How To Find Friends and Adventures Abroad, 12-Step Style
By Elizabeth Rosselle
How many people do you know, outside of program, that can hop on a plane and go to Thailand, Malaysia, or Vietnam and have an instant network of friends when they land?
Elizabeth Rosselle in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
The author in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Traveling sober can be a scary proposition for someone in drug and alcohol recovery, particularly for those of us who stay sober with the help of a 12-step program like AA or NA. I know there are some folks who successfully white knuckle it, and I salute them. White knuckle, however, I cannot. I need meetings almost as much as I need food and water.
Four months into my sobriety, I packed my bags and headed to Bali, Indonesia, for close to a year. I had two sponsees (yes, at four months, two brave women decided they wanted what I had), a sponsor whom I loved, and a cozy home group in West Hollywood. I was slightly nervous about leaving my sobriety bubble, but I’d started a jewelry line in Bali years prior, and an unexpected round of funding came my way so that I could return to the island and expand my brand. It was one of the many gifts of sobriety that I’d soon become accustomed to.
As luck would have it, Bali was a pretty easy place to remain sober because there were meetings in many of the popular tourist areas. I was even able to attend my first ever AA international roundup on that trip, which happened to coincide with my one year sober anniversary. The roundup was an awesome experience, and my home group helped me to celebrate as well. My one year cake at the meeting had lots of fresh coconut frosting and came from a lovely local bakery. I’ll never forget — it said “Congratulation” on it. So very Bali.
Thankfully, AA and NA are pretty widespread these days, so it’s relatively easy to find meetings in most parts of the world. And, as mentioned, I lucked out with the meetings in Bali. What I didn’t do before I booked that trip, however, was research whether or not the island had a fellowship. My Higher Power was clearly working with me in those early days, but if I hadn’t found fellowship on the island, I don’t know that I would have stayed sober. That said, if you’re traveling, just do your research.
I ultimately ended up moving to Bali, and the decision was based in part on the fact that there’s a lot of recovery on the island, and now that I’m living abroad, I do quite a bit of traveling. Periodic visa runs are necessary, and it happens to be really easy and affordable to travel through Southeast Asia, so I take advantage. But my program always comes first. I’ve heard a lot of old-timers over the years saying the program must come first and I’d always roll my eyes at the proclamation, but I now know this to be true for myself. Here are some of the cool things I’ve discovered in regard to making program central to my travels, along with a tip or two for newcomers who are filled with wanderlust:
These days, I never go anywhere in the world without checking online first to find out if and where there are 12-step meetings, and I always make an effort to book my hotel close to one. I realize that there will be certain situations where it’s simply not possible to attend meetings, particularly in the more remote parts of the world, but unless I have to go to one of those faraway locations for work, I avoid them. Or I make sure that, at the very least, I’m going to a place where I’ll have phone service so that I can stay in touch with my sober fellows.
12-Step Fellowships Give You an Instant Network Across the Globe
Last year, I took a six-day visa run to Vietnam. Generally my visa runs involve a sleepwalk overnighter through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Singapore (both of which have fantastic AA meetings, by the way), but I wanted to go somewhere different, and I’d never been to Vietnam. I booked myself a six-day trip and I started out in Hanoi. Once I got to Hanoi, I’d had in my head that I either wanted to travel up north to Sapa to check out the vintage textiles, or go down to Halong Bay.
I got to my first AA meeting in Hanoi on my second night in town. I can’t disclose the location because organized meetings that aren’t government affiliated are technically not allowed in Communist Vietnam. You have to email in to get the location which I thought was super cool because, you know, I’m an addict — I like to live dangerously. I’d reached out to someone in the Hanoi fellowship that I’d found online before I even booked my trip, so I was armed with the information beforehand, and knew that I’d be good to go on my travels.
I met a really cool group of expats at that Hanoi meeting. One of them suggested skipping touristy Sapa or Halong Bay and opting for a little spot called Ninh Binh instead. Sapa and Halong Bay were both a bit of a trek from Hanoi, so either would’ve cut into my short six-day trip quite a bit. Ninh Binh, on the other hand, ended up being only two hours away, so I followed the suggestion and booked a ride out after a couple of days in Hanoi. The town of Ninh Binh was absolutely breathtaking, completely off-the-beaten-track, and relatively empty. I also found a charming homestay just outside of the main area that was built into a cave. It was part of a quiet little village that felt very much like what I’d envisioned old country Vietnam to be like. I was able to go on some lovely treks right outside my door, take a beautiful boat ride on the Red River Delta, and do some cycling through caves and cow fields.
I never would have found Ninh Binh without the fellowship, as it wasn’t a heavily advertised spot. This meant that I got to have a completely new experience, all thanks to AA. The town didn’t have any meetings, but I was only there for a couple of nights, and because I wasn’t too far from Hanoi, I was right back at the ‘secret’ meeting when I returned. I went back home to Bali and shared the experience with some of my sober fellows because we all love to swap travel stories. One friend in the program was so pumped about the idea of livening up his next visa run that he decided to travel to Hanoi and Ninh Binh based on my suggestion. He went to the same meeting in Hanoi, and he thoroughly enjoyed his entire experience. So, you see, we get to spread the love in the fellowship, one day (and one cheap AirAsia flight) at a time.
The More You Travel, the Wider Your Network, the More You’re Supported
In AA, I’ve heard other travelers say that we’re kind of like the Mafia but without the organized crime. We’re everywhere, and we all have each others’ backs. We share travel tips, give people motorbike rides to meetings, and, most importantly, we provide emotional support for one another. The best part? We get to do it just about anywhere on this big blue planet that we choose to visit.
I’ve landed writing jobs overseas through the folks in program, found housing, located silversmiths for my jewelry, and even had people in the fellowship take care of me when I’ve had really bad Bali belly. Usually this just means showing up at my door with some young coconut water (the best cure for any tropical, gut-related ailment, by the way). While networking, finding jobs, and having people take care of us are not things to focus on in program, they happen to be byproducts of sticking around and having a sober family. I can’t imagine life without my sober family now, and I feel enormously blessed for my AA crew, worldwide.
I also love going to meetings in new places. How many people do you know, outside of program, that can hop on a plane and go to Thailand, Malaysia, or Vietnam and have an instant network of friends when they land? I’ve been to meetings in all of these places and then some, and my experiences continue to grow. We’re a lucky bunch to have such a widespread network. When I first walked into the rooms, I thought that I was simply giving up drinking and using, but I’ve gained so much more than that, and I’ve learned a lot about myself along the way.
I’ll also throw in the disclaimer that my entire sobriety journey hasn’t been a cakewalk, but my new default attitude, thanks to all of the step work, involves focusing on the good. And while I take everything one-day-at-a-time, the seven-and-a-half years I’ve been lucky enough to put together have given me some clear life perspective. I now recognize that the good has certainly outweighed the bad over the long term, so if you’re new, please do know that it can be hard at times. But also know that there’s a whole planet of sober fellows out there who are ready to connect and show you that it truly is possible to live a life beyond your wildest dreams. Stay close to the program and keep doing the work. Sober life is the best deal around, and it really is filled with miracles if we pay attention. Happy trails, and keep coming back!