It’s 5 am. Our eyes fight the Cambodian sunrise and the few too many Angkor beers we had the night before. Malu has 30 minutes to board her plane to Jakarta. We frantically throw her bags in the back of a smiling, wrinkled man’s tuk tuk, exchange hugs, and a kiss. We’ve only known each other for 14 days and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.
In a moment that transcends logic and surprises both of us, she lets her “tough-girl” guard down long enough to blurt out, “I love you.” And, without missing a beat, I say, “I love you too.”
Then, like any romantic flick, the tuk tuk peddled off into the sunrise leaving myself and a heavy heart behind. She was gone … off to her next adventure.
There was no relationship blueprint on how to date someone half a world away whom you barely knew. So I did what I always do … I risked it all.
After returning to the States, I spent a few months planning the best international first date I could think of. Hundreds of WhatsApp messages later, she agreed to go on a date with me on New Year’s Eve … in Vietnam.
We rang in the New Year at a rooftop party overlooking the city lights of Hanoi. We recovered in the serenity of a dangling treehouse AirBnB outside the city. Then a private, luxury shuttle transported us to a very memorable four-day cruise through the limestone mountains of Halong Bay. A desire for land led us south to relax in the heart shaped rice fields of Ninh Bình. With more than half of our trip complete, we hopped the border to Thailand to dance a few nights away in Bangkok. And for the pièce de résistance, we spent our final days living lavishly in a private villa in Phuket.
It was the best first date ever.
I returned home and Malu returned to her backpacker retreat in Southeast Asia. We continued our relationship like all international couples do, on WhatsApp. I came to realize that Malu needed more than some fancy vacationing to be won over, so a few months later I flew her to help me with a project in Madagascar — our second date.
We climbed waterfalls in Ranomafana National Park, gazed at the stars in our train-converted hotel room, slept in a van when bridges collapsed from flooding, participated in a sacrificial Zebu (humped cattle) ceremony with locals, and helped save an endangered species of lemur. Wildest second date I’ve ever been on.
After six months of long distance and three trips across the globe to see each other, Malu came to live with me in my newly purchased condo in the States. A “one-month trial stay” turned into eight months … and a lot more travel.
First, we helped develop a goat farm, a sewing co-op, and a foster program for disabled children in Haiti. Then we lived among Syrian refugees in Greece and raised $50,000 for them in a single day. We capped off the year by celebrating our anniversary on a private catamaran in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas.
A year and a half later, I write this love letter from Malu’s childhood homes in South America. I sit here with the sound of Latin Reggae in the background and the smell of grilled Alpaca steaks wafting from the kitchen and I can’t help but wonder, “How does a videographer from Michigan meet a Latin photographer from Bolivia/Peru while traveling in Cambodia?”
What are the set of circumstances that need to align in order to conquer those impossible distances?
I am not going to pretend to know those answers. But I will say this — Malu and I have been following our dreams for our entire lives. We both picked up cameras at early ages, started our own companies with no money and very little experience, sprinted away from “comfortable jobs” in our hometowns, and were fulfilled by the experiences we had in previously unknown places around the world. We trusted in our journeys, and those journeys eventually led us to each other.
Looking forward, our relationship will momentarily continue on WhatsApp as Malu reconnects with her Latin roots and I get back to running my video company in Michigan. When we are apart, the memories of our around-the-world encounters keep us connected, but more than anything, they keep us looking at those blank passport pages and asking each other, “Where to next, mi amor?”