One year ago, I sat down to write an article about love. After countless hours spent blankly staring at a computer screen, I accepted the reality of why I couldn’t write the piece: I didn’t know enough about love outside of my own personal experience.

So, I decided to do the next best thing. Over the course of a year, I asked 50+ people in the 20+ countries I traveled to what they believed love was and documented their responses.

According to most people I spoke with, love requires friendship, trust, mutual support, freedom, and understanding. The answers were generally what I expected, but every now and then, I was surprised by nuggets of colorful perspective. For example, there was the older Italian gentleman who ardently believes that love is the “motor of the universe,” the handsome Greek man who sees it as nothing more than a temporary oneness we seek to create a sense of purpose, the Indonesian housewife who compared it to a garden that must be consistently watered and cared for, and the Nepali healer who claims it is servicing the other as much as yourself.

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Despite the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about love, there is no consensus. And how could there be? As I was told by a Malaysian teenager wise beyond her years, love can only be defined by what it is not – in the end, our definition of love is but a best guess based off of our experiences and those of others.

Although I’ve been in love a few times, my most valuable lessons about love came from traveling the world and speaking to the locals whom I met along the way. Here is what I’ve learned:

 

We don’t always know what we want

My lackluster travel memories were the ones I planned to a tee. Looking back now, there was hardly any satisfaction in visiting places solely to check off sights, landmarks, and attractions. In my experience, magic in travel happens when there is spontaneity. My most cherished travel memories include jumping on the back of an Indonesian stranger’s motorcycle on a whim and spending the afternoon discussing Javanese philosophy with local puppet-makers; the time in Myanmar when some monks-in-training I befriended at a monastery took me to see a secret waterfall; and following a local’s last-minute recommendation visit to a lesser-known Greek island, which became one of my favorite places in the world.

When I first started traveling, I thought I knew what I wanted. As it turns out, I didn’t have a clue as to what I needed. We can’t know what we don’t know – so how can we properly plan for what we “want”?

Too often, we over-plan out of fear of finding ourselves in situations that we are not prepared for. However, it is precisely those situations that hold the most magic and possibility. We spend so much energy avoiding our fear of the unknown, when taking a leap of faith may be exactly what we need.

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The same concept applies to love: when we try to plan for it, we constrain it. Love cannot be captured or controlled by our will. How could we possibly plan for curveballs like falling for someone on the road, who is from another country, or in a different life stage as us? Spontaneity is crucial to uncovering parts of ourselves we may not have known about, opening us up to new, unexpected relationships, and keeping things fresh and exciting in existing ones.

In both love and travel, embracing spontaneity allows us to stay curious, receptive to growth, and constantly generating serendipity. We may not know what we want until it comes to us in a form that we did not expect. Which leads me to my next point…

 

Expectations shape our reality

Expectations in travel (as well as in life) can be a double-edged sword. At times, they have saved me – for example, expecting poor conditions while traveling through developing countries really helped me deal with sleeping in cots, using holes as toilets, and taking cold showers. Even so, expectation-setting has hurt me more than it has helped me.

I have a consistent track-record of loving places I didn’t have expectations for and disliking the ones I expected too much from. I assumed I’d hate Bali because of its popularity, but I ended up enamored with it. I thought I’d dislike Romania since so many Europeans I encountered spoke poorly of it, yet it became one of my favorite countries. Based on people’s reviews and social media posts, I was convinced that Santorini, Greece, would be paradise. In reality, it was difficult to appreciate its beauty with the masses of tourists crowding the island. Creating expectations using other people’s experiences, it seems, has only tainted my perspective.

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Love is also frequently obstructed by expectations. I’ve dated people who were perfect on paper but didn’t feel right. Conversely, I’ve found intense passion with people who completely defied my expectations but were exactly what I needed at that moment in my life. Setting expectations for qualifications a partner needs to meet, what an ideal relationship should look like, and what milestones need to be hit and when is dangerous because it sets us up for an experience that is built on preconceived notions (some our own, some borrowed from others). Rather than experiencing the relationship for what it is, we risk creating a false image in our minds of who the other person is and ending up disappointed.

Travel taught me to stop measuring the worth of a place or person against preconceived expectations, and instead come into it with an open mind.

 

Time is measured by the quality of our moments

Travel has completely reconfigured how I perceive time. I no longer think in weeks, but rather in countries (e.g. rather than think, “I will arrive to Brazil in three months,” I now think, “I will arrive in Brazil after traveling through three other countries”). A few days in a place can feel like a lifetime and conversely, weeks in another can quickly fly by. Time is no longer just measured in minutes and days; it is also measured in the richness of my experiences.

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Years ago, I heard a beautiful Brazilian proverb about love, which also appropriately applies to travel: “May it be infinite while it lasts.” Meaning, love is eternal in the moment that we are living it. Travel is the same. When I visit a place, I know that it will never be the same as when I left it. Time will pass, and we will both change, but the memories that I lived there will always remain.

Whether it is a person or a place, the most pure way to feel love is to live it in the moment. We have the capability to freeze time through presence. To me, eternal love is being in complete awe of watching a full moon rising from behind a Moroccan dune; it is quietly meditating in the middle of the Amazon while nature’s sounds saturate the air; it is spending a minute looking into someone else’s eyes and completely enveloping myself in the intimacy of that connection. Even if I know that a relationship will not work out long-term, I do not let that knowledge detract from the special moments spent together. That love, in that moment, is forever… even if it is gone in the next.

The memorable moments that we live in both love and travel are as eternal as they are fleeting. We are inexplicably bound, for better or for worse, to both the places and people that we have loved.

Originally published on Intrepid.

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