When you’re travelling, drinking is a normal part of your holiday routine. But when does it become a problem?
Flickering lights. Deafening noise. Not noise; the sound system is top notch, the club loud but the music well-balanced, the beat shocks electric through you and makes your bones dance but it doesn’t sound like noise but I can’t hear anything. Blue fog, maybe, or maybe it’s just what I think I remember. I’m three sheets to the wind, happily talking the ear off the bouncer until my friends drag me away. I guess they worry we’ll get thrown out even after we’ve got in. Bathroom. I don’t know how I found it. It is like a wonderland. I take one wrong turn after, and I am lost, and all my friends are lost, and there is deafening blue fog and blinding noise and I don’t recognise anyone.
Flickering lights. But maybe that’s just the lights as I blink and with every blink lose a little more time.
Finally one of the guys I came in with finds me. He’s leaving and I leave with him because I don’t know anyone anymore. I get out of his taxi at Rustaveli, the one place I recognise, and I trace my steps home. I sit in the dark kitchen holding myself and I feel like I might die.
It seems the drink is always there
‘Why didn’t you just walk home?’ a friend asks me the next day as I’m sitting opposite to him in his favourite coffee shop, nursing an iced latte and a hangover of the century. Well, the hangover isn’t that insufferable anymore. I woke up at nine, saw the incomprehensible messages I’d sent my friend the night before when I felt so sure I would just drop dead on my kitchen floor, and went back to sleep. I woke up a little later not exactly feeling myself but feeling alive, at least. I’d lost my driver’s licence and debit card and I didn’t notice until I was leaving home, and I turned my apartment upside down, cursing and frustrated, before slouching to the meet-up fashionably late.
The moral hangover definitely beats the physical one.
I don’t want you to think too badly of me. I don’t really drink these days. Well, I guess it depends what your definition of “drink” is; I don’t really like clubbing, and I think the last time I got sucked into a drinking game had been a year before in a seaside hostel in Croatia, and even there I’d only watched others playing beer pong and flirted with the long-haired English guy.
But it seemed like the drink was always there. Oh, a glass of red with dinner, why not? After all, the country is known for its wines. And you’re only there once. YOLO. Or it’s been a long day and you really deserve a beer. Or a shitty boy just broke your heart and you buy a bottle and split it with yourself on the bathroom floor.
But more than anything else, the drink was always the third wheel when I was out. Meeting a friend? Oh, let’s just grab a drink. Going on a date? Of course you’re going to get a little tipsy. Every time I was going out, I was having a few drinks, and these days I am going out all the time: being a digital nomad means that I’m constantly meeting new people.
In Tbilisi, I suddenly realised I was regularly having a drink five or six days out of seven.
The problem with the backpacker drinking culture
I’m getting to be at that age when people usually cut down on drinking drastically, usually because they realise they just can’t deal with hangovers the same way they did when they were 20. They’re also finding more stability in life: post-graduation work puts an end to wild college weekends, a budding family an end to scouting singles’ bars with your bachelor friends.
But when you’re travelling, you don’t get to slow down. Stability doesn’t matter because suddenly stability is right out of the window. Suddenly you’re drunk on a Tuesday just because your hostel had a two-for-one offer on margaritas, or you’re out in a Couchsurfing meeting and grab a beer to flow with the strange crowd more easily, but now that beer has turned into five and – well, you’re self-employed on a different time zone than the people you’re subcontracted to, and no one can tell you that you can’t start work at noon the next day.
Drinking is such a big part of travelling culture and it goes unquestioned so often. I guess it’s all fine and dandy if you’re on a weeklong holiday; but what if you’re away for a month, three months, a year, TBA? Then drinking almost every night becomes a problem. I’ve seen the effects of alcohol deprivation in backpackers. Irritability, short fuse, even anger – it’s like withdrawal symptoms and no one dares to question it because alcohol is still the most popular party drug.
And the worst part might be that if you’re not drinking, you’ll always have to justify yourself. The shirtless Aussie taking tequila shots straight from the bottle doesn’t have to explain why he’s blasted on a Wednesday morning before 10 a.m. But if you try to refuse a drink, suddenly that demands explanation. Why don’t you drink? Are you an absolutist? You’re not pregnant, are you? Is it a religion thing? C’mon, just one drink with us. But why not though?
You’ll almost be made to drink. You can’t say no; that’s weird. And if you still refuse, you’re labelled as a joykill even before you’ve had the chance to prove them right or wrong.
If you’ve been around party hostels, you’ve probably heard the word “alcoholism” casually thrown around a few times too many. Many backpackers seem to consider themselves “casual alcoholics” while they’re on a holiday and can’t seem to see what’s wrong with that. You’re young and irresponsible, why shouldn’t you go out every night?
I’m worried that a real issue might be brewing underneath for many of these party-harders. Alcoholism in young people is often masked by the fact that young people often do party a lot, and when they go travelling, it becomes even harder to distinguish abnormal drinking behaviour from a regular night out.
Closing the taps
Recently, I spent a month in Iran. While most of the hostels I stayed at were lovely, I was struggling to meet other travellers. Seemed like everyone went to bed early and woke up at the butt-crack of dawn, a rhythm that is very unnatural and hard for me to follow. When I’d come home after a day of sightseeing, the common spaces would be empty, devoid of all life.
I complained about this to a tattooed Aussie that I had convinced to listen to my whining for a bit, and he said: ‘It’s because people can’t drink.’
It’s insane how big a part alcohol plays in our travels. What happened to good old-fashioned staying up all night just talking?
The day after the club, two iced lattes later as my friend and I moved premises from the coffee shop to the nearby pay-per-kilo restaurant, he proposed a pact based on some comedy sketch he’d seen years before. In it, two guys found the “three drink club”, meaning they’d only have three drinks per night, obtaining the perfect balance between happy tipsy and positively shitfaced. I’d never heard of it before and he was pretty sure he remembered it wrong but we made the pact anyway.
For a few months now, whenever I’m drinking, I stop at three. And I find that I don’t really need it. I’ve realised that the drink is almost like a placeholder: my restless hands need something to fiddle with, and I need something to sip during awkward silences. But a water or a Coke serve the same purpose. About a week after the pact, I went to a Latin party, bought one beer and refused all subsequent offers for others. I danced for hours that night, probably not very skilfully but with zest for life, and the rhythm of the music felt intoxicating in a very sobering way.
I don’t only drink less in one sitting now; I also limit the days when I drink alcohol. Three days a week, tops. It seems silly I should have to put clear limits to my alcohol consumption. It’s like when you’re a child and your parents tell you that you can only eat sweets on Saturdays. I guess otherwise you’d be out of control.
But maybe we need these kind of hard limits. How many people, even in their late 20s, early 30s, are really fully aware of how much they can drink before it’s too much? Us backpackers, modern nomad types, we’re really just hedonistic children wanting to do whatever feels good in that moment.
I don’t want to completely stop drinking. A big part of alcohol for me is that I actually really enjoy the taste, and I think getting to try different alcoholic beverages while I’m travelling is a great way to get to know the local cuisine better. But I want my alcohol use to be more intentional; if I enjoy the taste, then I should pick an interesting craft beer over the generic draft pils that’s just going to get me drunk and nothing else. Or splurge on a mocktail. And why the hell would I accept a shot, even if it’s free, if I know the taste is just going to make me sick?
Better drinking habits
I want to go back to being eighteen – not because I miss a time I could drink without dire consequences but because I miss being allowed to not drink at all. Back then, I was always the designated driver. My high school friends and I, we’d go out almost every weekend, and I’d carry glasses of water to the table and dance badly to all the wonderful terrible songs they put out in bars in 2012 and at the end of the night, park my dad’s red Toyota in front of the house, exhausted but sober.
None of my friends ever questioned me not drinking. I guess they were just happy they had a ride home at a cold Finnish 2 a.m.; but I feel like they really didn’t care. Maybe it’s not only about me limiting my own drinking. Maybe it’s also about me surrounding myself with people who will allow me to be fun without alcohol.
I think most travellers don’t have a real problem with alcohol – but I also think most of them drink too much. Maybe it happens accidentally, without you even noticing how often you’re tilting the glass; but this is the most dangerous slope to slide into, when you don’t even acknowledge that something might be awry, when hangovers just become jokes instead of warning signs from your body.
Take a breather. Go to a yoga class. Meet your friend in a museum, or movie theatre, or a coffee shop instead of a bar. Go on a five-day hike.
And if you still feel like it, reward yourself with a cold pint afterwards.