It was when a few latecomers arrived that something changed forever. For as I turned to observe one of the women who just entered the room, it felt as if Cupid had fallen from above, grabbed a knot of my hairs with his left hand, and smacked me right in the nose with his right fist.
“That’s the one, you silly traveler! That’s your travel and life partner!” Cupid screamed before he slapped me again and flew upwards in the night’s sky.
Let’s back up a little though.
After 10 months on the road from China to Mongolia and all the way back down to Southeast Asia overland, my travels started to stink like something old and covered in moss. Truth be told, I was jaded. I had spent enough days cruising around new places, and lazed sufficient nights away in the company of backpackers and locals alike. I had overcome the initial phase of travel bliss, and had fallen facedown in… let’s call it “reality”. My mind was constantly reflecting whether or not to keep up with my point-to-pointless vagabonding really was the right thing to do.
Visiting the backpacker-filled islands of Southern Thailand didn’t help, either. I found the quickest escape down south to Malaysia, a new nation I had never visited before. When I got to Pulau Penang in December 2008 and discovered a place where prayers floated to the sky in three different languages and people of all colors went about their business without minding my own, I kind of recovered my travel bliss. I stayed for four days and loved it, but was ready to move on in my perpetual research for something I never truly focalized.
“Please, stay one more night. I’m organizing a Couchsurfing meeting tomorrow, you’d be most welcome to join us,” a local who had taken care of me proposed me to stay.
“Why not?” I said.
I found myself sitting around a crowded table, an empty chair at my right side, and all the others but two at the opposite far end occupied. The conversation was OK, but again, I had seen it all for the past ten months, from the Gobi desert to all the obvious Shangri-las and any other bucolic traveller hideout in-between.
I had overcome the initial phase of travel bliss, and had fallen facedown in… let’s call it “reality”. My mind was constantly reflecting whether or not to keep up with my point-to-pointless vagabonding really was the right thing to do.
Then she walked into the room.
She, a petite, smiling and sexy girl, looked around to choose where to sit. And mind you, I didn’t hint at her to come by; she just walked towards me, pulled the chair and sat right at my side. The rest is a very long story that, to make short, ends up with renting an apartment in Penang, me going back to university and working to become a freelance writer, as I woke up every morning to see her lovely face snooze over the pillow next to mine. With, of course, tons of travel freedom and bliss in-between.
Is a relationship on the road for me?
Trust me, not everyone can handle it. The challenges are many, and the solutions are never at close reach. On one hand, usual questions like, “What am I going to do now?” become more important in the new scheme of things as you try to fit yourself in the frame of a new culture.
I believe that it’s when we get out of our comfort zones that we start to travel, for real.
All of a sudden instead of jetting off to a new location, I wanted to stay put for a while, find a job, something to do that could make me a better fit for my new environs and fill my days. Even more crucially, I had to worry even more about language barriers, new laws, visa durations, and deadlines for border runs.
On the other hand, the novelty of a culture, the chance of turning from a know-nothing backpacker to a cultural insider, the ability to start seeing things from a very different perspective and grow as a human being, are all priceless achievements worth your daily fight for integration. For sure, it’s not for everybody, but I believe that it’s when we get out of our comfort zones that we start to travel, for real. In and out and inside of our own selves, for growth and ultimate change.
My personal experience
As far as I’m concerned, Cupid –although very impolite- was correct: Kit Yeng was the right one for me, because we shared the common love for travel. Once we started talking, we naturally swapped our best travel tales. She was also into travel photography, and pretty good at it; but being an Asian girl, she didn’t have all the courage and cultural freedom required to storm off in search of new horizons. That’s where I could help.
Truth be told, I had seen a lot during my travels, but with the superficial view of a passing meteor. I had seen many flowers, yes, but from the top of a horseback, as an old Chinese proverb says. Can any other passing traveler state otherwise? Ours was the perfect match, because we fitted each other’s desires to see the outer world.
Taking the good with the bad
Relationships built on the road between people of different cultures is difficult. The goods were almost outweighed by a lot of problematic situations. One, getting the respect of her family was tough (at first). Stereotypes paint both sides of the fence, and white travelers are never seen as examples of high morals in rapid changing Southeast Asia. I was lucky enough not to enter a religious family, otherwise the problems would have been so daunting I may have given up.
Work came to be another issue. She lived there and had a job. All I had was time. It took me several months and a few visa runs to find the option of going back to university and take a Master’s degree course, as Penang was quite tough in terms of long-term work opportunities for foreigners without money to invest into a tourist business.
Once things started unfolding, I completely forgot why I was so jaded, and I felt immediately busy and happy with making a new start in a foreign life environment.
The situation I was in spurred me to sit down and start finding more and more freelance jobs to manage from my laptop’s screen, and eventually shape up the humble beginnings of a writing career. In hindsight, the university choice was maybe not the best, but it gave me a chance to stay with a valid year-long visa, entitled me to open up a bank account, rent an apartment, and thus cut my expenses two-fold and have a more appropriate “love nest.” More importantly, it allowed me the chance to learn how the system of the society I decided to settle in worked.
Getting my hands dirty with all the above work and challenges resulted in the solution of the first and foremost problem: my travel blues. Once things started unfolding, I completely forgot why I was so jaded, and I felt immediately busy and happy with making a new start in a foreign life environment.
Can you make love on the road happen, too?
Yes. If you can cope with the increased set of challenges and the lack of a homely support. As a suggestion, start by finding a home. Apartments are widely available everywhere these days, and give you not just an air of respectability, but also that of someone who’s not going to pack stuff up and leave any day soon.
Another gold rule is to be upfront and honest with your travel plans. Your wanderlust most likely won’t just go away, and if you plan on continuing on with your travels, tell your new partner. Or preferably, include him or her. Pay for their tickets and take them where they dream to go. Share your passion for travel and show how fun it can be if done together. Most importantly, respect their schedule and show that, with some planning, anything is possible.
This can definitely be a huge toll on your travel freedom, but by not sacrificing, you will hit the road, alone. Enter his or her world, show respect, and require the same deal of respect towards your own choices. Give as much as you want to receive – when the scale’s balanced out, there’s no sacrifice less worthy than reaching a new stability and happiness.
Obviously, to be happy you must live in happy environs. Hence, try to balance out your love life with reality, because the initial love-obsession eventually fades. Test them on the long run. See if you are truly compatible.
As things get more serious and start to progress, you need to ask yourself, to be fair to both you and your partner, “Will this new companion be the right fit for your travel inclinations?”
If your desires are diverse, remember than night and day only touch for a few moments at dawn and dusk, and that could also be the reality of your relationship. Be very careful and aware of this, because home can be half the world away.
As a last advice, sacrifice your freedom as much as you think it’s worth. You can hang around in a place looking for work opportunities for a while, but if nothing moves in 6 months, you may need to move on. If the relationship is for real, he or she will help you make the right choice, even follow you, if possible or necessary.
A final word of advice
Please remember that after all, love on the road is an easy illusion – a one night stand brings feeble happiness but doesn’t solve our emotional hunger, nor give us a permanent solution for it. Such is the value of traveling by following our selfish rules. Because when deciding to leave most of what we have behind and travel in the first place, we enforce our personal choice. And when the initial “travel bliss” fades into another routine, finding and accepting serendipitous love without having fear of never going back to our old selves can be a viable – albeit adventurous and risky – decision to keep “traveling” indefinitely.
If you asked me and Kit Yeng, after having traveled together to over 20 countries, from the top of the Himalayas to the Iranian and Turkmen deserts to the depths of the Indonesian jungles and seas, we keep being amazed of how much travel we make into each other every day by sharing a life in Malaysia. And no, this is not a sexual metaphor: it’s real travel bliss, if you trust me.
To learn more about traveling as a couple and love on the road, read:
- How Two Totally Different Travel Styles Come Together
- Trading Divorce for Travel
- How Traveling as a Couple Can Enrich Your Trip (& Your Relationship)
- Five Ground Rules for Traveling as Couple on a Long Trip