Over the years, I’ve run my passport ragged, each foreign visa and customs stamp an inked reminder of life experiences. I travel as much as possible, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. And even though I often wander solo and choose erratic destinations, I generally don’t get too lonely because I’m constantly encountering fascinating people or things.
But one arena it has impacted is the ability to sustain romantic relationships. Whereas I keep in touch with newly made platonic friends via social media, it’s challenging to keep a flame alive at home, or, considering my “let’s catch a bus and see what happens” preferred style of vagabonding, entertain anything long-term on the road.
Enter the absurd world of geolocation-enabled online dating, which has given “wanderlust” a whole new meaning.
Recent research suggests that people’s personalities actually shift with extended travel, resulting in increased agreeableness and openness to experience, as well as decreased neuroticism. Another study shows that ample opportunity, such as extended or frequent travel, is the biggest predictor of extramarital affairs. Whether you’re single or attached, this seems to support the free love “sex on vacation” mentality – in essence, the “why” part of travel romance. Technology, then, may be seen as simply the “how” — it’s our vehicle for modern-day introductions.
Take this past Winter Olympics in Sochi, for example. Women’s Slopestyle gold medalist Jamie Anderson blew the coveron what happens behind the scenes when you segregate 2,850 high-strung competitors away from the rest of the world. “Tinder in the Olympic Village is next level,” the U.S. snowboarder told Us Weekly. “It’s all athletes! In the mountain village it’s all athletes. It’s hilarious. There are some cuties on there.”
This is not entirely surprising: a bunch of absurdly fit people under high pressure, crammed into dorm-like conditions, with 100,000 condoms reportedly handed out to last a mere two weeks? “Next level” bacchanalia is kind of expected.
But take away the sexy athlete angle, the sardine-like confinement and the lifetime supply of Trojans, and you’ll find people 10,000 miles away also using the app to connect. This past winter an American scientist based at McMurdo Station in Antarctica decided to pull up Tinder for kicks and found a woman located a mere 45-minute helicopter ride away (hey, it’s Antarctica). They both swiped right and began chatting, and though they were only able to meet briefly before she was due to leave, he tells New York magazine’s The Cut that she’ll be back later in the research season. “There’s still hope,” he says.
In these instances, whether you’re swarmed by crowds or isolated from them, technology is helping people in foreign places find a spark.
Some may argue that when travelers use these services, they’re just looking for a fling – a momentary connection to last till they’re back at the boarding gate. They’re not entirely wrong: there’s Wingman, a Bluetooth-enabled app that matches airline passengers who want to join the mile high club, and MissTravel.com, which pairs generous frequent fliers with beautiful but cash-strapped girls.
Even online communities that aren’t dedicated matchmaking sites have gotten side reputations. Last December Business Insider reported how Couchsurfing, the online travel community that promotes cultural exchange by matching local hosts with passers-through, has become something of a hook-up site. Long-time Couchsurfers have expresseddisappointment with the burgeoning fling aspect that’s encroaching on the mission of the community, but there’s no denying its presence. (Indeed, even a cursory Google search of “Couchsurfing” and “hookup” results in dozens of “couch-bang” blog entries and step-by-step seduction how-tos.)
Before reading the BI article, the idea had never crossed my mind. But three weeks later, as I was in Vancouver essentially being a Van-cougar with my years-younger 25-year-old host, I had to laugh. This wasn’t like James Franco allegedly trying to creep on a 17-year-old girl through Instagram; there was no predation or deception involved. The fact that we met via technology as opposed to something analog like through work or at the grocery store is irrelevant to one simple fact: we just got along.
He seemed to think the same:
“You were a very forward, highly outgoing and extremely easy person to talk to,” he recounts via email. “Based on the great day we spent together and your aforementioned qualities, many of which I believe I possess also, I decided to be very honest and forward.”
For him, it’s not about gaming every girl who walks through his door (he claims he hasn’t extended the invitation to other female surfers). Rather, it’s about increasing the likelihood of catching lightning in a bottle during that limited window of time – and whether you can find that chemistry via tech or otherwise, regardless if it’s fleeting or forever, there’s no point in limiting your resources.
“With so much choice,” he types, “how can a person settle for just one?”
A man I’ll call Francesco, because his real name is equally unlikely, would have to agree.
“I’ll basically check out OKCupid and Tinder whenever I land in a new city, so I have dates waiting when I get there,” the 30-year-old entrepreneur tells me via Whatsapp, rattling off a list of eight countries he’s employed this digital dating strategy.
“I’m always upfront about it,” he adds. “You never want to do anything under false pretenses. That’s an asshole move.”
Like my Couchsurfing host, Francesco insists it’s not at about bagging just anybody; he largely bases his selection around shared interests and intellectual chemistry, just like regular old-fashioned, in-person dating.
“Remember, I’m spending limited time in an amazing new city. There are literally hundreds of other things that I can do,” he tells me. “It really needs to be a cool date that I’m excited about, because otherwise I won’t even bother. I can get enough awkward dates with mediocre girls at home, you know?”
But Francesco’s approach differs slightly than the fleeting Wingman-users and Tinder-ing Olympians: yes, he meets women via technology, but also keeps up with them via technology, too.
“Technology, via Whatsapp, allows me to keep in touch and hold flames for longer, while apps like Tinder allow me to meet new ones when I travel,” he explains.
I think about our own digitally enhanced relationship, and the logic is dead-on.
Introduced a few years back in New York through a mutual friend, Francesco and I developed an easy friendship that was as honest as it was flirtatious, full of good cheer, respect and rapport. And now, nearly two years after he’s moved back to his native country, or when I’m off on another international bender, it’s not unusual for us to have radio static for months, only to one day have my phone randomly ping with an incoming text:
“That photo from Burning Man you just posted to Facebook is doing very bad things to my pants area right now.”
Whatsapp has made it possible for us to keep each other’s company in spite of the distance, as if we were joking with each other from across a table rather than across continental lines. In our case, the nomadic lifestyle has not prevented us from intermittently keeping up with one another at all – as long as there’s a wi-fi connection, that is.
Then, sometimes, it all works out.
The latest Pew study indicates that one in 10 Americans have used an online dating site or mobile app, and the proportion of Americans who say that they met their current partner online has doubled in the last eight years—a statistic that doesn’t exclude travelers.
In the summer of 2012, Klaus, then 26, was just a guy living in Portland, OR, offering space to travelers via Couchsurfing, and Noemie was just a Dutch girl passing through.
“I did not expect to meet a girl on Couchsurfing, partially because I felt uncomfortable hitting on female surfers, as I did not want to make anyone staying with me feel uncomfortable. I think that’s sleazy,” he says via email. “However, Noemie and I just hit it off. When you fall in love, everything is strange and strange is wonderful.”
After she returned to Europe, Klaus, a writer, continued to romance her with poetry, which evolved into long emailed conversations, which turned into hours-long daily Skype sessions. A mere five months after they met, Klaus flew to the Netherlands to visit Noemie. Three months after that, he moved out of this apartment to be with her – and that’s where he’s emailing me from right now: their shared flat in Amsterdam, where they’ve now lived together for almost a year.
“The weirdest feeling is to sometimes look at where I am and realize that the only reason Noemie and I found each other is because we were open-minded and sociable enough to use Couchsurfing,” he says, citing the implausibility of their meeting otherwise due to geographic distance and general circumstance.
Again, that general openness to new experience and possibility that Klaus talks about – the personality hallmark of travelers – is echoed amongst the other wanderers as well.
Francesco says he’s absolutely open to translating his momentary connections into a serious relationship, should fortune come that way. He relates a sweet story about a French girl he met in Paris and kept a Whatsapp rapport with for over a year, but due to their infrequent in-person meetings on their respective continents, it wasn’t meant to last.
“There’s only so long you can keep these sort of ephemeral relationships going before everyone sort of moves on, you know?” he types. “This last time we met up in Paris she had a boyfriend and whatnot, so we left it at that. We’re friends, which is cool.
“For me, it’s more a question of, can I find a girl here who has similar sensibilities and tastes? In other words, find a rooted girl who shares and understands my rootlessness?”
I sit there for a bit, letting his words sink in.
“Yes, I totally know what you mean,” I finally type. A pause.