staff (“They said no one cleaned your room today.”), searching through the video recorder of the hallway (“I didn’t see anyone enter the room.”).

He told me they’d never had a problem before; a couple minutes later, he suggested I’d lost the money. “Maybe because you are three,” he offered. “Once we had three people staying, and they also lost something. They called the police; it was a big problem for us.”

I sighed a long, pained sigh. “I thought you said you’d never had a problem before.”

He shook his head, dismissing my observation. “I trust my staff.”

“Well, that’s good. But someone stole money from me, so I don’t.”

I sat down in the gaudily carved bench in the foyer, defeated. My brain ran through a list of should-have’s, why-didn’t-I’s. I pictured all the end-of-trip indulgences I wouldn’t be able to allow myself. I felt nauseous. I got, I’ll admit it, teary.

I went back upstairs, flopped down on the crisply folded sheets. I smirked at the irony of getting money stolen from a recovery text, on my sobriety birthday, a day that had been so healthful and serene.

What do you have control of in this situation? I asked myself. I couldn’t get the money back, couldn’t file a claim with my travel insurance, couldn’t prove that it was stolen in the first place. All I could come up with was my attitude.

I sighed again. Not a pained sigh, but a long exhale, the kind they say you do in Laos. So someone took my money. Was I going to let them take my serenity too?

It’s been a few days. And while I still feel the sting, while I have to be extra careful about what I spend money on, the main thing I remember from April 25, 2011 isn’t getting ripped off. It’s of taking care of myself, giving myself what I needed—a day of fitness and relaxing and good food—and sharing it with friends.

[For what it's worth, the hotel I stayed at was the Riverside Hotel. And they're breakfast was pretty awful to boot.]

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

This is Not About Travel

Ten years ago today was the worst day of my life.

This is not about travel.

Have you ever been broke down, beat up, tore back—I mean wiped out, swinging from a greasy rope, “with no knot in it”? Have you ever had to admit total defeat?

This is not about travel.

Have you been 17 and scared? Have you been running, running from an unnameable blackness inside you? Have you ever found the thing that would save you, keep you, sing to you sweetly in the jagged alleys of adolescence, a song of calloused fingertips and swollen livers that lullabyed you into a half-consciousness that made everything more manageable? Have you ever fallen in love with a sickness?

No, no, this is not about travel.

Have you woken up, bloody-elbowed and wobbly-toothed? Have you walked through the house with kitchen knives in both hands, watched the walls bleed and the shadows twitch, recoiled from your own hungry pupils in the mirror?

And has life ever stepped like a steel toe on your chest? Have you ever laid choking and gasping on the bottom bunk, the weight pressing down, pressing, pressure (that’s how diamonds are made).

Have you ever realized that the thing you thought would save you was gonna kill you faster than what you were running from?

This is not about travel in the traditional sense—not the route between physical places. This is about a different kind of journey, a spiritual journey, but one where there’s no arriving, no achieving. Where, no matter how far down the path you get, you’re always the same distance from the ditch.

My last drink was like this: Sunday afternoon, the parking lot of a West Berkeley warehouse, “backpack beer”—the warm remains of yesterday’s 12-pack. It was a place we’d go to drink during shows at Gilman; it wasn’t my part of town, and I didn’t know where else to go. We’d taken the bus an hour, to buy a half ounce from the kids above the pet shop, walked a couple blocks west to chill out before the trek home.

But the spot looked different during the day, naked and stark, not shielded under a blanket of dark that obscured everything, made you less able to look at it, see it. We crouched beside a stairwell, I drank two beers, got the cuff of my jeans wet when I squatted and pissed.

We took the bus back to Oakland, through a spring afternoon I didn’t deserve. It was too soft, too aching, too bird-singingly pure. Spring break had come and went, and the fragmented remnants of the week-long blackout were still jangling in me, sharp as glass. School would be out soon, graduation was coming, and I’d wear a white cap, march single-file into a future that was only getting heavier, deeper, more liquor-soaked and desperate.

I’d go home and eat dinner. I’d sneak a glass or two of wine, to take off the edge that was already sneaking back. I’d bag up the half-ounce and smoke a little of what was left. Listen to some music, maybe write a little. I would not meet fate, would not break down sobbing in a wretched little ball as it all caved in, crashed down, crushed the very bones of me. I would not get sober that night.

Ten years ago today was the first day of my life.

Bootleg Blues: Thoughts on the Illegal Alcohol Trade Around the World

It was not a subject I expected to get so drawn into. But there I was, hunched over the pale glow of my laptop, clicking links and watching videos and reading random blogs, that damn color pinwheel spinning from the stress of too many open tabs—like going down a virtual rabbit hole into a murky, liquor-soaked world of shadows and motorbikes and sick yellow skin.

Modern-day bootlegging. Prompted by a New York Times piece about alcohol in tribal Pakistan, NileGuide assigned me an article on the illegal trade of alcohol around the world. It was to be a straight-forward round-up, carefully presenting the information without judgment, condemnation or alarmist cries of “this shit is crazy!” But it kind of is crazy, is the thing, and got me thinking a lot about the prohibition/restriction of substances in a society, and about my own experience traveling in Morocco.

As you’d probably guess, all of the places I discovered with a bootlegging industry either outlaw or strictly regulate alcohol sales and consumption. The how and why of it was fascinating. There were religious reasons, of course, in places like Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, but more interesting to me were Sweden, Russia and these remote rural towns in Alaska. All of these places enacted regulations in response to severe alcoholism within the culture. In the Alaskan towns, the temperance calls came from the community rather than the government—largely composed of a Native American population, folks in these towns were sick of the ravages of alcoholism and wanted to just do away with the whole existence of the glimmering, vile elixir. Can you really blame them?

The problem, as any good alcoholic knows, is that people will find a way to drink anyway. (Shit, I never took a legal drink in my life.) Regulations lead to a bootleg industry rife with gangs, violence and product made with piss-poor ingredients that can sicken and kill those who consume it. It’s not too unlike the drug trade in that regard—which got me thinking, on this uber-stoner holiday, about places I’ve been that have suffered immeasurably due to the drug trade: Mexico and Colombia. As always, the suffering seems to break down along class lines: the people who really get fucked are the poor folks in these cultures.

In Morocco, I had the chance to hang with some sober people. What these people—three expats and one Moroccan woman—told me about the actuality of alcohol consumption in the country kind of blew my mind. “Of course people drink,” the retired American sisters told me. “You’re just not supposed to drink, so no one talks about it. People just kind of turn a blind eye.”

As we pulled into the beach resort of Agadir, they sneered slightly. “They’ve been building the town up,” they told me. “It’s becoming something of a playground for Saudi men, where they can drink and have their call girls without anyone knowing.” They later told me about medina bums that drink cologne—not too unlike old-school stories I’ve heard about how folks, during the Depression, would strain shaving cream and drink the liquid to get drunk. (One report of an Alaskan town claimed mouthwash and air fresheners have to kept behind the counter at grocery stores because people use them to make alcohol.) The gaping, aching disparity between how the rich and the poor consume alcohol astounded me.

In the Gujarat state in India, only the wealthy could afford the imported and smuggled bottles of whiskey, while in Russia, only high rollers could fork over what was a three-fold increase in alcohol tax. Poor folks in these places were left to consume shady moonshine, made from medical disinfectants, that led to sicknesses like toxic hepatitis and “yellow death.” Recent outbreaks had killed over 100 people in both places and sickened over 1000. In Gujarat, people rioted during last summer’s outbreak of poisoned alcohol deaths, accusing the police of abetting bootleggers and clamoring for the repeal of Prohibition laws: “Blanket prohibition has never worked in this free world.” The government responded instead with harsher laws: the death penalty for anyone caught bootlegging.

Then, on top of all that, you toss in the lucrative business of bootlegging, complete with gangs, bribed government officials and violent skirmishes, and you gotta ask yourself: how dissimilar is all this from the drug trade?

It’s too simplistic to just advocate for legalization—there are huge cultural and religious forces to negotiate. But it seems, at least in the cases of Alaska and Russia, that putting tight restrictions on alcohol hasn’t done a whole lot the curb alcoholism. It’s a fast, tangible, measurable action, but seems to have caused a hell of a lot more suffering. The slower, more expensive and difficult answer would be to increase social services, preventive education and not-for-profit recovery centers.

At the very least, legalization means regulation, both of the substance and the criminal underbelly that controls its distribution when a government doesn’t. I’ve never drank moonshine, but I don’t even want to think about all the dumb and dangerous shit I did to get alcohol, all the yellow rocks cut with Ritalin and rat poison that I consumed, about the fourteen-year-old kid “in the scene” whose heart exploded when he took a bunch of bad acid. The safety of banned substances, along with crime, led the US the repeal Prohibition, and I can’t help but wonder if a more feasible answer to combatting the drug trade problems in Colombia and Mexico would be at least a partial legalization.

The sober Moroccan woman I met painted a fascinating picture of alcohol in her country. She was upper-class, from an important family, had been to European boarding schools and spoke seven languages. According to her, everyone in her class drank. It was considered cultured and European to drink—though, since alcohol wasn’t an established part of the culture, it didn’t take the form of a nice Cote de Rhone with dinner; people binge drank. People did it, but didn’t talk about it, a sort of deeply steeped denial. You can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone to admit they have a problem with alcohol, in a culture where you’re not even supposed to be drinking. Toss in being a woman on top of that and, well, you’ve gotta be one tough chick.

Let me tell you—she is.

No Port in Porto

DSCN3759I ended up at port tasting in Porto today. If you know anyone who´s been to Porto (yes, the homeland of port), this probably topped their itinerary, sent them scampering up the city´s steep hillside for a free tour and tasting of the  carefully aged, exquisitely sweet wine that is as Portuguese as codfish. If you know me, you´re bound to be uttering a “wtf?”

The thing is, I don´t drink. Not even wine; not even to taste. It´s been over 9 years since I´ve had a drink, so I don´t think of this as a very big deal anymore and don´t think to announce it on my Couchsurfing profile. So when my host picked me up from the bus station, drove me around town on a personalized sight-seeing tour (this is the life), and thought, you know, it´d be fun to stop off for a port tasting—far be it from me to not tag along.

It was mildly interesting, to wander amid the massive barrels and cool stones, listening to the heavily accented spiel (I serve ports at work, which I´ll be returning to in exactly one week, so it was good to have a little refresher course). I observed everyone else´s excitement, especially for the free tasting portion, and I have to say, it was a little awkward when I was the only one not politely pushing to the counter and grabbing a glass.

I´ve been thinking a lot about drinking and traveling, since I read Matador article discussing the pros and cons of alcohol consumption on the road. The article asked whether we needed alcohol to connect on the road. The 21-and-counting comments ran the gamut, and revealed a lot about the people the wrote them. On his personal blog, Matador editor Carlo Alcos offered his ruminations on the subject. “Okay,” I thought, “I can totally write a post on this.” I saved the links and let the subject swim around in the back of my head. And, I´m surprised to say, I actually have very little to say.

So, of course, I´ll say something about that. I found the responses to the article fascinating, little boxed glimpses into the psyches of the thumbnail photos that accompanied them. The fervor and conviction with which so many people wrote intrigued me, especially when they went so far as to make blanket statements or preachy proclaimations. I observed it all with a strange sort of detachment, as though I were looking in on something that had nothing to do with me, like watching a documentary on the culture of people in a terribly far-away land. And, in a way, I was.

I´ve never drank while traveling. I got sober at 17 and never looked back. At home and on the road, people who don´t know this will offer me drinks—I casually decline, and that´s the end of it. Sometimes they notice my repeated refusal and ask why, and I tell them the truth: I´m far more charming company sober.

Drinking for me was never about the kind of camaraderie and conviviality the Matador article talks about—it was about self-destruction and oblivion.  I didn´t win many friends by cussing people out, pissing in doorways or sobbing in corners. Nor would I expect to while traveling. And while I don´t hit the pubs or search out the coke bars when I´m in another city, I do go out. To parties, yes, sometimes to clubs and bars. Sometimes to port tastings. And I dance and laugh and conversate (I´ve stopped fighting, it´s a word now) and do all the stuff everyone else does. I just remember it the next day.

Or, at least that´s the position I´ve always maintained. But in my Portugal travels, I´ve had this lurking feeling that I´m missing out on something. Wine is a huge part of life in Portugal, a cultural characteristic that culminates in the precipitous cleave of Porto and the surrounding green valleys of the Douro. And in the same way that you get a better, ahem, taste of a culture via their traditional foods, I think I´d be getting a better feel for the soul of Portugal if I were swishing a tawny port around my teeth and pontificating on notes of walnut and honey.

But even this feeling, this knowledge, I observe with a distance. It´s all so far away, drinking and the culture behind it, and I find myself regarding it with complete indifference. That is to say, regarding other people´s drinking with complete indifference. I guess what I realized with the Matador article and the responses it provoked was that I really don´t want to be the arbiter of anyone else´s drinking. I´m probably the least qualified person in the world to do that anyway. I just want to keep living my little sober, happy life—even if I end up wandering into a port cellar or two.

BYOB Debauchery: Spanish Botellónes

DSCN3177The roar of voices rose from between the trees, out of the darkness and dirt. Scooters swarmed, freshly broken glass glittered in the dim park lights. Young girls teetered in impossibly high heels and boys stumbled, leaned their faces against the sides of walls as they pissed. And every person clutched a plastic cup.

When Spanairds sigh in disapproving despondency about ¨kids today,¨ they´re talking about botellónes. In a culture of late-night fiestas,  these youth-ridden BYOB binges stand out as particularly debaucherous.

Bottelónes take place in public, on the streets and in the parks; teeangers and early 20-somethings gather to drink, flirt, cause trouble, and leave a mountain of trash in their wake. Increasingly the subject of public controversy, Seville´s bottelónes are known to be especially raucous.

We passed one as we trod through Parque Maria Luisa on Friday during a once-a-year festival of museum open houses and cultural performances. (How Spanish is this?: museums are free to the public from 10pm-3am, and completely full the whole time.) September is festival month in Seville, when residents have returned from August vacations and the oppression of the heat has subsided; it´s also the beginning of botellón season. My couchsurfing hosts and I were walking over to Museo Artes y Costumbres Populares, where we saw a killer flamenco show, and the adjacent Museo Arqueológico, where a classical guitarist´s exaggerated facial expressions were more dramatic than an old guitar-playing friend with Tourettes (RIP, friend).

We passed what I was told was a typically trashy Friday night bottelón. It was like a rave minus the pulsing lights and techno music, like a sideshow minus the cars and firearms. Hundreds of kids filled the open space at the park´s entrance. Teenage girls were dressed to the nines to attire revealing even by Spanish standards, while boys puffed their chests and tried to impress each other, even in curiously effeminate clothing. My hosts spoke of the trash, piss and vomit the parties left in their wake, the shards of glass and tell-tale crushed plastic cups that city workers scurry to clean up the mornings after. (The next day, I passed through the carnage of another botellón, down by the river, and had to say, it was pretty gnarly.)

I smiled to myself as we passed by. I couldn´t help but feel that, if you swapped the heels for combat boots, and blush and blow-drying for heavy eyeliner and multi-colored dreads, it wouldn´t have been too unlike the Rocky Horror Picture Show or Gilman Street of my adolescence. Instead of being out in the open, though, we were relegated to the sketchy corners of the city, to alleyways, public restrooms, the stairwells of parking garages. I wondered if having to hide it—the violent pursuit of oblivion—somehow served to make ours worse, more seedy and powder-laced, more self-destructive and apt to end in institutions and death.

From between the park gates, I spotted a girl hoisted up by two friends, her arms drapped over their shoulders. Her head hung at a sharp angel; her heeled feet scuttled, dragged in the dirt lifelessly. Whether it´s a plague to Spanish culture or kids just being kids, I felt mighty glad not to be a teenager anymore.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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