When travelling, there are a few shortfalls that need to be accepted as inevitable at one time or other: illness, loneliness, and heartbreak.
We tell ourselves that illness can be addressed, that loneliness can be made peace with, but we do not often allow ourselves to think of heartbreak more than fleetingly. Such dismissiveness is honed in defensive denial; we swear up and down that would never be so irrational as to develop romantic attachments during a time of travel or expatriation.
And, as with all people who try to deny and control their emotions, we are proven wrong.
Travel is a vulnerable-making experience. We displace ourselves from the comfortable confines of a map in which we can intuitively orient in pursuit of something transcendental. To do so is a radical upheaval – one must breach language barriers, currency ignorance, and obliviousness to the insider tips and tricks that make navigating one’s home (whatever that may be) a comfortable, safe, and, at times, boring place to be.
It is peculiar, the discord amongst even those who seek the discomforting rush of travel, and the persistence of personalised armour from vulnerable moments. Each and every type of travel requires some risk, some adventurousness, some willingness to transform oneself from a pigeon in the roost to a canary in a coalmine. On the road, each and every task is a concerted effort by contrast to the easy ways in which they are undertaken at home. One does not simply find a restaurant to eat a meal, or intuitively traverse town, or bump into a familiar face. But still, despite the universal difficulty entrenched in this way of being, a fear of vulnerability persists in all.
People are social creatures. We require community to thrive. Leaving the comfortable confines of our home-based networks means that each and every conversation we enter abroad is one of innate vulnerability; we acknowledge our dearth of dependable networks and rely upon equal vulnerability from strangers to forge friendships.
However, with the thrill of being far from home and thusly empowered to do anything, romantic entanglements can escalate with rapidity. Show me a traveller who has sacrificed months and money of their lives to a departure from their sensible lives, and I will show you someone who invariably gets a nostalgic twinkle in their eye when prompted about romance on the road.
I was determined to be the exception and that was exactly why I wasn’t. Irony did not spare me – with an indefinite length trip and six continents to traverse, I found myself intoxicated on the attentions of a boy from Australia. We agreed there would be no long distance relationship, no commitment to one another, no expectation of an endgame. I had no desire to be tethered to home and he claimed to know better than to chase a girl who may never return.
And yet, we kept happening to one another, both pretending it was a coincidence. I began to smile secretly at the thought of him. He began to incorporate intimate pet names into our conversations. He decided that he wanted to chase me to Thailand. And I, who had been so adamant that my travel ambitions would not be derailed by fancies of the heart, decided to let him.
Five days passed in a flurry of heady romance. We did battle with locals during Songkran and kissed in a monsoonal storm on a deserted white sand beach. We were manic pixie poets who collided headfirst, scattering fairy dust in our wake. The walls I had so carefully cultivated over months and years slowly began to crumble. He would absentmindedly use the word love in passing relation to me, and I, not being one to provoke self-consciousness for my own gratification, never brought to his attention his inadvertent honesty. But I heard him. And I glowed.
The decision to leave me before the projected end date of our time together was a hard one to accept, but I, wanting to salvage at least some semblance of dignity, continued with our itinerary alone. Heartbreak is akin to grief because one must not only process the immediacy of rejection, but make peace with the curtailment of a shared future also. We only had tentative ideas – never plans – of what each day and the next would hold, but as I explained at the ferry dock that the second ticket under my reservation would no longer be needed with a trembling lip, I felt that this heartbreak was just as palpable as any serious love I had known.
I not only knew, but reveled in the understanding that our time together would never be a conventional relationship. Even so, its culmination was painful all the same. Though our precarious partnership had not gone as I had hoped, I do not deem the experience a failure. With no projection of a life built together, the adventure we shared was in the slow unfurling of barriers, and to this end, it was a success. To expose one’s inner self to another is the only way to forge a sincere connection between the two, and so to be spurned in doing so is a devastating experience. But this devastation is without regret, for regret is applicable only to things that should never have happened. I would not trade those explosive five days, though they winged me, for a lifetime without romantic turbulence. Because that would mean never being vulnerable again, and I have no intention of ever forgoing the exciting, enjoyable messes of shared experience with another human.
I rendered myself vulnerable in a land far from home, even as I had sworn up and down I never would… and it was the bravest, most exhilarating, most affirming adventure I’ve had, because it demanded me to be myself: unarmoured, and unrepentant. And I will do so again. And again. And again. Any number of times it takes and with any number of people whom the possibility of connection is worth the risk.
And if it is hard for my dear readers to imagine how tumbling into a vulnerable space far from home is not the most courageous thing one can ever do, then I implore you: pick up a backpack, and find out for yourself.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.