We met in a bar in Bolivia.
I'd been in the city of Sucre just under a week, living in an apartment with a couple of guys who were due to leave the next day. They dragged me out to a place crowded with backpackers and young locals for a final night of drinking and goodbyes.
An English guy was sitting at our table. The heat was palpable; we couldn't stop looking at each other, accidentally touching knees, stealing secret smiles whenever we could. Our parting hug was filled with infinitely more meaning than it should have been, and I walked back to my apartment wondering what on earth had just happened.
Because my apartment suddenly had two spare rooms, and his homestay situation was uncomfortable at best, he moved in the next day. Suddenly I'd gone from solo female traveller, ardently volunteering my way through Bolivia, to a bright eyed, stomach fluttering bundle of nerves. Was he trying to hold my hand as we walked through the vegetable market? Could I kiss him in public yet?
There were no rules set; nothing to hold either of us in the same place. He was in the city for the next few weeks, same as me – but he was at the start of his trip, travelling upwards to Peru and Ecuador, and I was vaguely planning to go down through Chile to Argentina. Eventually we settled on a compromise; neither of us had been to the Salt Flats yet, so how about we go together?
As I left our shared apartment and hauled my backpack right next to his on a Bolivian bus, I was worried. I knew this unexpected turn of events was proving more fun than I'd ever anticipated, but was I selling out on the solo travel thing? I didn't want to be that person who changed their plans for the sake of a new relationship. I didn't want to feel like I was giving him the upper hand – that I was going to blindly follow wherever he went, and ignore all my own plans.
But there was something pulling me in; an intrigue that I couldn't just abandon without giving it a chance.
A little romance backstory
My history of travelling and relationships is a tricky one. I haven't had a huge amount of boyfriends in my life: travelling so much tends to put a lot of people off. So it's no surprise that many of my relationships came to an end explicitly because of travel.
There was my first boyfriend, who I met when working backstage in a London theatre, and who I had to leave for two months when I went to study in Florence, Italy. During that time apart he got keener, but short life in Italy made me steadily realise I didn't want to be with him anymore.
Next was the friend who decided to come travelling around Eastern Europe with me for a few months, slotting himself into a trip I already had planned – and then a few days before leaving, we somehow found ourselves in a relationship. That one escalated very quickly. I said I loved him outside a monastery in Lithuania, before I knew what love really meant. Once we got back to England the penny dropped, and I had to spent an agonising first term at university knowing things had to end.
Then came my biggest relationship, with a guy at uni who I actually did love, and who bravely saw me through the death of my mum and the worst period of my life. Seven months after she died, a year and a half into our relationship, I flew to San Francisco for my year abroad and he couldn't handle the distance. A phone call break up that he barely let me protest over, just eight weeks after I'd arrived in the States, left me utterly broken. I didn't have much faith in men for a long time after that.
Just before I left for South America, I had a stop-and-start 'something' with someone, but I had an escape clause – a one way ticket, the start of my longest trip to date – and I couldn't promise him anything he might have wanted.
And then came South America…
I arrived in Ecuador as a single woman, and I was happy about it. Despite various parts of me craving the attention, care, and love of a relationship, I was so excited about being in South America that I put those feelings to one side and got on with my life.
I made it to Sucre after nine months of travelling, during which my plans were vaguely strung together by a succession of volunteer projects in five different countries.
In those nine months I'd taught English in Ecuador and drunk ayahuasca in Brazil, played jenga with favela children in Colombia and fixed artificial limbs in Bolivia. I'd hung out on beaches with groups of fellow volunteers, made fleeting friendships in hostels and savoured the more lonely life in a few cold hotel rooms.
More importantly, up until Bolivia I'd known where I was going next. The beginning of this relationship somehow coincided perfectly with the end of my imagined route – but travelling with someone was never part of the plan.
Particularly a guy who I was really starting to fall for.
I reasoned that after the Salt Flats we'd probably go our separate ways, and that would be that. Except somehow getting there took longer than expected.
We got distracted by drinking wine in plazas filled with palm trees and enduring the joys of Bolivian buses, and when our tour of the flats came to an end, the idea of going in different directions had been forgotten.
Making the decision to follow, not leave
Eventually I threw caution to the wind and went north, on his planned route. We spent two more months together; Christmas in Bolivia and New Year in Peru, hiking in canyons and eating in markets. I couldn't have been happier – and then I read an email from England in a hostel kitchen that made my heart go cold.
I left him in the bright cold sunshine outside Cusco airport, blinking back tears as I reached the top of the escalator and walked away. Flying back to London with just a few days notice was totally unplanned, but something I had to do.
One of the biggest factors in my decision to go home was not knowing if I'd ever see him in South America again – he was continuing up to Ecuador, a country I'd spent five months in, while I had a job waiting for me in Medellin. Surely that would mean I'd fly straight from England to Colombia?
Well, no, as it turned out. After a little deliberation, I chose a few weeks sunning myself on the Peruvian coast instead – plus a few more weeks travelling as a couple. I eventually peeled myself away to start work in Medellin, but he arrived a few weeks later and moved into my new apartment.
Living together, round two
Sharing an apartment for the second time was probably the biggest test of all; for the first time in six months, we weren't actually travelling together anymore.
He was still in traveller mode, taking Spanish lessons and exploring the city, while I was working eight or nine hour days in a newspaper office. Alarms rang daily at 6.15am and I dressed in the dark while he slept, not coming home until twelve hours later and in need of a beer and the space to clear my head from work.
Suddenly the stress of keeping up to date with my own writing for this site, as well as committing myself to the newspaper job and to our relationship, began to show itself. There simply weren't enough hours in the day to get everything I wanted done.
I also started to realise just how much a part of my South American experience he had become. His flight home loomed ever closer, and with it came the knowledge that I'd be back to myself again but irrevocably changed; a solo traveller now wanting someone specific to share things with.
Splitting ways: from Colombia to England
After a final week spent on the Colombian coast, we parted ways – properly this time, with continents and international flights between us.
Now he's on a plane back to England, and I have to readjust myself to life here without him. There's a double bed that feels a lot bigger; a spare set of keys on the table; food in my fridge that was intended for recipes I didn't think up.
There's a fear, too, about what will happen later. When I finally go back to London. Because why should a relationship that works amongst Spanish conversations and on the curving mountain roads of night bus routes make the same amount of sense among the London tube network and weekend pints of beer in the local pub?
It's strange to think that, even after six months of spending most of our waking moments together, I don't know him in his London life. We only know the travellers in each other.
So how do I feel about it all, six months after accidentally beginning a relationship in a Bolivian bar? Now that I can feel his absence so keenly in my empty apartment? Now that I'm nervous about going back to London for an entirely different set of reasons than I initially anticipated?
Well, it's pretty simple really.
If I hadn't fallen for him, I would have continued through South America by myself, working on volunteer projects, meeting people in hostels, practicing my Spanish, and discovering the continent alone. But without him, I wouldn't have hiked into canyons and out again, or gone caving for the first time, or clambered up rocks and repeatedly faced my fear of heights.
I also wouldn't have started doing more exercise, learnt how to cut an onion quicker, wouldn't be buying leaves of fresh aloe vera for sunburn, or got into the habit of buying boxes of incense.
I wouldn't have laughed half as much. I wouldn't have felt so happy half the time. And most of all, thanks to him, I've refound a confidence in myself that I lost sight of a long time ago. So even if things don't turn out the same way in London that they've been in South America, I'll always be grateful to him for that.
So I think what I'm saying is take the risk. Make the jump. Go further than you think you should, than you normally would, because maybe it'll end up being something really rather special that you could never have predicted.