People often talk about travel like it’s limited to two phases of life: young and single, or retirement. Like those are two times of life when responsibility is low and funds are, if not ample, at least undesignated.
But I’d like to challenge that notion.
I started traveling the world at age 20. Young, single, creatively scheming ways to see the world on the cheap. I did mission work in Thai prisons. Research in East Africa. Nannied in the Caribbean. Stayed with cousins in Scandinavia.
I stayed in a sort of commune and then backpacked for 40 days around Europe by myself to, as my mother put it: “See what condition my condition was in.”
Eventually I went to graduate school in London, and found ways to see the Middle East and Eastern Europe for pennies (or pence, rather).
I joined up with friends and family along the way. Sometimes for better, often times for worse. Travel companions are a far more select breed than mere friends. I have many dear friends whom, when we are in a new or foreign place, I want to shove into the nearest river. But there is nothing better, or more telling, than finding a compatible travel companion.
When I met my husband, Lewis, he was a solo traveler of his own sort. He did nonprofit architecture work in Sub-Saharan Africa and India. He biked around Australia. He’d ogled Barcelona and Italy with sketchbook in hand. Our mutual wanderlust was no small part of the spark when we met in San Antonio, our hometown, the last place we thought we’d meet our mate. It’s actually uncanny, and we should probably invent a more exotic story.
On our first trip together, I dazzled him by clearing airport security more efficiently than he did. We still have an unspoken competition on who can get by with the leaner, meaner luggage.
During that first trip I was nervous, a little bit, that we would not travel well together. That bickering and irritation would get in the way of the silent obsession I indulge as I take in a new place, observing and lingering. That my sacred place of being a stranger would be invaded by this person who knew me so well.
When we sat down on the steps of some monument after a long day of exploring, and I rested my head on his shoulder, I knew this would be the first of many trips. I didn’t want to be alone on those steps. I wasn’t feeling invaded by his experience. I was feeling expanded. Not only had I seen many wonderful things that day … but I had enjoyed him enjoying them.
I didn’t want to push him into the river.
On our most recent trip – Machu Picchu and the Galapagos – Lewis got sick on the morning we were scheduled to see the Machu Picchu citadel. It was a work trip for me, as a luxury travel consultant, so skipping the citadel was not an option. I enjoyed it, took some great photos, and logged away all the fun things to recount upon my return to the hotel room. I lingered where I wanted to linger, but several times found myself lingering because that’s where my architect husband would have lingered.
The next morning the antibiotics had kicked in, and we took advantage of a second entrance to the citadel. He lingered right where I thought he would and I felt like I was unburdened of the responsibility of carrying all of the wonder of the citadel for myself. It was like having an extra suitcase to hold some of the marvel.
Later, in the Galapagos, we were snorkeling around a cove that was shaping up to be rather lackluster; schools of familiar fish, barnacles. I kicked ahead toward the shadowy part of the cove, hoping for something colorful.
We were at least 50 meters away from our little dinghy when out of the dark horizon, a figure materialized.
About six feet long and swishing its tale in that eerily ominous serpentine motion that we all recognize from the tank at Sea World. It disappeared into the dark before Lewis could see it, and he kept kicking forward into the darkness ahead.
It should be noted that I am deathly afraid of swimming into dark water. I always struggle to keep from imagining the very thing I’d just seen in reality.
A shark, materializing out of nowhere.
On its next pass, the shark swam directly beneath us, about five feet from our tender, vulnerable vital organs. This time Lewis saw it too.
I jerked my head out of the water and sputtered to keep from hyperventilating in my snorkel. Lewis pulled his head up too. But he was grinning.
“That was so great!” he said.
I looked back toward the dinghy and sighed, and the panic subsided. If he wasn’t scared, then there was no point in me going back to the boat and missing out on the adventure. And so we swam with the shark.
Traveling alone requires a certain moxie, and the reward is independence. But traveling with the right companion doubles the risks, and the reward.
A friend was contemplating cashing in much of his life savings on a big European adventure. He asked me for my best piece of travel advice. I said this, “Travel with someone you love or travel alone.”
It’s really not so different, traveling with one of your soul mates or traveling alone. As my best friend (and one of my most compatible travel companions) said once, “Being with you is like being alone, but better.”
Travel doesn’t have to be international or exotic. It doesn’t have to be luxurious or even relaxing. But it should open your world a little wider, so try to bring along the ones you want there with you.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.