Travel is a drug.
Travel hooks you with a mainline shot of adrenaline on that first mile of highway and takes you on a rollercoaster of mental and spiritual stimulation that reaches everything from dazzling Himalayan highs to Cambodian outhouse lows.
Finally it leaves you standing with luggage at a bus-stop and feeling strange – perhaps inspired, perhaps grateful, perhaps just suffering from a serious jet-lag hangover.
It’s no wonder so many travelers like to drink and get high. Many of us are young, liberated from authority, in search of exactly the feelings of exhilaration and supposed insight that drugs, alcohol and travel can all provide.
Should our parents worry about us? Should brave new travelers pledge abstinence before jetting off to India?
Although alcohol and drug abuse can lead to serious problems while traveling, just like they can back home, in my experience most travelers indulge responsibly.
And while travelers have an important obligation to respect local customs, most – though far from all – countries are more tolerant of drugs and alcohol than the United States.
This isn’t to say you should throw caution to the wind and travel the world as if you were on permanent Spring Break. If you plan to indulge, here are some important points to keep in mind:
Safe travel depends on good judgment and clear-headed awareness of your environment and your self. Alcohol and drugs can alter your perceptions and influence your judgment, making you paranoid, rash or just plain vulnerable.
Always pay close attention to your surroundings. Know your limits. Know the local laws and cultural norms.
For example, drinking beer in a city park is fine in Japan, but would get you busted for an open-container violation in Massachusetts. Likewise, marijuana use is widely tolerated in places like Spain and California, but you would be very foolish to risk lighting up in Taiwan, where laws are much more strict and pot isn’t part of the culture.
Finally, remember that your travel insurance policy probably has a clause about alcohol and drugs in the fine-print – if you do something stupid and get hurt while under the influence, they might not cover the bill.
As a traveler, you are a guest in a foreign culture. Like it or not, you are also an ambassador of your home country. This is a tremendous responsibility.
Getting tipsy with the locals can break down barriers and contribute to genuine friendship and cross-cultural empathy. Drinking alcohol is a ritual of hospitality in many parts of the world, and there really is something to the transformative power of peace, love, understanding and passing joints around a campfire.
When I worked in Japan, I soon learned that it was impolite to NOT get fall-down drunk at office parties.
However, there is a huge difference between getting fall-down drunk within the boundaries of a specific cultural ritual, and getting fall-down drunk and roaming the streets as a pack of boorish foreigners.
Pay attention to cultural norms of ritual and reciprocation. Be sincere, be considerate and have a good time.
Focus On The Journey, Not The Beer
Why are you traveling? To see the world and experience new ideas and new sensations? Well then why are you getting drunk every night at the youth hostel?
There are few things more pathetic than someone who travels around the world, but never leaves the cozy alcoholic bubble of the guesthouse bar.
Travel is a privilege, a rare and valuable opportunity to see the world – and yourself – from a new perspective. To squander such a gift is just plain sad, so always remember that although it might be fun to hang out and crack a few beers with your fellow backpackers, the world outside the bar is far more interesting.
Why not go out to a local bar, buy a beer for a stranger and start a conversation?
A Word About Moderation
At first glance, it would seem that moderation is the key to safe and respectful imbibing. True enough, limiting yourself to one or two drinks is generally a good idea in just about any situation.
But you know what? Once in a while it’s healthy to throw moderation out the window. Sometimes it’s good to take risks, to live large – to make mistakes and learn from the scars.
Get drunk. Get high. Go wild and howl at the moon. Leave the bar at daybreak with new friends and climb up a hill to smoke a joint and watch the sunrise over the ocean. Open yourself to all the passion and possibility in the world.
Just remember to be safe, be respectful, and never forget that it’s about the journey, not the parties you have along the way.