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Kelly Westhoff and Quang Nystrom in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Click on photo to enlarge.
Kelly Westhoff and Quang Nystrom in Teotihuacan, Mexico

Love the One You’re With: How to Travel Together Without Killing Each Other

Soon after we got married, my husband and I quit our jobs and hit the road. We traveled through eight countries in six months — Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

Since returning home, we’ve discovered that family, friends, and curious acquaintances ask the same questions again and again. One of those questions is …

Did you fight?

Of course. No couple can spend 180 days together without having at least one argument. We had many. Most were petty, but there was this one fight in Chile…

Well, perhaps the details of that particular big blow are better kept private. Suffice it to say, we did quarrel our way about the globe. But we also laughed a lot.

When it comes to surviving long haul budget travel with a partner, the better question, the one I’m interested in answering here is… How did we make it half way around the globe without killing one another?

We gave each other space

When you’re out of your element and in a foreign land, it’s tempting to keep your loved one close. Of course you don’t want to lose him (or her) in a strange city, but if you step back and evaluate your reasons for holding on so tight, you’ll probably see that you’re hanging on to temper your own comfort. Eventually you’ll both end up feeling claustrophobic.

Allow yourselves to separate. Go to different Internet cafes and agree to reconnect a few hours later. Send one person out for water while the other hauls a bag of dirty clothes to the laundry lady.

Let one person have a slow morning in the shower while the other goes down the street for coffee. Even if you meet up in 30 minutes for a joint breakfast, the time apart will do you good.    

We aligned our money and our morals

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Click on photo to enlarge.
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

We nitpicked about money for most of our trip. We argued about

  • who carried how much.
  • which pockets we should carry it in.
  • how much to tip to a waitress, a tour guide, or hotel maid in a foreign land.
  • whether or not we should dole out bills to beggars on the street.
  • what to spend on souvenirs.
  • if nuts, apples and cheese from a supermarket should constitute our lunch, or if a seat in a restaurant should.

 

When traveling budget style, money is always of concern and looking back, it was a healthy thing that we bickered over these topics as the root cause of many wasn’t how much we were going to spend, but rather, what we valued.

For example, an argument over souvenirs wasn’t always about money. Because we were backpackers, space was always a concern. If we bought something, we had to carry it. Was it worth the added weight?

Plus, any souvenirs we did pick up would eventually mean one less day of travel. That’s a hard concept to grasp from behind a laptop in the United States, but in Vietnam, let’s say, where a couple can secure a nice hotel room for $15 a night, it’s very much a reality.

Before we bought any trinkets, we had to ask ourselves: Do we want a cheap souvenir or do we want a longer trip? The trip always won.

Until we encountered beggars. In countries like Cambodia, the beggars often sported gruesome wounds of war. This threw us, once again, into serious introspection about what our money was meant to do.

Riding an elephant in Ko Samui, Thailand
Riding an elephant in Ko Samui, Thailand

These discussions went straight to the heart of our personal belief systems, which ultimately, once we understood where the other was coming from, reaffirmed and deepened our connection to each other. We came to see that our morals were closely aligned.   

We divvied up the dough   

Perhaps the biggest money lesson I learned from budget traveling with my spouse is that both people in the relationship need to carry cash.

I will admit, as a woman, it was tempting at times to let my husband carry the dough. But it’s just not smart, or safe, and it ended up making me feel less in control. 

I felt more confident when I knew I had enough bills in my pocket to buy water, cab fare, dinner, or Internet time.  

We bit our tongues
  
You’re bound to get lost in a foreign land. Therefore, it does no good to blame your partner if his (or her) reading of the map leads you astray. It might be his (or her) fault that you’re lost today, but chances are high that it will be your fault tomorrow.

And besides, if you are lost, you’re lost together. Bite your tongue when blaming words want to rush out and try instead to be part of the solution. I’ll linger to place an emphasis on “part” of the solution.

Declaring yourself king (or queen) in charge of rediscovering civilization only leaves yourself open to ridicule if you happen to get turned around as well. 

Likewise, the unpredictability of travel can cause fights in which you must learn to hold your evil thoughts at bay.

Let’s say your partner really wants to go on an all-day tour of some ancient ruins. He (or she) signs you up. It sounds like a good deal. Transportation, guide and lunch are all included. But the tour, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite pan out as expected.

Maybe your van gets stuck in traffic and you end up spending hours trapped inside a hot tin box. It’s not your partner’s fault and you should refrain from ever insinuating it is so.

Sharing a boa in Vietnam
Sharing a boa in Vietnam

We trusted foreign languages

Another thing we fought about was language.  

Before we left on our trip, we thought we had the language thing under control. I spoke Spanish. My husband spoke Vietnamese. Together we spoke English. Given those three languages and the travel plans we’d mapped, we figured we’d do well.

But something unexpected happened. We discovered that in a foreign land, language means control. The traveler with the most words wins.

It was difficult for my husband, the non Spanish speaker, to stand by and listen as I took the lead position through Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. It wasn’t that he was some sort of machismo pig, but he was very much a professional salesman who was used to having the upper hand when it came to words.   

But my Spanish gave me the upper hand in just about every scenario. I secured bus tickets, translated tour guides, arranged hotel rooms and chatted up taxi drivers. I even ordered his food in restaurants and asked for the check.

He had no choice but to put his total trust in my second tongue, which while hard on him, was just as hard on me. It had been years since my Spanish had been tested and it had become a recreational language for me, not a dependable one. But now it had to be dependable. For us.

Upon reaching Vietnam, we experienced a total language role reversal. I lost all words and he suddenly became the one in charge. While it was hard to adjust, it was also enlightening to experience what he must have been feeling all those months before.      

A sign in Burmese
A sign in Burmese

We lost our footing

Looking back on the trip as a whole, I realize that it was in Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar where our relationship ran smoothest and our intimate give and take was most fun. Oddly enough, neither one of us spoke the language in any of these lands.

It seems that when both of us had our linguistic rugs pulled out from under our feet, we got along best. Which makes sense. It meant we had to pool our travel skills. We had to cooperate.

And surprisingly, cooperation ended up being a total turn on. I think this was because we got to see each other being smart, adventurous and brave – qualities that are admirable and sexy – and because we each felt like an equally and highly valued part of our team.       

We grew strong

In the end, travel made our marriage stronger. My husband and I might have started our six month journey as honeymooners, but when we came home, we were solidly married.

It was as if our trip condensed six years of marriage into six months. I returned home with a deeper understanding of myself and my husband. Because of travel, I have seen him in situations I would never have seen him in at home, situations in which he was forced to act fast, think nimble, or just be vulnerable.

And it’s not just me. He, too, agrees that our travels turned our beginner marriage into something else, something stronger than it was before.

Angor Wat, Cambodia
Angor Wat, Cambodia

When people ask him what it was like to travel so long and so far with his wife, his standard response has become, “You can travel with your spouse if you want, but one of two things is going to happen. You’ll either fall apart under pressure, or you’ll stay together forever.”

We’re going for the later.    

Looking for more travel with spouse advice?

Gwyneth Lewis, the national poet of Wales, went on a sailing adventure with her husband. They were supposed to sail from Britain to Brazil, but things didn’t quite go as planned. High winds, health problems and marital quibbles got in the way.

She recounted their trip a memoir called Two in a Boat: The True Story of a Marital Rite of Passage.

I’m no sailor, but reading it, I found myself identifying with her wifely travel complaints again and again.

Avid traveler and long-time honeymoon travel agent, Nadine Nardi Davidson wrote a book called Travel With Others: Without Wishing They'd Stayed Home . Her chapters offer tips on how to successfully travel with your spouse, lover, boss, friends, in-laws and kids.

The first eight pages of the book are devoted to a personality quiz, which is also posted at her web site. If you’ve got a big trip coming up and are anxious as to how you and your significant other will get along, it’s a fun 10 minute test that is supposed to reveal your inner, hidden traveler type.

What happens when a type-A traveler marries a go-with-the-flow backpacker? Find out in Mary-Lou Weisman’s book, Traveling While Married.

Weisman is a long-time traveler and former contributor of the now-defunct radio show, The Savvy Traveler. She is also very funny. This collection of short travel essays covers just about every aspect of traveling with spouse, and I chortled aloud while reading through it several times, perhaps because of a particular play on words, but more likely because she had nailed my own experiences exactly.

 

 

Kelly Westhoff


Kelly Westhoff is a traveler, teacher and writer from Minneapolis.  and see more of her work at kellywesthoff.com.

 

 

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