Not Dating, Just Dreaming: Romance and Backpacking

My 12th grade English teacher was a woman with straight, grey hair who introduced me to my favorite book and a poem that was my favorite, but has since been replaced. I’ve stuffed high school memories into the deepest pits of brain for my confidence’s sake, but I’ve always remembered a moment from that class.

We were talking about relationships. I’m paraphrasing an offhand remark from six years ago, but she said something along the lines of if she had the choice between someone who lived a similar life in the United States and someone with a wildly different lifestyle (I think her example was Indian royalty?), she would marry the person in the United States, no matter how much she loved the other person. Practicality was a key player in marriage, was the idea of what she was saying.

Her comment struck me because it seemed just that, practical. As president of the school’s drama club (no one should be surprised,) and a 17-year old girl who only had a tastebud’s worth of a serious relationship and heartbreak, my teacher’s statement was a bit of a letdown. You couldn’t marry someone you were wildly in love with? You couldn’t live around the world to make it work? Where was the “happily ever after” in that? Returning home to America when you have a soulmate across the world just … didn’t make for a great story.

Because that’s all romance was to me at the time…it was just stories. My tastebud’s worth of romance was a drama that I could tell to my older friends. The script held the person on the other line of the phone call by the shirt collar. I’m no good unless I have a good story, and this rule unfortunately held true for most of my dating life. It certainly held true when I was swiping on Tinder and conjuring up my best pickup lines while backpacking Europe. It wasn’t until my last (and let’s be honest, first actual) relationship that I realized that relationships are something to take seriously, not something to be thrown around for gossip and giggles.

But we broke up so I could travel. You all know that.

So this most recent trip has turned my romantic life on its head, yet again. When the subject of relationships came up during a phone call with my mother, she said, “You’re not going to date anyone in Australia, right?” My family and I are very close, and a serious relationship with an Aussie would make for some wildly expensive and stressful holidays.

“No,” I said. Practical. Easy enough. Dating within a roadtrip’s distance was a fair approach for anyone. And so it was, I thought, standing alone in my Austin apartment, probably eating French fries. My last year in Philadelphia, I shut off any desire to date for practical reasons (I knew I would be moving after graduation.) As I packed my bag for Asia and Australia, I shut it off again.

The problem is, my sweet side, has always been my best side. The problem is I love to flirt, I love to send secret smirks across the room, I love to be tempted with one more cheap beer after everyone else in the group retreats to their dorms. The problem is backpacking makes everything feels a little more romantic. The random introductions in the lobby. The pub crawls. The full moon shining at 3 a.m., when I’m still up and talking about how we don’t know what you’re going to do with our lives. The point in the night where I take a sip of beer and ask the group, “What are your hopes and dreams?” The answers that give me hope and make me laugh.

When you’re backpacking, the city is your playground, the world is at your fingertips, ~the streets are ours~.

(Sorry, it’s just a great song. Need to break up all the text because lord knows I’m not adding pictures of anyone I’ve mentioned in this post. HA. By the way, when I’m at home, I am nowhere near this cheesy and wanderlusty and full of awe.)

But all that cheesy nonsense looks like romance until you’ve woken up from this little dream, drool soaking your arm, crust in your eyes, with an hour left to go until you’ve reached Hat Yai. The other person is in a different country, waking up. And you’re alone. You won’t dance in the streets with them ever again. You’ve promised to see each other in a year, but you’ve got to cross Central America off of your list next year. You’ve woken up.

It was just a dream.

Dream after dream, city after city. Falling asleep in Ireland, falling asleep in Scotland, falling asleep in Spain. Sometimes you wake up when you sneak out of the hostel and hop on the bus for the next city. Sometimes your dreams follow you across the country and there you are, drinking a tea, checking your Facebook messages, the trace of blush in your cheeks as you think about the time you just spent with _____ in _____. Sometimes it takes a bit of ghosting. Sometimes it really hurts, despite knowing that absence never makes the backpacker’s heart grow fonder. Absence is a constant. You’re only in a city for a week tops. You move fast. You miss everyone quickly.

I certainly hit the snooze button on my earlier travel excursions. I wanted to make things work with people I had known for a day or a week at most. This was before I ever had a real relationship, so these dreams were fueled by a bit of delusion, and the drama of a good story that I used to fuel all of my relationships. I was ready to drive hours out of my way to see someone in New York, even though I’d be moving to Texas the next week. I did reroute a trip (and take a smelly five hour Megabus) to see someone in England. When I said, “see you in a year,” I meant it. I planned on it. These stories were too good to pass up. This could happen. This could last. Like, I met a guy on the top of a goddamn mountain while we were backpacking. A bartender the next day told us it must have been love at first sight, and we shuffled away awkwardly, because neither of us had mentioned that it took place the day before. I surely wasn’t in love but you have to want to pursue someone when it’s that great of a story.

Needless to say, I eventually woke up. Having a serious relationship shook me and it’s been harder to snooze away in Asia and Australia. But it’s happened. Starting my Australian travels in a house all by myself didn’t distract me when I found myself missing a guy from my trip. Another “see you in a year.” I didn’t believe it when I said it this time around, but I wasn’t free from a shrug or a sigh when I saw a message from him pop up on my Facebook and had to ask myself, “What are you actually doing here?”

Each new metaphorical day can be a little heartbreaking. As empty as the promises were in the first place, you ask yourself if you can make it out to ____ in a year. You ask yourself where you fit in the other person’s travel stories. You do the work of detaching yourself, as you do from everyone else you’ve met and laughed with and shared a drink with. You’re annoyed that you actually, genuinely liked this person. You’re annoyed that you want to spend time with them, even though you’re in _____, and you have so many new people to meet. You wonder if this was/is easier or harder for travelers who don’t use Facebook messenger or WhatsApp.

It’s hard enough when you’re processing this rejection-via-circumstances by yourself. Backpacker romance lasts for a week at best, and before you can even wake up from your dreams, everyone has split to three different countries.

So what’s next? I ask myself, trying to find where this blog post is going.

On this backpacking trip, I’ve set my alarm earlier, but I can’t expect myself to stop flirting or stepping into a dream or two. I’m not closing myself off to the possibility of a majestic love story, but I’m reminding myself of what’s coming up in the story that I’m writing myself. There is a plane ticket back into America in my future. There’s a van trip throughout Canada in my future. There’s the gringo trail in Central America, that bucket list item of visiting Mongolia, moving to a place where I can settle down and teach yoga. There’s the possibility of scrapping all of these plans in a matter of minutes. There’s no time for a relationship when you don’t know where you’ll be in six months.

Is this the drumroll of a cliche romantic comedy character that is closing themselves off based solely on the fear of reliving similar heartbreak?

Sure.

Does this mean the plot is going where we all think, or maybe hope, it’s going? Does this mean in a matter of months, I’ll be blogging about ___ Cutest Date Spots in _____, sharing selfies with cheesy hashtags, changing my itinerary to fit someone else’s?

I’m left speechless. I know as much as you do. I know that I hear my 12th grade teacher’s voice in the back of my head whenever I start dozing off too much. Romance is more than a happy ending and a grandiose story. None of the Disney Princesses had to worry about squeezing their bank accounts dry for a plane ticket.

So…stay tuned?

And don’t go backpacking if you’re not ready to do a little dreaming. ~

5 Replies to “Not Dating, Just Dreaming: Romance and Backpacking”

  1. Thanks for the open and interesting article! Backpacking is such a different world of romance. But anything can happen, I met my partner while travelling and we’ve made it work for the last 3 years!

  2. I just had a conversation with a guy about relationships and my deployment style life. It was interesting realizing how much of a dreamer I really am, but also how much I’ve learned from all the heartbreak when I wanted things to work and they never did. Amazing post and I can’t wait to hear more!!

  3. I can relate to this. I think sometimes you just have to let yourself fall and see where you end up. Sometimes it takes six years, you reconnect after a flirtation in China, and then you start travel visiting one another in European cities. Do I know what the next step is? No. But that is the beauty of letting yourself fall.

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