Witness to the Wonder by Beau Flemister
Words to live by when traveling with your significant other
Images courtesy of Beau Flemister
There’s something thrilling about watching someone you love watch a place. Watching them walk through a city, through a valley, down a trail, into the woods. There’s something shared there, something intimate, when a place moves the both of you through geographic black magic.
There’s something about watching a place reveal itself to you and your travel companion. Watching a place disrobe. There’s a chemical reaction. When you’re rounding a corner on the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat rental, and Positano—a town of pastels that practically drips off a cliff into the sea—flashes you from across the bend, and just takes your breath away. There’s something in the air when that happens. A quickening. A vibration. A love at first sight. And you realize, undeniably, that an experience is better when shared. That traveling is even more fantastic with a companion. When you can watch that other person’s eyes widen as much as yours at the sight of it. You have a witness to the wonder, someone to pinch you—it was real.
I spent the better part of my 20s obsessed with world travel. I’ve had a few co-pilots over the years, but the story kind of went like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My pal in Nepal: much too firm. My pal in Brazil: a bit too soft. But my wife, traveling around the world: just right. She approaches each place with newborn eyes, like yesterday was erased. She says things like “I’m 27 and a half” without a hint of irony. She literally dances through life (she’s an ex-ballet dancer) and pirouettes at crosswalks, in lines, in kitchens all over the world. She’ll come back to the room with coffee in the morning and exclaim, practically glowing, “Today is going to be magical because a butterfly flew in front of me.” And she believes it. She believes in the hope of each day and, moreover, in the infinite potential of a new place. It’s why she’s the perfect travel companion. And perhaps that’s what marriage is: an unyielding belief in the potential of a life with somebody.
In May of last year, my travel partner and I embarked on a trip around the world. She quit the job she’d had for the last six years. I kept mine by promising to work remotely from the road—the only way we’ve been able to keep this gig going. We’re halfway through a malleable itinerary that started in Indonesia and has taken us through Burma and Thailand, up into Mongolia, over into Russia, along the Trans-Siberian railway across half of Asia, through Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean, back into Europe, and down to South Africa. Cuba’s on deck next.
A friend of ours recently told us that if you can survive traveling around the world with your spouse for a few months, you can survive anything. He’s divorced. But honestly, it hasn’t been that hard. I owe that to a few things we’ve learned very quickly along the way. Sure, there have been speed bumps. There was a creepy Balinese guy that gave us a ride on his motorbike one night that certainly shook us up, but we probably shouldn’t have been hitchhiking at night, nor have taken a ride from a drunken pervert. I take full blame for that one.
On a venture like this one, attempting to cram the whole world into a year of travel, you begin to develop a syndrome I like to call “AFC.” It’s a sensory overload disorder, where new places appear merely as AFC. Like, here’s “another fucking country,” “another fucking city,” “another fucking cathedral.” It means you’re seeing too much, too fast. You must slow down. There’s a story about an Amazonian tribe that migrates each year with the rainy season. The way the tribe travels is by walking hard for two or three days, then resting, stationary for one. Then, they walk hard for another few days, rest for another, and so on. When asked why they travel this way—with that day of rest—they explained that it was to let their souls catch up. My wife and I have learned this as well. Stop for a couple weeks and let your souls catch up. Because the journey can surely wear on you.
On that note, forget that regurgitated old travel adage, “The journey is the destination.” If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the destination is the destination, and that the journey can be grueling. For instance, on our last day in Mongolia, we woke up at 4 a.m. to drive halfway across the country, in the freezing rain, to cross the border into Russia. Fourteen hours in a van, four hours at the border, and two strip-searches later, we were whisked to a “guest house” over the border that resembled more of a Russian halfway house. Imagine an American halfway house; now imagine one in Siberia. The guy that appeared to be in charge here—a Russian male in a white tracksuit with a white do-rag—greeted us from a filthy sofa with a white poodle on his lap. He looked like a Russian movie villain, and the four other men around him looked loaded on heroin, one of which was not so covertly filming us from his cell phone. We didn’t get to our destination hostel until 4 a.m. the following morning. In other words, the destination was Ulan-Ude, Russia, and the journey was a fucking nightmare.
We’ve also learned that you’ve gotta flip the script from time to time. Rigid itineraries are for old fogies. If you want to travel around the world, it’s imperative that your partner is flexible. This is crucial because sometimes you’ve got a week blocked out for Rome, but you then get to Rome only to find out that Rome kind of blows. Plus, spontaneity is life’s most potent, natural aphrodisiac.
Traveling with your spouse, or any companion in such close quarters for that matter, you’re attached at the hip, which is why you should never take score. Everyone’s got their buttons, and if you don’t already know what your partner’s are, get a clue. Sometimes one of us just wakes up on the wrong side of the Airbnb bed, and the way she smacks her lips in the morning, or how I never put the toilet seat back down, is enough to start a war. How many times I’ve left the seat up or how often I find her hair in the sink is unimportant. Life’s too short and the trip’s too long to keep tally. Never discuss the score, never keep score; resentment kills all.
Often, I’m the one who’s easily jaded. The one to come down with AFC first. But a team can’t have two cynics. Two cynics are repulsive, ask anyone. There should only be two types of travelers: drivers or passengers. Two passengers, and you’re going nowhere. Two drivers, and you’re yanking on one wheel. When traveling with a companion, pick a role, but be OK with switching them periodically.
Here’s another gem: Get your head out of your ass. By that, I mean compromise. No couple wants to do or see or visit the exact same sights, and that’s only natural, if not healthy. She probably wants to stick it out under a mosquito net, waiting for that perfect wave in Sumatra, about as much as you want to sip Darjeeling in a tearoom in Old Bordeaux. But if she made it, then so can you.
Keep looking around that corner. Gather no moss. Your time out there—together—is an emulsion of life and dream, a mixture driven by the centrifugal forces of curiosity and wonderment. Keep the two blurred in fantastic, sentient suspension. And hold her hand while you’re at it. Don’t make her beg. If she’s had a couple glasses, and you can see it in her eyes, rise with her and dance. At a bar. In the kitchen. Even at a stoplight in Paris. Especially at a stoplight in Paris.
Follow Beau and Rachel on Instagram @planestrainsballandchains or at planestrainsballandchains.com.