Newlywed’s year of solo travel reinforces a bond

Just four months into marriage, my husband and I were having trouble connecting.

Like, actually connecting. The Internet in South Africa was terrible.

“I can hear you. Can you hear me?” I shouted from my end, the common room of a Cape Town hostel.


Each time I managed to pull up Skype on my laptop, the screen froze and my husband’s voice squealed through the speakers like a tipsy robot.

“Hello — ?” I could see his brown eyes searching the webcam. Lemon-yellow sunlight streamed through the windows of our Palm Springs condo.

“Hello? I miss you!”

“Garrrrop. Blerp. Braaakk.”

“I love you. Did you hear me? I love you.”

I heard a screech through a blank screen, and then he was gone.

I slammed my laptop shut and looked around at the United Nations of drunk backpackers around me. Even with a pint of Castle Lager in hand, I didn’t exactly blend in with this crowd. Everyone looked like a recent high school or college graduate, traveling and partying before the next stage of life. They were mad with youth, wild with freedom and looking to do their part for foreign relations. It was like Hookups Without Borders.

Me, I was a 34-year-old newlywed. My husband, Jason, was almost 10,000 miles away in the California desert. And I knew that night, just like every night since our honeymoon ended, I would go to bed alone.

The people here were looking for love. I was searching for something else — something not so easy to articulate.

Before I traded in my briefcase for a backpack, I had a 13-year career in newspapers. The industry was fragile, however, and I was no longer happy with my place in it. I became a journalist out of a desire to make a difference in the world; I ended up covering red carpet functions and dog fashion shows.

At the same time, my mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She was a woman who longed for travel and adventure, but she pushed her own desires aside to raise a family. Travel, she figured, was something she’d do later, after her children were grown, when her husband retired. The disease claimed her mind before she ever got one passport stamp closer to her dream.

One day I decided it was time to take the trip my mother never could. It was time to stop writing about other people’s remarkable lives and create my own story. It was time to travel around the world.

I announced my plan to my then-boyfriend over dinner in the condo we shared with our cat and puppy. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Besides, Jason and I had been languishing in a safe and predictable relationship for seven years. We could use some time off.

“No,” he said. “You are not leaving me with this crazy dog for one year.”

As I explained my need to travel, search for a new career and figure out my place in this world, Jason’s ambivalence transformed into support. He had just one condition: I had to marry him first. His reasoning was partially romantic (“I want to be the only man for you!”) and partially practical (“You’ll need health insurance!”).

Everything moved quickly. Within the same week I quit my job and we got hitched in a friend’s backyard. I said goodbye to my family, donated all my business suits to charity and sold my car. Another friend drove us to LAX.

We spent our honeymoon in Peru, discovering a new country and exploring this new chapter in our relationship. Then Jason returned to Southern California and his job as an algebra teacher, and I headed south on a minibus with 23 people and a pregnant goat practically in my lap.

During my year away, I traveled to 19 countries in South America, Africa and Asia on an initial budget of $10,000. I picked up a little more money by freelance writing along the way. I volunteered in schools, medical facilities and elephant sanctuaries. I spent a month camped out in wildlife parks and one week praying in an ashram. I discovered unbelievable kindness, and I made friends out of strangers.

I learned that travel tends to accelerate relationships, even when only one person is doing the traveling. Jason was the first person I contacted after I was attacked by a monkey in Bolivia. My wounds were still angry and red as I made my call from an Internet cafe. When my mother died, I sat in an alley in Dahab, Egypt, piggybacking on the unsecured Wi-Fi network of a nearby coffee shop, while my husband soothed away my tears via Skype. We spent our first anniversary on Google chat.

Only during the “Arab spring,” when the Egyptian government disrupted Internet service throughout the country, did the distance from my husband seem insurmountable. I managed to make contact using a borrowed cellphone, and we had three precious minutes together before the line went down. I fled to Jordan, where my husband and I were reunited over Wi-Fi.

We began to write love letters again, a practice we had given up early in the relationship. We filled inboxes with photos and stories. He sent me care packages. I mailed him postcards and gifts. Finally, after one year of travel — low on funds and summoned for jury duty — I returned to California, greeted by strong, warm arms and a more vibrant relationship.

The desire to move in a different direction took me far from my husband. It carried me around the world, and it brought me back home again.

Maggie Downs is a writer in Palm Springs pursuing a master’s in creative nonfiction.

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