By Mat Ward
When alcoholic Mat Ward was told in rehab that he would die if he relapsed, he decided to try to see the world before he died, calling at AA meetings along the way to stop him relapsing. On the 21-country journey that followed, he met Maori headhunters, Aboriginal criminals, Indonesian heroin users, Thai sex addicts, Tamil born-again Christians, New York crack smokers, Himalayan 12-step fanatics and a Galapagos priest who tried to exorcise his drinking demons. Along the way, what he learnt about AA made him question exactly what was killing alcoholics. Here, we join him halfway through the journey – meeting 48, in Tamil Nadu, India. All names have been changed.
Sunday January 13, 2008 - 1 year, 122 days sober
Intergroup meeting, Medical Institute, Salem, Tamil Nadu, India.
When you are standing on a stage, with your heart beating in your throat, talking through a microphone to 200 Tamils about the time you made a distillery out of two syrup tins, the strangest thoughts rush through your mind.
I’d woken at four that morning in a counselling centre in Trichy, 300 km south of Chennai. The previous night I’d rung David, the AA contact for the area. He’d insisted on my checking out of my hotel and sleeping at the centre in order to join him and 30 other drunks and their families on a day trip to Salem, five hours away, for an “intergroup meeting anniversary”.
At 5am I was standing outside the
centre, feeling naked, the only guy with an unadorned top lip among a parade of marvellous moustaches which were emitting howls of laughter. Their owners were a joy to be around. All seemed to be overflowing with sunshine, choking with hoarse hilarity, slapping each other on the back, holding hands and jigging around with a loose energy that was plain uncanny for such an early hour. I felt sorry for the counselling centre’s neighbours.
Eventually, we all bundled into two buses ? the long-suffering wives, children and non-smokers in one, and myself in the other, with the smokers. All seemed to have Christian names. I was hemmed in by Harry ? a man whose face seemed made for smiling since he was unrecognisable in solemnity ? and David, who bounced up and down in his seat like an overgrown schoolboy, egging and goading the others on.
“Mat, have you ever tried a snakebite?” asked David, as we drove through sugar cane and banana plantations in the pre-dawn dark.
“Sure,” I said. In my two decades of drinking I’d drunk anything I could get hold of, from distilling my parents’ spirits into a mixture that tasted like soap, to the litres of cheap gutrot vodka mixed with painkillers that had eventually put me in hospital - then rehab.
“I used to make snakebites with the usual blackcurrant, but for the beer I’d use Special Brew, which is like a 10% alcohol beer, and for the cider I’d use Electric White, which is a 12% alcohol white cider, which tastes something like carbonated urine…”
I was faced with a wall of blank looks. The alcoholics in the back of the bus even stopped their card game to stare. David’s head shuddered.
“No, no, no, SNAKEBITE, where you get a snake, put it into a clay pot…” the others joined in reciting the instructions “…cover the top with cloth, put a slit in the cloth and then stick your tongue through the slit. When it bites, you can have the effect ? very strong ? for three days. Sometimes flat on your back for the whole time.”
“Wha…?” I said. “No…I’ve never…tried that. Have you?”
I looked around the bus. There were enigmatic shrugs all round.
“What snake is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know the name of it in English,“ said David. "But in Tamil it is called suru tai.”
Venomous snakes kill 50,000 Indians a year - more than in the rest of the world put together. They are preventable deaths - India has plenty of anti-venom, most of which is gathered by Tamil Nadu’s Irula tribe ? but, ridiculously, most hospitals don’t know how to use it.
At that point I felt a hand grab my right arm. “Mat,” said the hand’s owner. “My name is Michael. I have many…” he flicked open the palm of his free hand for emphasis “…girlfriends.”
David nudged me. “Not girlfriends, Mat,” said David. “Old ladies.”
The bus erupted into wild laughter, heads wobbling all round in agreement.
“We call them AUNTIES,” said David, widening his eyes.
I looked at Michael. This ex-soldier was grinning, and his military-moulded moustache, which curled upwards on either side, seemed to form a second grin, giving him a proud double beam. His eyes twinkled back at me.
“I have four!” he said, and the rest of the bus groaned in mock disgust.
“He is not an alcoholic,” said one of the card gamblers at the back.
“He is an AUNTIE-HOLIC.”
“It’s a terrible disease,” said a second, warming to the theme. “A progressive disease, it gets worse with age…”
“You should check out his website,” said a third. “It’s called auntie.com!”
I involuntarily shook my head while holding it in my hands and letting out a low moan. My face was aching with laughter.
Salem was a sun-baked Shangri-la amid oversize sandstone boulders and gorgeous green groves. I’d made sure my round-the-world trip took me nowhere under 30 degrees Celsius. The intergroup meeting was at a large, whitewashed, medical institute that looked like a classy hotel.
Inside, the stage of the large central hall was backed with AA banners, and the side walls were decorated with badly translated AA slogans.
“Lets go and led God,” read one that should have said, “Let go and let God”. “Action is the magic world,” read another that should have said, “Action is the magic word”.
"Alcoholic: cunning, baffling, powerful,” read another. It should have read, “Alcohol: Cunning, baffling, powerful”, but somehow, that one worked.
Harry led me into a kitchen at the back, where women were stirring huge steel pots the size of small cars. We wolfed down snatched handfuls of kesera ? an orange-coloured semolina dessert ? then made our way back into the hall, where about 200 drunks had taken their seats to listen to the opening preamble for this, the 13th anniversary of Salem AA.
The meeting had brought all the town’s separate groups together in one “intergroup”, along with visiting neighbours such as us. Amid the jelly-gobbling sounds of Tamil, I suddenly heard the words “New Zealander”. The founder of Salem AA, a huge, mirthful Toad of Toad Hall, who had hugged me warmly in greeting, was nodding at me from the stage. “Stand up,” said a voice behind me. I stood up, turned to the crowd and gave a small ? appropriately sheepish ? wave. Seeing those 200 faces staring back shook me; I prayed that I wouldn’t have to share later.
Then the sharing began. Each man ? for they were all men ? walked to the stage and tried, amateurishly, to talk into the microphone with varying degrees of success, most eventually talking above, to the side or below and failing to be entirely heard. A guy sitting on my right had a greasy side parting and an ill-fitting dental bridge that gave him a Hammer House of Horrors look. He insisted on translating everything into English for me at a volume louder than the poorly-heard speakers, much to the annoyance of those around us.
To make things worse, he laughed heartily after each unfunny translation, as if I was supposed to join in. I joined in, weakly.
Then, after an interminable hour of Tamil translation, I suddenly heard the words “Mathews, from NEW ZEALAND!” The chairman was holding out his hand and beckoning me up onto the stage. I tried a few “who, me?” looks, in a vain bid to get out of it, but it was clearly futile.
There were words of encouragement and pats on the back. I walked up on stage and nervously shook the chairman’s hand. (I later noticed that other members touched his feet in respect.) I turned to face the crowd. It seemed to have swollen ? a sea of dark skin ? and my heart leapt into my throat.
“Hello?” I ventured, and the word exploded shakily out from the microphone and echoed in my ears. I resolved not to look at the crowd.
I would look solely at the microphone. I hadn’t realised at the time that this made me look cross-eyed.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Tamil…”
I knew only one word in Tamil - “nandri”, or thank you. Suddenly, a man burst from the crowd. “I will translate,” he said, waving a hand in the air. It was the perpetually ecstatic Harry. I felt some degree of relief as he took up position by my side, holding a cordless microphone. I began by telling how I had been travelling to AA meetings in every country I’d visited: Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and now India.
Slowly, the room broke into wide grins and then applause.
“Do you want me to tell my story?” I asked Harry, away from the microphone. His wide grin got impossibly wider, almost eating his moustache, and he seemed to jump up and down on the spot.
“OK, er, OK, I’ll just tell a five-minute version,” I stammered. But as I began to talk into that microphone, my plosives occasionally exploding and causing wild feedback, the strangest thoughts began rushing through my mind. It started with: “This is insane.” Then escalated to: “What am I doing here? How did I get here? Does this qualify as some sort of religious f—ing rally? Have I turned into some kind of evangelist?” Then, finally, inexplicably: “Am I wearing ladies’ underwear?” and “What is three multiplied by 286?”
Somehow, in a trance, I managed to complete my story. “Thank you,” I concluded - forgetting the single word of Tamil that I knew - and retook my seat to applause. I feared people were really feeling that I was just another rich, spoilt westerner with money and time to burn.
The meeting moved into its second and final stage as the Alanon families of the drunks entered the hall, boosting the gathering to more than 500. A beautiful, tall, teenage girl with slightly bucked teeth got up and spoke into the microphone with a confidence and professionalism that put all us drunks to shame.
She was followed by a 10-year-old, who shouted painfully, flinchingly, over the PA that her drunk parents had refused to come down with her to the meeting. She had come down with the wife of her AA neighbour.
Her parents were still fighting at home. They fought every night. She begged and begged for them to go to an AA meeting but they refused.
Her presence was a powerful gesture.
The dean of the medical institute, an elderly and elegant woman in a sky blue sari, then spoke at length about the need for ego deflation and surrendering to God’s will. To conclude, a fat, sweating South Indian spiritual leader sang beautifully, plaintively into the microphone in an opening prayer, then seemed to perform a stand-up comedy act for half an hour, reducing the perpetually gleeful Tamils into tears of laughter.
Then, three and a half hours after the meeting had begun, it was over, and I dreaded the awkwardness of having to face those to whom I’d told my story.
Within seconds, I was grabbed by more than 30 drunks, all of whom wanted me to pose for photos with them, each wrapping their arms around me as we froze for the shot. I felt embarrassed, but flattered and honoured.
I was presented with a silver platter of mutton, chicken and egg biryani that had been brought from the front of the long dinner queue for me. I sat and tried to absorb its fiery spiciness, scooped up to my mouth with my fingers, while answering questions about my marital status, age, marital status, age, and age, and marital status.
Back in the bus, Harry wrapped his arms around me, laughing. “Everybody is saying you were the highlight of the meeting,” he said, slapping me about the body with glee. “Everybody is telling me how much they enjoyed your sharing.
“Really, Mathews, you should get married. When are you going to settle down and get married?”
As we drove back under a sunset that bled through banana leaves, dripping orange down into the green-trunked shadows, I thought only one thing: “Eight hundred and fifty-eight. Three multiplied by 280 is 840. Three sixes are eighteen. Three times 286 is 858.”
And I’ve never worn ladies’ underwear.
©2017 by Mat Ward. All rights reserved.
Mat Ward is an Australian-based writer who was born in Manchester, England, but holds dual New Zealand citizenship from half a decade working in Auckland. He now lives in Sydney with his Tamil wife, who moved to Australia from Delhi 35 years ago, and their young Australian-born son. Mat has travelled through 46 countries, but one of his favourite, never-ending odysseys is exploring sweltering Sydney by bicycle at a slow 14 kilometres an hour. As well as "Around The World In 80 AA’s”, he is also the author of the book “Real Talk: Aboriginal Rappers Talk About Their Music And Country”, which has been called “a must-read” by Britain’s “I Am Hip-Hop” magazine. Radio show host Tommy Rock says of “Real Talk”: “I was blown away by the book in that these aren’t just straight up interviews, there are so many geographical points and histories. Incredible book. Can’t big it up enough. Everyone should go out and get this book.” It can be read online for free at www.realtalkthebook.com.
Buy “Around the World in 80 AA’s” here