Holiday Romance: Are Travel Flings the Real Thing?
Love in the Atacama Desert. A crush on an Ecuadorian surf instructor. Brief encounters in Paris. Recounting a string of holiday flings, we ask: what is it about travel that makes us collect heartbreak like passport stamps?
22 October, 2020
I gaze melancholically out of the train window. Raindrops streak the reflection of my cheeks in the glass like a film heroine. Mysterious and tragic.
That's how I imagine I look anyway. I'm listening to Bob Dylan, or perhaps Natalie Imbruglia's Torn, but both choices feel too clichéd for the acute heartache I'm feeling.
Once again I've said goodbye to the love of my life. It was a brief encounter: we'd checked into the same hostel a week previously and our eyes had met over the complimentary stale cornflakes at breakfast. After the usual small talk ("where are you going?" "where have you been?"), we formed a deep, meaningful connection over our love of an obscure Argentinian band we'd both seen perform in a dingy wine bar. I was head over heels.
From here we would WhatsApp sporadically and every so often he'd reply to my Instagram stories with clapping hands or a heart-eyed emoji. Six months on, even this cursory form of contact would be broken. Years later he might add me on LinkedIn and I would barely recognise the clean-shaven, suited city worker as the boy with the wild mop of curls who practised slacklining in the hostel garden. LinkedIn seems to be the favourite haunt of the ghosts of past loves.
Almost everyone I speak to has fallen in love on a trip. The holiday fling that makes you refer to "that summer" in a reverential tone. The chance encounter that made you want to grab your luggage from the hold and sprint back through the bus terminal to declare your undying love. "I got off the long-distance night bus, Ross!"
What is it about being away from home that makes you fall in love faster than the final contender to enter the Love Island villa?
Is it because we can choose someone deliciously inappropriate without having to worry about what our friends will think? Aged 21 I fell desperately in love with my Ecuadorian surf instructor. Ten years my senior, an outrageous flirt and only an inch or two taller than me, he couldn't have been further from my usual type. It didn't matter, at over 8,000km from home I was spared judgement or repercussions. I fell out of love as quickly as I'd fallen in, less than a week after leaving. Would I have been interested in him at all if I'd had to introduce him to my friends?
I spoke to author Pearl Howie who has done extensive research on why we fall in love when we travel. Pearl has written 70 books, among which are self-help books and romance novels. She agrees that the lack of judgement from friends and family is a big factor in travel romances.
"With holiday romances, we've already let go of a lot of societal influences," she tells me. "Although in our regular lives we might reject someone because our friends and family wouldn't approve of them, on holiday we're more focused on what makes us truly happy."
With holiday romances, we've already let go of a lot of societal influences. Although in our regular lives we might reject someone because our friends and family wouldn't approve of them, on holiday we're more focused on what makes us truly happy.Pearl Howie, Author
Perhaps, when we travel, we learn to live in the present? Plans are fluid. They don't need to be your forever person. They're right wing and you're not, they wants three kids and you don't want any at all. It doesn't matter because the future is far irrelevant. In Nepal, I had the most perfect holiday romance on safari with a Punjabi Sikh. His parents would have been furious if he'd held a girl's hand in public, even more so if the girl in question wasn't Sikh but an agnostic, white British girl. It was never destined to be, but as we canoed down rivers rhino-spotting, our love was infinite.
Or is it that we get so caught up in the beauty and the excitement of the places we're seeing that we project a similarly beautiful and exciting image onto the people that we meet? Beside a salt pool in the Atacama Desert, I met a Dutch boy who could have been a Greek statue; angular, perfectly carved. His main hobby was going to the gym and he ordered pasta in a Chilean restaurant famous for ceviche, but I didn't mind because he had Calvin Klein-model abs. At home, I would have run a mile from anyone whose favourite pastime was the gym, Adonis or not. Was he just more beautiful against the moonscape of the Atacama?
"When I researched fear of success, including romantic success, one thing that became clear was that that fear is also our fear of feeling alive," says Pearl. "So when we're already feeling alive, joyful, excited, as we often are on holiday, we've already overcome a lot of the fear that holds us back from connecting or falling in love."
Perhaps, deep down, we're all hopeless romantics straight out of a Jane Austen novel and it is only our fear that stops us from falling in love whenever we go for coffee. Without fear, we could tell the cute barista serving our flat white how ardently we admire and love them and be betrothed within the hour.
Travel romances are imprinted on my mind like passport stamps. New Year's Day in El Chaltén under snow-capped mountains, a sunset on a palm-fringed Sri Lankan beach, a rooftop in Paris with the Eiffel Tower on the horizon (probably much further away than it would have been were I called Emily and the star of a Netflix series).
With a heart heavier than my overstuffed backpack, I'll board the bus, crying noisily. Instead of rain streaking my reflection so as not to ruin the flawless make-up that my stylist has spent hours meticulously applying, last night's mascara will be running freely down my face. I'll listen to an overly emotional break-up playlist, largely consisting of Birdy and Adele, that I made to get over my first boyfriend. The person next to me will edge away, revolted.
And then I'll arrive in the next town and fall in love all over again.