By Sarah Sekula, Special to CNN
(CNN) — Ah, the age-old tradition of getting tipsy and running amok. Sometimes you’ve just got to do it. For members of the Hash House Harriers, it’s common practice. This self-professed “drinking club with a running problem” is part scavenger hunt, part exercise and part debauchery.
Not surprisingly, its members run the gamut. A hasher could be the taxi driver who just dropped you off or the lady at the money exchange booth or the CEO of a hotel chain. They might be locals, they might be expats. They might be buff Marines or sluggish video gamers. What they all have in common is a sense of humor.
The oddball club got its start 75 years ago in prewar Malaysia and now has nearly 2,000 chapters spanning all seven continents. It began with a group of British colonial officers and expats looking for ways to ease their weekend hangovers. The name came from their billet, often referred to as the Hash House, where they’d eat their monotonous corned-beef dinners, and the pastime they came up with was a wilder version of a British paper chase.
Here’s how it goes: A group of runners (aka pack of hounds) looks for clues (dashes of flour or chalk marks) on the ground to indicate the correct path. These clues are left by designated runners called hares. Here’s the kicker: There are also misleading signs that lead to a dead end. In other words, nobody knows where the trail goes and someone will get lost at some point, especially because there are typically adult beverages pre-hash, at the halfway point and post-hash.
All that said, you will definitely see things on a hash that you won’t see in any guidebook. And for most travelers, that is a huge bonus.
So, how exactly do you join? Most groups are very welcoming and open to newbies showing up, even if you’re not a hasher at home. There is no global directory, but try a Google or Facebook search for “Hash House Harriers,” and you’ll find gatherings all over the world.
Plus, here’s some advice from a few avid hashers.
Jair Zuta La Rosa
Location: Lima, Peru; Lima Hash House Harriers
Hash name: Virgin Lips
Hashes in Peru (the Lima group is the only one in Peru) are typically held on Saturday afternoons. The festivities start around 2 p.m. and so does the drinking. “Beer is always present, but it’s also common to have pisco, a brandy made in Peru,” says Jair Zuta La Rosa. Whiskey and tequila have been known to make appearances, too.
By 3 p.m., the hashing begins and a group of 20 to 120 people run for two to three hours. But it’s not a marathon by any means. There’s a route for runners and another for walkers — both meet at the beer stop.
“The hash is not a competition,” says La Rosa. In fact, if you’re overly competitive, you may be punished for being a show-off. Punishment can also result from failing to acknowledge the beer stop or wearing new shoes or saying someone’s real name instead of their hash name. (Hashers all go by nicknames, many of them R-rated, that are often selected for them by other runners). These transgressions can lead to you wearing a toilet seat around your neck or doing a “down-down,” which means your must chug your beverage or pour it over your head.
After the run there’s a gathering featuring lots of nonsensical, colonial hash songs and, you guessed it, more beer. La Rosa says he can’t get enough of it. He started hashing in 2008 and has attended most of the hashes since.
“Some hashes are especially crazy,” he says. Take, for example, the worldwide annual charity Red Dress Runs, where people sport everything from red feather boas to red heels. Or an Ale-lympics event held in Israel that involved a beer-can high jump and beer-can distance throwing. Then, there’s the Extreme Ironing Run, also in Israel, where hashers run with ironing boards strapped to their backs. Other hashes are more family friendly and involve much less drinking or none at all; it just depends on the organization.
Location: Jerusalem; Holyland Hash House Harriers
Hash name: Boston Creamed
Occupation: Marketing communications director and journalist
There is something in the anarchic absurdity of the hash that appeals to people like Rachel Neiman, a lifelong Monty Python fan. “It’s not about the running,” she says. “I’m not a great runner, believe me. It’s the crazy insanity of a group of people dashing down a Jerusalem street after Captain Caveman following sounds of ‘on-on’ and tootles on a vuvuzela. That’s what makes it fun.”
It attracts all types. The Holyland HHH has a core group of locals (mostly long-time immigrants to Israel) along with an ever-changing population of itinerant diplomats, Marines, contract workers and other expats.
In this particular hash club, you are nicknamed after the group gets to know you a little bit and after you’ve set a trail yourself. Four months after Neiman joined, the others still didn’t know that much about her, but they did know she is from Boston. From then on, she was known as Boston Creamed. “Like most hash names,” she says, “it is vaguely suggestive.”
The naming ceremonies “are a big giant secret,” she says. “It involves flour and beer, and you need to take at least three showers before your hair gets clean.”
Homebase: Brussels, Belgium; BH3 — Brussels Hash House Harriers
Day job: Blog editor
Hash name: Lady Godiva
Sheridan Becker discovered the wild and wooly world of HHH while she was living and working as a marketing manager in Hong Kong. During her travels over the past 25 years, she has hashed with five packs in four countries, through the open markets of Hong Kong, the green fields of Ireland and the beautiful beaches of Jamaica.
These days, she opts for family-style hashes, which welcome children by offering soft drinks instead of alcohol and by toning down the drinking songs. With her 10 and 12-year-old boys in tow, they conquer the wide open spaces of Brussels. Alexander, her younger son, delights in finding the trail markers, eating the big dinner at the end of the hash and is always surprised that “all these older people are in shape.”
The greatest part, Becker says, is that no membership fees are required, so you just chip in for food and drinks. Her advice for newbies: “Don’t come with expectations, so you won’t end up disappointed,” she says. “Folks without a sense of humor or adventure should think twice about participating in a hash.”
Dr. Jürg Gassmann
Homebase: Bühler, Switzerland
Hash name: Sparrowfart
Dr. Jurg Gassman has hashed with more than a dozen packs in 10 countries spread over three continents, from the narrow streets of Tokyo to the heat and dust of Karachi to the beaches of Nassau to the leafy residential areas of Toronto to the bicycle lanes of Holland. He started at 23 and now he’s 51. It hasn’t been all fun and games, however. Gassman says he once had a standoff with what he believes was the yakuza, Japan’s notorious homegrown mafia. One yakuza nearly drew a sword on him and his fellow hashers.
Despite that sketchy encounter, he says: “It’s an opportunity to let your hair down and have some fun,” he says. “Most of the guys I met were bankers, lawyers, diplomats, spies, soldiers. They’re all crazy, that’s the nice thing. You can’t take yourself too seriously if you’re hashing.”
If you go, he says, don’t wear anything new. Some hashes are civilized, others are merciless.
Also, keep in mind: “You have to be non-PC tolerant and accept that it can cross the line. I’ve seen teetotalers as members and they enjoy themselves, though it does tend to be the exception.”