Two Words That Help Me Stay Sober While Traveling
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The Two Words That Help Me Stay Sober While Traveling

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two-words-that-help-me-stay-sober-while-traveling“Wait, did he just offer us cocaine?” my husband asked, laughing in his beach chair.

“Probably,” I said. “Welcome to Puerto Vallarta.”

The sales pitch, which was lumped together with glass pipes, carved wooden bears and—of course—weed, was the first of hundreds we would receive on our eight-day beach vacation last October. While mind-blowing tacos, naps on the sand and pelicans frolicking in the surf certainly did their part in helping us forget the chaos of home, the fact remains that no matter where I go, I’m reminded that I’m an addict.

For shoppers, Mexico offers a never-ending buffet of crap—I mean delights—to buy at all times of the day. They’re an enterprising people, whose kindness and convincing sales techniques have undoubtedly caused many a dazed tourist to wonder, “I don’t even remember buying four oil paintings of parrots.” We definitely did our part for the local economy by scooping up a cool Dia de los Muertos skull for our cat sitter, a blanket (that we didn’t need, but fell in love with—because, Mexico!) and a few other must-have-in-the-moment trinkets. The variety when it comes to drugs and alcohol is equally as dizzying.

A couple days into our vacation, we discovered that it wasn’t just that one guy selling drugs; it was sort of the entire town. The offerings were usually rattled off like this, “Pipes? Weed? Cocaine?” To which we’d politely say, “No, gracias,” a phrase which becomes a musical refrain on repeat all day long in Mexico. Shrimp on a stick? No, gracias. Candy? No, gracias. Some mystery chemical that could ruin my marriage and my life? No, gracias. The reading of the daily narcotics specials was usually followed by either, “Something else?” or “Maybe later?” Sure, maybe later—like back in time before 2009, or maybe later in an alternate universe where I can drink and use drugs like a normal, non-Hemingway type.

When we ducked into a farmacia across the street from our hotel to buy bug spray, the sweet-faced girl behind the counter made sure we saw the sign proudly boasting an array of things you could buy without a prescription. And there they were: all of the stars of every celebrity overdose of the last decade. Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, Oxycontin plus cholesterol medications and an assortment of other pills that are undoubtedly cheaper south of the border. The availability and easy access to every drug under the sun isn’t shocking when you consider that drugs are a huge part of the Mexican economy. It feels as normal as the men selling large stacks of sun hats. After a while, this never-ending cornucopia of drugs actually became comical. “No, gracias,” we’d say but then I’d look at my husband and quip, “Maybe I’ll wait to buy cocaine until after lunch?”

Travel the world as a sober person and you’ll discover that the planet as a whole really likes to get loaded. In February, we were on another tropical vacation, this time on the island of St. Maarten for 10 days. Particularly on the French side of the island (where the food is better and just a tad snottier—in the best way possible), everything comes with booze. Free shots of homemade banana rum came over with or sometimes instead of the dessert menu. Wine was offered with everything and it was assumed that by renting a beach chair you would also be drinking a dozen or so beers. Luckily, I’m married to one of those weirdos who drinks like a regular person so I could slide any unwanted complimentary liquor his way. He also always has my back, and carefully combs over menus with me just to make sure that nothing boozy slips through the cracks. But stuff happens—as it did when we left St. Maarten to island hop to Anguilla, a tiny nation as remote as you can get. It’s three miles wide with only six traffic lights, and like its neighbor, it’s a drinker’s paradise.

Our first night there, we had dinner in an enchanted tree-house restaurant. The joint was swanky and had the service and bill to reflect it. We scanned the menu choices in search of hidden booze and found nothing, so we ordered and didn’t think twice about our choices. Every nibble during our evening was mind blowing until we got to dessert. Like any other alcoholic worth their salt, I can seriously get down on some dessert, so I salivated when I read the description of a homemade coconut bread pudding. After one bite, however, I could smell trouble. It was drenched in rum or whisky or propane or something that made me feel immediately hot and woozy. Thankfully, because of my recovery, this slip-up didn’t set off a chain reaction of sketchy events beginning with liquored-up bread pudding and ending with me wandering the streets of Anguilla looking for meth. Still, I told on myself the minute I got home to other sober people who confirmed for me that two bites of drunken dessert weren’t going to flush seven years of sobriety down the toilet.

I love to travel. But if I’m honest, I was a little afraid to do it when I first got sober. It seemed impossible. Isn’t it against the law to go to Italy without drinking wine? Will they even let you inside the city of Las Vegas if you’re sober? While I cannot confirm (as I haven’t been to Italy and won’t bother with Vegas unless I can procure free Britney tickets), I’m pretty certain that these places can be visited sober. After all, I just spent over a week in Mexico without a buying drugs off the beach or slugging back margaritas. Believe it or not, our neighbor to the south has more to offer than just opportunities to get hammered—like late night baby sea turtle adventures and exploring the haunts of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who made love and fought and (probably drank like fish) in Puerto Vallarta some 50 years ago. My trip was magical, but the real reward was that I didn’t have to spend my vacation trying manage my addiction. Plus, I remember the entire vacation—which is something I can’t really say about most trips pre-sobriety (including my last visit to the town where Ms. Spears currently holds court).

The world, they told me, would get bigger the longer I stayed sober. They were right. But what they didn’t tell me was that it would also be filled with all kinds of tempting offers, constantly challenging my sobriety. As time goes on, I discover that just like at home, all I have to do is simply reply, “No, gracias.”

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About Author

Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer, playwright, blogger, tweeter, critic, podcaster and smartass for hire. He lives in Portland, Oregon with two ridiculous cats and one amazing husband. His book of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying will be published by Zephyr Bookshelf in fall 2018.