When I found out I’d been accepted into a journalism program in Jakarta, I started counting down the days until I’d be boarding the plane. At 20 years old, it was my first time ever travelling alone. I felt like a real foreign correspondent where I’d be interning at Forbes Indonesia in a bilingual office as the only Australian.
But the trip was also a kind of ‘practice’ run to see how my boyfriend of 10 months and I would handle two months apart before I leave for a year’s exchange in Madrid. Before I left, we embraced in a tight hug and I handed him a stack of letters, one for each day that I’d be away.
It took us about 10 goodbyes before we finally separated, tears welling up in my eyes. Questions like ‘What if this trip shows us that it’s too hard to combat distance?’ and ‘what if we realise being apart isn’t what we want?’ circled my mind.
The next day I landed in Jakarta, a bustling city where the extreme macet (traffic) is a running joke. It’s a city that never sleeps, the warungs (street vendors) open until midnight and the booming speakers announcing the 4am call to prayer, make it almost impossible to sleep-in.
It was hard to imagine feeling lonely in the ‘Big Durian’ where smiling is a national past time, but I had my worries. Seven weeks apart didn’t mean that I expected a break up was on the horizon, but if I’m honest, there were some creeping doubts.
In some ways my boyfriend is like a real-life Bruce Wayne, comfortable with solitude. While I fretted about the future, he was completely calm. He flew to Perth to visit his dad and filled up his days exploring the Pink Lake in Lake Hillier and camping on the beach. He wasn’t going to sit at home, waiting for me to Skype him and even picked up an extra day’s work to keep himself busy. When I asked if he missed me, he said “I’ll just miss you until you’re back.”
I admired him because I, on the other hand, found it hard to be alone. I like having a few close best friends to share my thoughts and feelings with. So when I was flown to Bali to cover some stories, I befriended an older American woman who had a penchant for country music and took me on motorbike rides through the rice fields.
She told me she’s another happy loner, a freelance researcher, who’d been living alone in Phuket before arriving in Denpasar. As we weaved through the streets, avoiding stray dogs and pot holes, I realised that friendships like these made being away from home so much easier to bear.
I’ve always believed that friendship should never be tossed aside for a relationship. That becoming one with your partner doesn’t mean sidelining your friends and shutting out the rest of the world. And with my boyfriend and I on a temporary hiatus, it was friendships like these that kept me sane.
But that wasn’t to say there wasn’t fights while I was away. There were moments when I questioned why my boyfriend and I weren’t skyping as much as others on the program. I wondered whether it was a red flag that we weren’t spending hours rehashing the events of the day and sending long texts back and forth about what we were getting up to.
Worse was when people questioned how often we’d been in touch to judge how serious our relationship was. “Don’t they have phones in Perth?”, said one of the guys on the program when I told him we hadn’t been talking much because my boyfriend, understandably, was busy soaking up the moments with his dad who he hadn’t seen for a year.
It caused a lot of frustration and a few fights when I asked my boyfriend why he wasn’t sending texts, telling me how much I meant to him. He was mad that I’d let other people’s relationships and opinions of ours, get into my head. He was right of course, our relationship is unique and comparing it to others was hurtful.
Since I’ve got back from Indonesia our relationship has become much stronger. His busy work schedule isn’t a deal breaker - instead it’s a reminder to make our limited time together count. It’s what’s made me confident that our relationship can handle the distance.
Travelling alone has taught me that it’s a deep, mature love when you know that someone cares without needing to hear it or be reassured constantly. My Indonesian escapade has made my relationship more resilient and it’s what I hope will make it last the years to come.