"Let's go to Mongolia," I texted my boyfriend, Michael. I was leaving in three weeks.
"I thought you wanted to go alone."
A friend had arranged a cultural exchange between an American and Mongolian ballet company. A dance and travel enthusiast, I decided to attend the performance in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, and spend a week in the Gobi Desert.
At 59 and never married, I had traveled alone, a lot - throughout Europe, across the United States. I had even lived in Italy for a couple of years. Traveling solo didn't faze me. But as my departure date drew closer, Mongolia felt further away than anywhere I had roamed. So did Michael.
We met through mutual friends. A few years older than me, Michael was visiting from his home town of Vancouver. Like me, he also traveled a lot for work. We spent our first years bouncing between our respective cities.
His lackadaisical attitude toward relationships (a former girlfriend of 10 years left him because he traveled too often) and his fear of marriage prevented me from believing we had an enduring love. Yet he was easy to get along with. I sensed the potential for a satisfying travel-ship - a relationship that existed only overseas. To me, this kind of arrangement would be better than a conventional relationship.
"Think of me as your loyal puppy," he said, encouraging me to plan our first trip to China. He'd follow me anywhere, he promised.
"Oh, really?" I said, not really believing him.
We both laughed.
As a TV cameraman for sporting events, he was used to navigating the world with all expenses paid and a precise itinerary. He often worked 18-hour days, accumulating weeks of overtime he could take as vacation. With a few weeks' notice, he had no trouble negotiating time off.
I happily arranged our trips, choosing mostly urban spots. Shanghai's fashionable Bund, Beijing, the Great Wall, Hong Kong.
I turned it up a notch on our next trip, Vietnam, leading him beyond Nha Trang's beach resort to dine at a local dive. I felt a tinge of guilt leading him along an unlighted, dirt road for 20 minutes to get there. But our sumptuous grilled squid and giant prawn dinner made the uncomfortable walk worth it, he agreed.
Over the next couple of years, we ventured to a jungle yoga retreat in Itacaré, Brazil; traversed Portugal's Algarve coast on a road trip; explored Sardinia's rocky coastline; and toured the citadels of Corsica.
We each paid for our own flights. Michael treated on hotels. Straying from the usual old tourist destinations meant tugging Michael's leash. But I learned how to calm his worries and suppress any of my own, taking us both places we may have not ventured individually.
"I love you today," Michael said at the end of a good travel day. Hearing a declaration of love limited to the present stung at first. I attributed it to Michael's fear of commitment. "I love you today, too," I responded on cue.
We were slowly favoring European destinations, while I wanted to explore places that were less familiar. I was starting to settle, with a guy I knew I'd never settle down with.
When I suggested Morocco, Michael said yes, which surprised me. Friends of his had relatives there who could show us around Casablanca and Marrakesh. I suggested we add Dakhla, a desert outpost in disputed territory under Moroccan administration, deep in the Western Sahara for the final three days. He agreed, though not too happily, and spent the entire time in bed nursing an upset stomach. Food poisoning, he said. Jitters, I suspected.
"How about D.C. or Vancouver next?" he suggested.
My puppy was getting tired of traveling, while I was just getting started.
When Mongolia presented itself, I saw it as a test. Could I travel alone again?
Michael agreed to go, even though it was the last place on earth he ever imagined visiting.
"You're so lucky to have me," he teased.
Driving through the Gobi on a six-day trip, in an old Soviet van with a driver, cook and two other couples, he admitted that he was enjoying himself more than expected. "If you wanted to see an empty wasteland, I could have taken you to Alberta," he said, referring to the Canadian province.
For me, the stark horizon and star-studded skies, on the other side of the world, in a land recently opened to outsiders was thrilling. When someone spotted an ibex darting by, it made me yearn to see more wildlife. I had stashed sub-Saharan Africa in a closed corner of my mind. Too far, expensive and dangerous.
Then I got the news the ballet company would perform in Johannesburg.
"Let's go to South Africa," I said.
"Too far, too expensive," Michael groaned. "A trip to Africa needs at least a year to plan."
I thought about trying to convince him otherwise. Instead, I broke our travel-ship and went solo. And I've returned to Africa on safari, alone, every year since.