In 2001, single and 32, I spent a bunch of months backpacking. Pre-cellphone era. Alone. In French-speaking countries. In West Africa.
I rode helmet-less on mopeds and sunscreen-less on bull-drawn carts. I slept on roadsides in Ivory Coast and rooftops in Mali. I ate whatever food was available, which meant lots of rehydrated onions and starch. I shared laughter and tears with locals (and once, accidentally, my bare backside). And I loved it all.
My family was used to this type of behavior; on previous trips, I sometimes landed in areas with such antiquated infrastructure that I was incommunicado for six weeks at a time. They resigned themselves to trusting, as I do, that my guardian angels had my back. That one day I would emerge from our hometown airport, sunburned and with a ferocious craving for cheesecake.
But once I started online dating, I found that my style of travel was unsuited to most men. After a night out with an elementary school teacher — during which I told him that yeah, if I had kids, I’d take them to Africa — he sent a string of psychoanalytic emails about how I was “unfit to be a mother.” Other guys I went out with were nice, but their idea of adventure was renting a Jeep in Hawaii. My wanderlust fell about 5,000 miles outside of their comfort zone.
I didn’t want to remain single forever. And so I undertook the same assessment that many youngish adults find themselves facing: What does it mean to settle down? More specifically, was I being selfish by insisting that, even if I had a partner, I needed — at least some of the time — to travel alone?
Solo travel wasn’t a frivolous pastime; it was core to my entire being. To me, there was nothing more claustrophobic than a life where I never got to feel alone on the open road.
When I gave online dating one last go, my profile painted no illusions of wanting round-the-clock togetherness, or that I would be content with the occasional girls’ weekend in Vegas. I was 34, and on dates I was unapologetic about all the places I still wanted to see, preferably on my own. For me to ever be one half of a successful marriage, the other half had to be cool with that.
Fourteen years later, I can say that, while a free-range woman isn’t every guy’s idea of a catch, it was to one — and a great one at that. My husband and I married in 2003. Since then, we’ve traveled extensively together, and I’ve ventured far and wide without him, even taking a six-month job contract in Cameroon.
When I’m away, I (sometimes not so gently) remind him I just want hang with myself for a while, so please don’t bug me to Skype. He understands. He may be miffed for a moment, but only because he misses me.
Then he remembers it was my fearless independence that drew him to me in the first place. We exchange emails, and I carry on to my next port of call, secure in the knowledge that not only do I have guardian angels watching over me, I have a partner who loves all of me, even when he doesn’t know where I am.