“Happiness is only real when shared” -Into the Wild
The astute observers among you will note that Tallahassee is not a city in East Africa. And besides a rail-trail, some of the world’s most beautiful springs, and a blatantly phallic legislative building, there is little to interest the casual tourist. For me however, this modest capital city in the panhandle of Florida held something infinitely more beautiful than any mountain vista and more precious than any stand of virgin rainforest. This is certainly not one of my happy-go-lucky accounts of a half-baked foray into an alien land, but it’s essential for understanding all of my travels until now, and all those that might follow.
I had met Andie on a paddling trip in the spring of 2006; this particular jaunt down the Suwannee River was memorable because a sudden thunderstorm had forced our group of six to take cover in a single three-man tent, placed on the one dry spot under the I-75 bridge. Our friendship would develop from there, and I would become increasingly active in the outdoors club so as to provide more and more excuses to spend time with her. Some five months later, we would share an epic six-week roadtrip from Gainesville to Alaska. Much to the relief of Matt, the guy who spent the whole trip wedged into my Corolla’s tiny back seat, we kept our feelings to ourselves until we returned home.
Andie had been accepted into a Masters program at UCF and thus was instantly swept away from me. We spent the next year commuting back and forth; she tired of School of Psychology, and applied for PhD programs around the southeast. UF accepted her into its school of linguistics, but only after she had responded affirmatively to FSU’s offer and was once again obliged to move two hours away.
It was a cool autumn day in November, 2007; we paddled out in an inflatable kayak to Goat Island in the middle of Lake Talquin. There, precariously balanced in the branches of a magnolia tree overhanging the water, I asked her to marry me. She replied with a hesitant ‘yes’, mentioning that we needed to work on our emotional connection before saying our vows. This, and many other crucial insights, I would largely ignore, and would often relegate her to the role of a simple activity partner, rather than the love of my life with whom I should have shared everything, and for whom I should have done anything.
The next eighteen months were often amazing, but far from easy; we each struggled to maintain the balance between our respective individual friendships and obligations, and our life together. I often chose to go off on some crazy adventure with friends rather than speeding over to Tallahassee on Friday afternoon for the quality time we both so desperately needed. Then, a few days before I left for a three-month research stint in Africa, she broke up with me over the phone.
My time in Ethiopia was pure agony. Every moment I sat alone, and even most spent in the company of other travelers, I thought of what I had lost and what, if anything, I could do to get it back. Every time I looked out over a viewpoint, or explored a cave church, or climbed to the top of a medieval rampart, I was struck with a new pang of regret, as I realized I would likely never be able to see her enjoy such things again. I wrote a love poem and split it into four parts which I divided across four postcards and mailed from the most remote post boxes I could find. I finished my travels early and spent the last few days in the airport creating a musical (download) to celebrate Andie’s life, and emailed it for her birthday. Somewhat counter intuitively, all of the emails, gifts, and gestures served only to push her further from me; she had erected a wall to keep me out of her heart, and every advance I made only forced her to strengthen her resolve to prevent my entry. In Kenya, the internet situation had improved substantially, such that I could call her using Skype, and many a day, I awoke at 4 to try to catch her at a reasonable hour. After a time, she told me that I needed to stop calling so that I might get over her; this response, I decided, called for drastic measures.
I requested leave from the program, explained my situation to my teammates, and paid a couple of hefty change fees to move my tickets six weeks earlier. After a miserable 27 hours of flights and layovers, I arrived in Orlando International where my dad met me (having driven 8 hours south that day), and took me back to Gainesville. I immediately set about preparing the most absurdly romantic gesture I could conceive; I settled on a hybrid of a scene from a slightly obscure 80s comedy and the closing number of the more recent Step Brothers film. The morning after my arrival, I raced around town to get new clothes, procure a boombox, and download the song I needed. That afternoon, I drove over to Tallahassee, and, with sweat flowing down my dress shirt and slacks in the hundred-degree heat, I cranked the boombox to full volume, held it over my head pointed at Andie’s apartment window, and belted out the Spanish lyrics to the operatic ‘Por ti Volaré’ (For you I will fly).
Had life been more like a cheesy 80s movie, Andie would have raced downstairs, flung her arms around me, and she would have echoed my promise that I would never leave her again. This was not what happened however; I left after three hours, only having succeeded in ruining her weekend and screwing over the poor guy with whom she had planned a date for the evening.
I have long been a proponent of adventure travel, and continue to be a huge advocate of it as a means of expanding one’s horizons and gaining insight into the universal human condition. Furthermore, traveling alone can give you opportunities for introspection, intercultural bonding, and personal development that you can simply not find by going with a group or even a single companion. However, it could certainly never provide a way of life that could deliver long-term fulfillment. The beauty in life is found in the relationships – in bonds that you cultivate with family and friends – and not in any scenic vista, cultural oddity, or architectural masterpiece. The joy you will find in beholding the world’s wonders could never hold a candle to that which you feel when seeing such joy reflected in the eyes of those you care most about. I realized this far too late, mindlessly putting the next opportunity for new adventure before the one who I presumed to love more than any other. I paid the price.
The world is full of wonders, but the most valuable are not those hidden behind a $20 admission ticket, or down a secluded jungle path, but rather those lurking in the smile of the person sitting across from you. The world is finite, and sooner or later, it becomes predictable, but love is boundless, and though you may spend a lifetime probing its depths, it can always throw you something new that will knock you off your feet and leave you speechless. Don’t be afraid to travel – see the world, experience new things, eat weird foods, and meet people largely distinct from yourself, but know that the real treasures are those that are waiting for you back home.