My husband and I split up during our honeymoon. I explained the situation to friends and family by saying that we were separating "geographically." But as I barreled through the night on a 16-hour bus ride from Mendoza, Argentina, to Buenos Aires, quietly sobbing at the small screen playing 50 First Dates dubbed in Spanish, I knew there was more than geography between us. Three months into our honeymoon, our marriage was falling apart.
A year earlier when David had proposed, we'd already decided to take a four-month backpacking trip through South America. Combining our wedding, the trip, and a ski-bum season in Colorado allowed us to knock off three postgrad goals in one shot. Of course, I'd heard that the first year of marriage was the hardest, but hiking in the Andes and sipping Pisco sours on the rugged coast would make it easier, I figured. What I failed to consider were the challenges of spending 24 hours together, sticking to a tight budget, trying to stay cute in a steady rotation of three outfits, and sleeping in eight-bed hostel rooms with drunken Irish boys whose idea of entertainment meant dumping potted plants onto sleeping fellow guests.
A week after our wedding, we left for Ecuador. We traveled by bus and train and in the back of pickup trucks. One day we'd go into the jungle, and the next night we'd sleep in a cave. On the coast, we volunteered on an organic farm, waking up at 5 a.m. to help shovel manure. When it was dark, David would guard me at the outhouse, which was overrun with spiders the size of salad plates. Still, night after night in our tree-house bunk, one of us would alternately convince the other to stay and shovel pig shit for just one more day.
We made a few friends, but for the most part, we were decidedly uncool with the hostel crowd. Our fellow backpackers liked to ask, "You're married? Why?" After too many forced dinner conversations and overly competitive pool games, I wondered if they were on to something. If, in a tense moment, David were asked to describe our travel styles, he might have said that he's high-energy, active, and adventurous, while I'm slothlike and gluttonous. Posed the same question, I would say that I'm relaxed and easygoing and like to learn about a town by sitting in its cafés, while David races around from place to place, fulfilling his puritanical need to be productive.
With no break from each other's company, petty annoyances built, as when David, a teacher, would condescendingly commend my vocabulary. For example:
Me: "The door is ajar."
Him: "Good word."
After a day spent lazing at a luxury hotel, I made a comment about some ostentatious guests. "Are you sure that's the word you're looking for?" David asked. I wondered how I'd landed in the infuriating situation of defending my intellect to my dense pedant of a husband.
Standing at the base of Machu Picchu, I introduced the idea of spending some time apart. We started by splitting in the morning and meeting back up in the evening. Alone, I would have coffee and check out dinner spots, during which time David probably jogged the Inca trail and organized an ESL class. When he suggested going south after visiting Argentina's wine country, I said I would head north instead. Climbing onto the bus to Buenos Aires and leaving him behind was sad and surreal.
At my new hostel in B.A., I quickly met a cute South African playwright, and we partnered up to see the city. But he was nervous about taking the right train, unsure of our surroundings, and prone to getting lost on the slanted city streets, so I ditched him, relieved to realize that I wanted to be alone, not just apart from David. I settled into the rhythm of the city, moving into a hostel in Palermo Hollywood, finding a yoga class, and going out with friends of friends. Just as my weeks in B.A. started to feel less like travel and more like unemployment, David arrived.
We jumped all over each other when his taxi pulled up, and spent the night catching up in a little bar off the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo. But a day later, we were at odds again. We had been grossly overcharged to eat bad pizza, drink watery beer, and watch a junior soccer game. I thought the day was awful; he thought I was awful for complaining. Sitting in a dark pub that night, we had nothing to say even though we had weeks' worth of stories stored up. I cautiously broached whether we'd made a mistake in getting married. We'd been drawn so strongly to each other for the three years before we got married, but since the start of the trip, we hadn't been our best selves together. I was barely hiding my tears from the bartender. "It'll work itself out," I said.
"It won't work itself out," David replied flatly.
With a week left until our return flight, we decided to get one last country under our belts. We headed up the coast to Uruguay and settled in a sleepy fishing village, checking into a perfect little cabana a few steps from the beach. We walked miles of undeveloped beach, past fishing shacks decorated with old buoys, cooked meals with seafood straight off the boats, and didn't encounter another English speaker for the entire week. After months of crossing borders on packed buses, sleeping in crowded dorm rooms, and trying to figure out where we fit in among our inevitably single fellow backpackers, we were truly alone for the first time. And for the first time, we felt like a married couple.
When we returned home to Chicago with all of those memories from our months abroad, my favorite one was this: the day on the beach when we learned that if you can weather a rough patch, you will come out closer than ever. Since then, we've set a perfect daily routine for ourselves: I have a 9-to-5 publishing job and writing projects that let me sit quietly and get absorbed in a subject; David has a classroom full of students grateful for his energy and vocabulary. Two years into our marriage, I'm looking forward to a lifetime of living with him. And traveling with my sister.