We had heard that Valium flowed like water through the streets of Bangkok. That every pharmacy was giving them away, that children on the street tossed them like pebbles, that they were ground up and used as seasoning salt in most dishes. They were considered mild anaesthetics and treatments for abrasions and sore throats and were served as garnishes at tea parties. One could get them over the counter, as well as in most reputable supermarkets, and also tumbling out of the pockets of clumsy, unwary people who took no care of their large stores of Valium.
We were staring down the barrel of some serious long-haul travel. There were Indian trains and buses and cars looming in our future—much as we had heard legends of Thai Valium availability, we were also privy to numerous stories about the nature of travel in the subcontinent. Long delays, cramped conditions, thin shaky metallic beds hovering over scores of unattended owls—all the horrors of Hades soon to be unleashed on our trembling, waking forms. We wanted nothing more than the sweet bliss of a murky, fogged-up sleep, the hazy slumber of a questionably legal controlled substance to lull us into dreamland.
Ty and I were both dainty sleepers, easily woken and constantly on the brink of truly zen REM, a gilded cloud always floating just beyond reach. Faith by contrast was a champion napper, capable of dozing through anything short of a category five hurricane or her kidneys being forcibly removed through her nostrils, and we envied her ability to escape the most unpleasant aspects of long-term travel. Nearly seconds after laying her head upon whatever iron slab or spiky, fibrous surface we had purchased for ourselves aboard a hurtling, ramshackle conveyance, she would be off to sleepyville. Ty and I would stew the hours away, wakefulness slowly beginning to converge with insanity, as we hungered for the sweet release of unconsciousness.
How then could we lull ourselves into the kind of necessary calm to allow us slumber? The answer, of course, was drugs.
Upon his return from the pharmacy, Ty slunk into our Bangkok hostel room encumbered with roughly 100 tablets of off-brand sedatives called Tramadines. With such a stock available, it seemed prudent to expend at least some of them recreationally, and so we each took one that first night to consider their potency, their power, and how likely they were to dull us into sleep on an overnight train on an Indian highway.
The cognitive weight of one Tramadine was roughly equivalent to a particularly heavy workday followed by an hour or two on the treadmill—a general goopiness, a looseness of limb, a sudden awareness of the absurd comfort of this pillow under your face. Under these tightly controlled conditions, it seemed perfectly reasonable that our store of Tramadines would last us the entire trip and beyond, perhaps even to an uncomfortable conversation at the immigration lines at our respective countries. “And what,” the burly and ill-tempered border guard would ask, “do you need with thirty-odd blister-pack sealed painkillers?”
Removed from the sanitized, laboratory conditions of a quiet, darkened hotel room, the power of a single Tramadine was lessened. Trains and planes and buses and travel are not contained, and they are not peaceful. The rattle of the train tracks, the near-constant flow of moving bodies, of murmuring life, of parents and children. The buzzing halo of fluorescent lights, the flickering of passing towns, headlight beams ripping across your eyelids. Carrying all of our valuables and our passports with us in flimsy backpacks made us vigilant and edgy, a trio of trembling purse dogs yipping a every askance look. The first bus trip across an Indian highway, we all decided to enjoy the trip with our good friend Tramadine. But Tramadine under these conditions was no more than a soothing, cool cloth across our foreheads, the pleasant sensation of knowing what the inside of your eyeballs feel like, the awareness that opening your mouth would reveal your tongue had swollen twenty times in size and was also a mountain gorilla. But a single Tramadine certainly would not provide us our escape. One would not knock us out.
“Why not two?” all of us said in unison, speaking the words of the universe.
Soon, every long journey became a careful guessing game. How would two pills be impacted by the three beers we had drunk several hours before, or by the fifth of gin we planned on nipping at during the arduous 17 hours of bus before us? What about our weights, which were rapidly changing, and our intestinal fortitudes, which were being challenged by India every day? We became dilettante anaesthesiologists, carefully guessing our own ability to withstand sedation and trying to find the proper balance between gentle drowsiness and sending ourselves into accidental comas.
It all seemed perfectly logical at the time, that we should probably inebriate ourselves into drooling husks to deal with the horrifying challenges before us. Arduous, tedious tasks that could be avoided if only we were far less sober or in charge of our mental faculties? Of course we should be drugging ourselves off our gourds! And with these kind of prices, we’d be fools not to!
From this trip on, every long journey called for a cocktail of alcohol and anxiety medication, of muscle relaxants and single-serve mini-bottles of whiskey or wine. The kind of substance abuse I would never consider otherwise became obviously commonplace, a necessary cofactor to the very concept of long-distance travel. While I would generally think of mixing pills and alcohol to be the territory of the jelly-livered, DT-wracked junkie, their pairing suddenly clicked absolutely when I considered what a transpacific direct flight from North America to Asia would do to my tailbone. Sure, a vino-valium cocktail generally speaks of mounting addiction, of the encroaching swirl of a downward spiral, but what if that downward spiral only happened one or twice a year, and then only at 37,000 feet?