I don’t remember the first words I said to him, or him to me. I remember how deliciously warm the night breeze was as it ran gentle fingers through my hair, how strange it tasted; that other-worldly air, thick with frangipani and incense. I remember that the stairs down to the hostel bar were painted purple, and I remember how I stood at the top of them summoning the courage to walk down with a great gulping breath. I remember how full of light I felt, weightless; cheeks flushed and eyes bright with jet lag and exhilaration, entranced by my own bravery and the new world I had created for myself by leaving and travelling to the other side of the world, alone, indefinite. I was too much caught up in the wonder and thrall of my own journey to remember anything else.
But he was there that first night, moving through the crowded bar as I did – two strangers as yet unaware of the invisible threads that will snake and twine inextricably between them. And the next day he was there, when he offered to show me where the shop was and somehow time fell beyond the horizon as we walked, and we kept walking until we found ourselves on the sand with the sun setting in a fiery cauldron of a sky, our smiles full of each other’s stories.
He had only a week in Bali before he was to fly to Australia to finish his working holiday, and he left for the Gili Islands the next morning whilst I stayed behind to wait for friends I had arranged to travel with for a couple of weeks. I was not supposed to see him again, but he moved his flight and stayed in paradise a little longer. He was there when I arrived on Gili Trawangan, his eyes uncertain, his smile shy.
‘Oh, he likes you’ my friend Soph nudged me, grinning.
So we stayed for a while, swimming in dappled turquoise ocean, dancing barefoot on the sand, kissing by firelight. We took bikes and rode around the island at 2am, the moonlight turning our skin to silver, and swam in water that glittered blackly, a mirror for the stars. He made friends with my friends, and we all travelled back to the mainland on a boat battered and flung by the waves.
And then he left, a taxi bound for the airport moving slowly away down pale, incense-strewn streets in the milky light of an Ubud morning.
He was in Australia for exactly one week, messaging me the whole time. And then one day he messaged me, and he’d booked a flight, and he came back. It was as simple as that.
We spent the rest of the month in Bali, four of us crammed into minivans over roads that wound around vertiginous corners only to drop away into emerald canyons of stepped rice paddies. My memories of that month are mostly felt; the salt crystals in my hair, the sweet slip of mango over my tongue, the warm brush of breeze on my skin as we rode motorbikes along dirt roads.
He and I had already decided that we would travel on to Singapore together, after which I would fly out to the Philippines and he had flights booked to Vietnam. We would part ways with no full stop, a song fading out into silence. But the Universe conspired and somehow we found ourselves on a three day train journey through the Malaysian jungle to Thailand.
Bangkok turned to Cambodia, then Chiang Mai, where we released our wishes ablaze into an unending sky, then India, where we slept on a houseboat and rented a house together in Goa for a month and a half. For almost four months we navigated new cities and survived overnight bus journeys, watched a hundred suns rise and fall over beaches and temples and mountains and jungles. But eventually, inevitably, he had to leave again.
I went with him to the airport, on the afternoon in early January when he would swap the sticky heat of Goa for the frosty light of new-year London. We sat in the back of a swaying taxi, road dust coating the windows, our fingers interlaced, clinging to each other as though it would make a difference. Not speaking much; it felt like for now at least, everything had been said. When we said goodbye it was horrible, awkward, as goodbyes often are, with none of the grace or romance of films.
Back then I just knew that I would miss him, this person who spoke of stars and conspiracies of the Universe, who saw certainty where the cynical, bruised part of me saw co-incidences. Who loves recklessly and whole heartedly, and reminds me how it feels to do the same.
We had sat together on a rooftop on our first night in Kerala, the concrete floor sticky from the day’s heat, and talked about how we wouldn’t make any rules. I was mulish, faking indifference; putting on the fictitious face of the footloose solo traveller I thought I should be, one who is immune to the thump of a falling heart. He had to leave, and I had to stay to have the solo adventures I had travelled across the world for. We talked in circles, until finally we fell silent amidst the chatter of the monkeys that leapt fearlessly through the trees in the near darkness.
I didn’t know what we were yet, I didn’t know what our weeks together meant. I think he did, though. I think he knew from the very beginning; and with the kindness he is blessed with, waited for me – stubborn, wilful, childishly proud – to come stumbling out of the woods behind him. Back then I just knew that I would miss him, this person who spoke of stars and conspiracies of the Universe, who saw certainty where the cynical, bruised part of me saw co-incidences. Who loves recklessly and whole heartedly, and reminds me how it feels to do the same.
The day after he left, I walked along the beach and sat on the sand talking to a girl I had just met. I told her I was travelling solo, and with the new-found truth of that some of my sadness lifted. Not an ending, then, just a pause; an open window in which to frame the adventures I would have alone. I packed up the house that wasn’t ours anymore, and I took a deep breath, and I took myself onwards on a sleeper train headed North.
Thrown into the swirling, pulsing storm that is Mumbai, my aloneness was an almost palpable thing. I was lost and tiny, a raindrop in an ocean, simultaneously terrified and in love with everything. I walked the sun dappled streets, and watched the lights appear like a string of pearls along Marine Drive as the evening spread purple across a sky full of smog. I sat alone at an aluminium table and ate puri and dahl by the road side. I unfurled gradually into the role of a solo traveller, and I gathered up in my arms the experiences that were mine alone, pressing them to my heart until they became a part of me.
Even then, he knew me well enough to understand what I needed, and he loved me well enough to leave me to do it. He left, and I didn’t, and that could have been that. No more than a sweet, sun soaked memory; a lingering heartache, another love lost on the road. But of course that’s not how the story goes.
As the days and eventually months went on he was always there, a constant shadow of a travel companion. I sent him pictures of the things I saw, people I met and food I ate; he sent me love notes and a Valentines care package. The longest time we went without speaking was when I trekked Everest base camp, signal-less in the snow of the Nepalese Himalayas. We planned together despite being apart, as he worked and saved to carry on with our journey together.
For a long time we only knew the wanderer in each other, the barefooted, sandy haired traveller.
And then six months after he had left, I called him in the middle of the night, damp skinned and delirious with fever, alone in Thailand and too ill to move. Two days later I was at home; the shock of sudden displacement dulled by the blood coloured curtain of the fever that hung behind my eyes. And three days later he was there, stepping off a bus in my tiny village and into the house in which I have always lived, this person who belonged in oceans and jungles on the other side of the world, a surreal apparition standing in the middle of my parent’s kitchen.
I flew to Spain to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding, and then we spent a weekend in Barcelona with my family before flying back to Bangkok. And just like that we were travelling again, curled like quotation marks on the floor of Oslo airport to sleep out a long layover, finally arriving back in Asia in the close, damp heat of a Bangkok night, spending the next five days in a hostel dorm whilst we waited for my backpack to arrive from wherever the airline had lost it.
For the next three months we travelled together through Burma and Sumatra, Thailand and Italy. And then our money ran out, so we came home, and we moved in together. And here we are.
We have had to relearn some things, being home together. For a long time we only knew the wanderer in each other, the barefooted, sandy haired traveller. We had to leave the bubble in which our love had been sheltered by the alternate reality of travel, and test it against a world of work and bills and Ikea. Each of us struggles with stillness in our own way, and we have had to learn to be each other’s adventure, to teach each other how to be happy in a world that stays the same from day to day. There have been lessons in patience, and understanding. There has been the occasional longing for the anonymity of the road, the placeless, transient comradeship of a hostel dorm. There has also been happiness, and love, and a house with a hot shower. Ultimately, this is simply a different kind of adventure.
And to the future. Once again there are flights booked, and a departure date looming on the horizon. Once again I will pack everything into boxes and charity bags, and fill my backpack, and board a plane that will take me to the other side of the world, with no return ticket. Indefinite, but this time not alone.
I have learned that the world moves in circles. I had to leave a long term relationship, to move back in with my parents, to buy a one way ticket and be brave enough to get on the plane; but when I arrived at the other side, he was already there. He had to leave me so that I could come back, because if he didn’t there would always have been an unanswered itch dancing over my skin. I had to travel alone so that we could travel together, and we have circled each other around the world, each on opposite sides. Somehow, after all that, we found our way back to each other. We came full circle – and at the centre of that circle is love.