I just finished Barbara Savage’s heartbreaking tale, Miles from Nowhere, about cycling around the world with her husband. Many times along the two-year journey she wonders if the relationship can survive the ups and downs of sustained travel (spoiler alert: happily, the relationship thrives. Yet, unfortunately tragedy still occurs – see, now you have to read this poignant book.)
Savage’s concern is understandable. Before setting out on our journey last spring, we wondered how the new realities of travel would impact our fifteen-year-old relationship.
It’s not that the stresses of travel are more difficult than those encountered at home. The dynamics are completely different. When traveling, the daily number of variables and unknowns skyrocket. Simple tasks – getting from one place to another, shopping, eating – become complicated.
And, those dynamics come into effect with all partners traveling together, not only couples. Many of the challenges are similar for friends and amplified for multi-generational families.
Together, we’ve survived a natural disaster and not one, but two, passport-vanishing incidents. Side-by-side, we’ve come out on the other end of frightening illnesses and emergency room visits in foreign lands. We’ve dodged sketchy encounters with local trouble-makers and outrun a pack of wild dogs. We’ve endured more train and plane delays than I care to remember, twiddled our respective thumbs, stuck inside, through days of torrential rain, and had well-laid plans waylaid time and again for reasons out of our control.
We’ve weathered storms together and that has brought us closer.
Let me be clear, that doesn’t mean that traveling together is a cake walk. It takes constant work not to lash out at each other when things – even tiny things – go wrong. And “things” always go wrong.
Successfully traveling together, in a manner that nourishes the relationship, is something we work at every day.
Here is what we’ve learned about the fine art of together-travel:
Do – Cultivate Individual Interests
Together-travel doesn’t mean always being together.
How many times have you seen couples or friends push each another into activities the other doesn’t enjoy? The temptation is constant while traveling. (“We won’t stay long at the museum, I promise.”)
No doubt, encouraging each other to explore new interests is a positive endeavor. As is realizing your interest doesn’t have to be shared by those nearest to you.
Spending time apart to pursue individual passions can become one of the greatest joys of travel.
For us, some of our best days are those sunny mornings when Matt cycles and I go for a run. We look forward to meeting up in the afternoon to recap who we met along the way and what we experienced. And, through our individual experiences we always learn much more about the destination.
Granted, striking out on your own, (even for a few hours,) in an unknown place may be out of your comfort zone. But, that’s the whole point of travel, right?
DO – Become Your Own Team
The bond that takes place when it’s “us vs. the world,” is magical. Suddenly you must join forces to tackle even the smallest task, like navigating a maze of unmarked streets to reach your hotel or figuring out the currency exchange to make sure the cabbie isn’t taking you for more of a ride than you bargained.
Make it a game, pretend you are contestants on The Amazing Race, give yourself a team name, and revel in the moment-by-moment processes of traveling.
Thinking of yourselves as a team can help you to avoid finger-pointing temptations when things go wrong (See earlier statement. Things always go wrong.)
And, remember to be your teammate’s biggest cheerleader. It’s silly, but we love high-fiving each other when we’ve successfully managed multiple train connections to arrive in a new destination. Go Team Simpson!
DO – Play a Role
Just like with any effective team, people need specified roles to contribute to the overall performance.
Learning to utilize and play upon each other’s strengths is an art in itself. Through trial and error, we are studying this art form every day, refining as we go.
Matt is great with strategies and details so he’s our logistics man. He handles all transportation concerns, budgeting, and directions.
I cannot read a map – paper, google, or otherwise. Yet, I care deeply about where we bed-down at night, so naturally I’m in charge of lodging, house-sits, and workaway projects. When it comes to documenting the journey, he takes photos, I write.
We discuss decisions along the way, but the “expert” in that area takes the lead and basically gets the last say.
Having “assigned” roles helps us be more efficient and, most importantly, stay off of each other’s toes. (Oh so important when you are walking side-by-side every step of the way.)
DO – Be Generous with Compliments & Praise
The power of tiny, little words to change the world, or at least, someone’s day is amazing.
You are the best.
Making those phrases an active part of your vocabulary becomes essential when you travel together. Vow to voice appreciation to your travel partner with every opportunity.
“Thank you for ordering coffee just the way I like it.”
“Thanks for finding this fantastic restaurant for us.”
“Thank you for not yelling when I almost stepped on the train, going in the wrong direction.”
“Thank you for not divorcing me that time – oops, I mean those times – I lost our passports. You are the best!”
You get the idea. Acknowledgement of what’s good makes for great travel.
Even when things go wrong, (see above.)
DO – Make New Friends
Sure there are times to be inwardly focused with your travel companion(s.) Yet, even during those more insular times, try not to put up barriers to meeting other people. You can’t choose when the most interesting local or fellow traveler will stumble across your path and become part of your story.
A friend recently told us about his first trip to Venice. Traveling alone, he struck up conversation with a couple on the train. Upon arrival as they parted at the platform, he considered asking if they were free for dinner, but fearful they wouldn’t want company, he walked away. Seconds later, he thought, “What do I have to lose?” and turned back. They enthusiastically accepted his invitation and subsequently the trio spent many meals exploring Venice together. It was a highlight of everyone’s trip.
Matt and I have been on the receiving end of such generous and spontaneous invites many times. We always say, “Yes, of course!” and it always becomes an integral part of our experience and our memory of a destination.
DO – Acknowledge Thy Quirks
You have them, don’t even try to deny it. Those gooey, troublesome little ways that can irritate the crap out of those around you, if left unchecked and unacknowledged.
The pressure points are different for everyone while traveling. If you know that going with the flow without a schedule or structure makes you a nervous wreck, tell your potential travel partner as you begin planning.
Package tours make you feel claustrophobic? Speak up, pronto.
Zeroing in on each other’s quirks makes you better able to navigate the unknown terrain together.
Matt has always known that I avoid elevators like a plague and plans travel accordingly. What we couldn’t have known is, now that my work revolves around writing and communication, technology issues send me directly to meltdown mode.
Another revelation is how his blood pressure soars on each and every transportation day. Turns out, he’s a stickler for being on time, preferably early, for trains, buses, and planes. This is something neither of us fully realized until traveling became our full time job and has resulted in many arguments in route to a train station.
Now that we’ve identified the big triggers, we aim to handle those situations better. Matt anticipates when I have an assignment due and solid internet access may be critical. As we walk through town, he makes mental notes of coffee shops with Wi-Fi.
I now get up and pack extra early on transportation days to make sure I’m not the one holding us up.
It’s worth a conversation before a trip to pinpoint pressure points, (although often you don’t realize your own prickly little spots until you encounter the situation.) Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask…
What causes you anxiety while traveling? Is there anything you are nervous about on this particular trip? If we get in that situation what can I do to help?
DO – Laugh, Guilelessly
As mentioned above, we all have quirks, insecurities, and weaknesses and it’s great when we can laugh about them. But oh…is it a fine line before a good ribbing becomes perceived as an attack.
Especially when someone is vulnerable.
And, that’s just the thing, the very nature of travel, being out of one’s element, leaves each one of us vulnerable.
Half the time when traveling, you feel like an idiot. You can’t speak the language well enough. You get lost while trying to find a cup of coffee. Every glance over a room filled with locals leaves you feeling inappropriately dressed. You become very aware of being an outsider.
The last thing you need is a travel partner pointing out every mistake or getting jollies about your “quirks.”
For the best laughs, turn the mirror on yourself and invite your companion to laugh with you. A few laughs at your own expense are bound to ease any tensions and make the whole crazy situation called life more enjoyable.
DON’T – Sweat the Small Shit
Some would say, “life’s is short.”
I say, “life is long.”
All those petty little concerns add up over the long haul into an inconceivably giant pile of…you guessed it.
So your expectations weren’t met with dinner at that acclaimed restaurant? Laugh about it, then move on.
Your beach vacation is getting rained out? Que Sera. There’s more time for reading and playing cards.
You got lost and wandered aimlessly for hours? That will be the story from the trip you will tell friends for a long time to come.
Remember, it’s not an adventure if it’s what you expected.
DO – Be Kind.
As lovers, friends, daughters, mothers, fathers, and brothers, we humans are awfully hard on each other at times.
Making kindness the priority of each day is an art we may never fully master, but it’s probably the most important lesson in life for when we are traveling and when we’re staying put at home.