For a long time, I only travelled alone. I just preferred it that way, and enjoyed time alone – and I still do. Then, one day, I agreed to go on a 25-day trip with a friend, from London to Tehran, by train. It was out of character for me; not only was I to give up the flexibility of travelling (and planning for it) alone, but I would be stuck with this person for 25 days straight, with stretches of up to five days on an old train chugging slowly across the expanse of a Western continent into the Middle East.
And yet, I agreed to it. I knew him for three years as a colleague – he was running the center I worked at as a graduate assistant in Honolulu, Hawai‘i – while pursuing my master’s degree. It never crossed my mind that it would be awkward for us to travel together. He is well-travelled in Southeast Asia, having seen more of it as visitor than I have as a native, and understands the cultural nuances and boundaries.
Truth be told, he was the most trustworthy guy I knew. There was no romantic attraction, just pure friendship so maybe that was why it was so easy for us, each a veteran solo traveller, to embark on a journey together. When I came back from the trip and told friends about it, I was met with either dropped jaws or unbelieving crooked smiles that basically say “well, that was rash” which, then turned into swooning sighs by the end of my story.
This is because the story ended well. After the 25 days, we were engaged, and married a year later. We just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary two months ago.
In some ways, it wasn’t a date as much as a microcosm of what our relationship was to become – a journey. On hindsight, our ‘World’s Longest First Date’ threw up a bunch of revelations that illustrate how travelling together gave me a microcosm of our life together.
Things may trip your plans, but don’t let that ruin your trip
He’d never been to Paris nor seen the Eiffel Tower. So, during our two-hour transit in Paris, I convinced him that we could comfortably venture into the city, see the tower, take a picture of him with it in the background, and get back in time for our train to Munich.
I was wrong. It wasn’t comfortable. On our way back, for some reason the subway was much more crowded than usual. We ended up having to wait for a few trains before being able to get on… at multiple transfer points. The sauntering pace of a leisurely Parisian adventure turned into harried steps and then an all-out Olympian run across the city’s subway stations back to the Gare du Nord.
Okay, 8.05 pm, that’s 15 minutes before our 8.20 pm City Nightline departure. We have time. Wrong.
We looked down at our empty hands and realised we needed to get our luggage from the day lockers in the basement level. He smiled at me with pain, probably thinking “I can’t believe the Eiffel Tower ruined six months of trip planning” and I smiled back sheepishly thinking “I can’t believe I’m going to ruin six months of trip planning” as we both fumbled with the locker keys to unlock the storage lockers.
And yet, we were right to refuse to believe that anything could ruin the trip. Because we got lucky, really lucky. Just 20 seconds before the train started moving, we jumped onto our train car and were led to our sleeper cabins. The ticket checker flashed a smile and said in a thick German accent, “Hello, my name is Manny, easy to say, like ‘money’.” At that moment, I think both of us knew that this wasn’t going to always be smooth, but that we’d come out of it breathing and smiling anyway.
If you can sit in silence together…
During the next set of legs, Munich to Istanbul, it dawned on me that we were to be stuck together for three straight days on the train. I was so used to travelling alone, I’d learned to value and even crave silence. What happens when there’s someone you know sitting there right in front of you? Will they want to keep talking? Will they want you to shut up?
Turns out both of us were completely okay with just sitting and watching the world go by in complete and idle silence. On the RailJet from Munich, we fell into a distinct quiet. The train moved calmly and started meandering alongside rolling hills that marked the beginning of eastern Europe. Then, without warning, a large cylindrical structure appeared in our window, oddly placed amidst the green peaceful slopes. It was a nuclear power reactor, and the railway was built just close enough for us to feel like we were only metres away. We looked at each other in amazement. Still in silence, poignant smiles carved themselves over our faces.
That moment when I knew he was the one
During our two-hour transit in Budapest, we took a quiet walk around the city along a one-mile stretch. Our hands deep in our winter jacket pockets, we took in the wet grey streets of the city at six in the evening, occasionally laughing at the random things we came across. Like a sign that said ‘Mellow Mood Group’, and a store devoted completely to all things kitsch from Southeast Asia.
At the time, we both worked at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. How random! The Bosfor Eksresi (Bosphorus Express) leg from Bucharest to Istanbul was especially entertaining as we listened to the musings of our train conductor, a brooding 20-something Romanian man who introduced himself as Alexander the Almost Great.
Finally, we arrived in Istanbul. A few days into our eight-day stay, I had a couple of realisations. The first happened amid braving the throngs of people spending their Sunday night in the very crowded Taksim Square. He made a joke about trying to take a picture in the Square and as I snort-laughed at it, a thought flashed in my mind: “I could be with this guy.”
It was in this moment that I felt the universe decide for me how my heart was going to feel. Cheesy, yes. But it’s the truth. I don’t know when his moment was, but after a couple more days, he would hook his elbow inside mine as we walked in the cool air of old Istanbul and it was clear that we were just a little bit more than friends from that moment on!
Stay tuned next week for the sweet ending to this lovely tale…
By Nezia Azmi
This article originally appeared on Zafigo, a travel guide for women travellers in Asia and the Middle East, and is republished with permission.