If you travel around the world with someone you love for an extended amount of time, one of two things happen – either you break up or you become engaged to be married. There are no other options, and I’ve seen it play out both ways. Caitlin and I both knew this before we embarked on our year-long trip around the world. We even discussed it quite a bit during the trip. But nothing really prepared me for when the time came to pop the question. Here is how it all transpired.
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How we Met
We met our first year of law school. I was really excited when the cute blonde from San Diego sat next to me. She says she sat next to me because I looked normal, but I’ll forever tell people that she actively and relentlessly pursued me from day one. Really, though, we quickly bonded over two things – drinking and traveling.
At law school drinking “socials,” she was the girl who liked to have a bit too much fun and I was the guy holding, and drinking straight from, the full bottle of wine right next to the law school dean. Our love for excitement (that’s what we call drinking: “excitement”) was more than matched by our desire to explore the world.
A few months into our courtship we had already moved in together and gone on the first, worst, and only cruise of our lives. We were hooked – with each other and traveling. We soon took an exotic, hazily-remembered trip to Thailand. Inseparable souls in search of everything was how we’d describe ourselves.
During our third, and last year, of law school we went big. We planned a post-graduation trip for 12-16 months so we could visit approximately 30 countries. Graduating school, traveling the world, getting jobs…yeah, getting engaged has to fit in somewhere.
Traveling is a Test
Traveling really does test your relationship. As everyone who’s reading this will know, the true test of any relationship, be it friend or significant other, is to travel with that person. And I’m not talking about weekend or short-term travel locally at a five-star hotel. Try going with someone for at least a week to a foreign country (preferably with a different language) and see if you can stand them being just a few feet from you most of the time while you’re lost, tired, and/or hungry. You’ll find out so much about the other person – good and bad.
Almost halfway through our year-long trip, and right after some horrible experiences in the Middle East, we made it to the clean, safe, hospitable confines of Europe.
Do or Die Time
As soon as we made it to Europe I knew it was getting close to making a decision. After all, Paris was pretty close on our schedule. And what girl doesn’t want to get engaged in Paris?
We had been traveling for seven months by now and, if I’m being honest, it was pretty hard. We had numerous arguments about money and we had very little time to ourselves. So we were starting to tire of “us.” Did we even want to get married?
We had already learned just about everything that was good and bad with each other. But honestly, it wasn’t the good or bad that I had seen in Caitlin that was making things difficult. It’s that I never really saw myself as being married. The vision of my future always had children in it, but I was always on the go, always on the move. Never confined to one place or another. I saw being married as being confined. More than that, I saw being married as growing up. And I surely never wanted to grow up.
But this wasn’t just about me, what was Caitlin thinking? I’d quickly find out. At one point we had a conversation in an airport restaurant where she said something akin to – “well, if you aren’t going to propose then what is the point of this trip?” This conversation made it seem like she was ready, but, being a guy and all, all I could say to myself was, “well, I’m still not so sure she wants to get married.” But these thoughts are mostly because I’m an idiot. So, after than airport conversation, I resigned to dropping down on one knee in Paris and hoping for the best.
We splurged a bit in France and stayed in a modest three-star hotel in one of the inner rings of the magnificent city. It was close to some great coffee shops, markets, and parks. France, in general, has always held a special place in Caitlin’s heart. In college she lived in Toulouse, in the south of France, where she became fluent in the native language. We spoke often of moving to Paris one day so that she could speak French, something that she truly loved to do.
Our first full day in Paris we thought we’d do something very Parisian by getting some meat, cheese, wine, and bread from the store and having a small picnic at the local park. For the occasion we even wore our “good outfits.” We were backpackers so we only had room for one nice outfit. Everything was, how you say…tres bien.
In Case you Forgot, I’m an Idiot
I don’t know why, but it really didn’t dawn on me until we were heading for the park that THIS WAS IT. This was the time to propose. Romance was in the air – it’s the only air Parisians breathe. “But…but…I’m not ready,” I thought to myself.
We set our blanket out and poured the wine. Peacocks strutted by and willow trees wept. Nervous moments were filled with talk about the recent, crazy experiences we had. I reached up and grabbed a tree branch as Caitlin playfully photographed me. The mood was just right. The scene was tranquil.
Never one to think before I do things, I then proceeded to swing ever so slightly over the water – my weight being carried only by the thin branch – when…SNAP!
I couldn’t have been more surprised. As soon as I heard the snap I quickly thought, “You’re good. It’s ok. You’ll get your knees wet at worst.” Instead, just a couple of feet from the edge of the lake, I went in fully – completely submerged. The lake was cold, I lost my wine, and my best outfit was now completely soaked.
As one would expect, Caitlin’s mood quickly went from playful to frustrated.
“What were you thinking?,” she said. “We had dinner plans tonight,” she continued. “You smell like the lake. That was just stupid Now we have to go to the laundromat,” she fumed. We walked the city streets back to our hotel, both too embarrassed to speak or look around.
My playfulness was something she said she always like about me. I was different; I was interesting, she’d tell me. But I ruined it. I ruined the proposal. I ruined the dream. The fairy tale would not happen. It would not be retold to our children. I felt like I had ruined the city for us both.
We barely spoke for the rest of the day. Sitting at the laundromat was not something we envisioned when the day began. As with other scary things in my life, I thought, I had managed to procrastinate, and that is always a bad thing. Quickly I tried to think of my next opportunity. “Nothing beats France,” was all I could think of. I continued to think for days, which turned to weeks.
New countries came and went. The trip became harder than it had ever been. Family came to see us and then they were gone. We were up and then we were down. We were alone.
Relying on the advice of our bus driver, someone managed to swindle money from us on the Kenya-Tanzania border. Caitlin cried as the bus drove away from the border. The cops wouldn’t listen to us. The other passengers admonished us. We were alone.
Friends came to see us and then they were gone. We were up and then we were down. Once again, we were alone.
The mood was low as we sat in a cheap, moderately-scary hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. How could we get the magic back?
Zanzibar, a New Hope?
We booked a ferry out from the horribly busy and scary Dar to the magical, historic, spice-trade island of Zanzibar. It was a hard ride in the open seas, which we mostly spent not trying to vomit (it’s a dangerous ride too). We arrived and were summarily hassled by the local taxi drivers who took us to our destination after some negotiation. We were exhausted.
A quaint hotel in Stone Town, that we splurged on, failed to revive our moods. Our aloneness was compounded by the fact that our union was not cemented. We were two people traveling together, yet separately. We ate dinner and went to bed early for our next morning departure to the east side of the island – the vacation within the vacation.
That next morning’s car ride to the other side of the island failed to jumpstart our general excitement about any and everything. In a shared van with some rude Dutch travelers (rude & Dutch = oxymoron) we drove past poor villages and empty hotels. Finally, we arrived at our hotel, where we were the only people staying there. Once again, we were alone.
After checking in, we ate lunch, which consisted of fresh, but bland, unseasoned fish, at the empty hotel restaurant. The blandness matched our moods. Just then, a friendly bartender offered us a huge cowry shell we had been admiring. It was a reminder to admire the beauty around us. A reminder for me to admire the beauty sitting across from me. With a warm smile and a gift of a simple shell, he changed our moods and our whole visit there.
Shelling it Out
We were suddenly very happy. We walked the beaches alone with a mission. Never before had we been on such a beautiful beach just littered with exotic shells. Even though being out in the sun very much hurt our skin (side effect of malaria medicine), we collected a cache of shells, had some beers, watched an epic sunset, and happily went to bed. Together again.
The next morning, feeling refreshed, I woke up before Caitlin, which was truly a rare occurrence. I walked out to the calm, blue-green ocean and resigned to immediately do what I wanted and needed to do. It was so clear to me. I walked back up to the room, locked it from the outside (totally normal that you can lock the guests in), and spelled out “Will You Marry Me?” in shells. And then we were two people traveling together as one.