In 2017, I was living in Guatemala, working as a grant writer for an agriculture nonprofit. I rarely went to the US, but that October the nonprofit sent me to the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit in Boston.
At the last event of the summit, a boat ride on the harbour, I met Daniel. He was the CEO and founder of a social enterprise in Kenya. We added each other on Facebook and began talking every day. We sent paragraphs about international development, the places we’d traveled to and our perspectives on life.
Daniel was articulate, brilliant and different. I’d initially been impressed that he ran a successful company at age 24, but there was much more to him. He was a global adventurer who did things like travel alone through the Congo. He spoke seven languages. He was relentlessly curious, educating himself through Wikipedia and exploring from afar by scrolling around Google Maps. He stimulated my own curiosity, intellect and sense of adventure.
After months of near-daily messaging, we started having video calls on the weekends. What was I doing? I wondered. He lived in Kenya. What future could we have? But I pushed my fear away, kept sending life updates and kept counting the hours forward, wondering what Daniel was doing nine hours in the future.
Daniel appeared during an uncertain time in my life. I was in the middle of leaving my job and didn’t know what would come next. I was 24 and wanted my next move to be aligned with a long-term vision for my career, but it was proving difficult to create one. My career was in international development, which is a very broad field, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on. Field experience was important, and it made sense to continue working abroad while I was young. But where? Doing what?
After months of anxiety, inspiration struck: I would take time off to travel in Asia. I’d long been interested in the region and this was an opportunity to go. Travel often brings clarity and I thought the journey could help me figure things out. Plus, there’s a lot of development work in Asia – perhaps I’d stay – so I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.
A week before my departure, something happened that surpassed serendipity and touched what some would call fate. An investor in Indonesia told Daniel he wanted to fly him there for a meeting. His trip coincided with my arrival in the region. “I can meet you in Hong Kong,” said Daniel’s text message.
“After talking from a distance for six months, I’d decided he was perfect for me. I assumed I’d idealized him but believed in that ideal anyway.”
I stared at my phone. Daniel. In person. In one week. I lay facedown on the floor in my apartment.
We’d never explicitly said anything romantic and I wondered if we were meeting as friends. He extinguished that flicker of doubt: “Just to be direct, I like you a lot.” I lay on the floor again.
The idea of physical Daniel, someone I could touch, was paralysing. After talking from a distance for six months, I’d decided he was perfect for me. I assumed I’d idealised him but believed in that ideal anyway, and suddenly my fantasy would step out of my imagination and into reality.
One suspense-filled week later, he was coming to pick me up at my hotel in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong. I waited in the room while the minutes ground down. I looked in the mirror, picked up a book, put it down, played music, changed the song. He knocked.
We had drinks on a 12th-floor rooftop, telling stories and watching the skyline darken. In the city’s party area, we bought hard cider from 7-11 and drank in the street. We kissed sitting on a brick wall, music thudding in the background.
Daniel’s father was from Hong Kong, so the next day we visited his great-grandparents’ graves. Keeping tradition, we bowed three times before we left.
I was crushed when his 24-hour visit was over. It had been wonderful ― great conversations, adventures around the city and natural attraction. I knew now that I hadn’t been smitten with a fantasy. Our connection was real. But we didn’t know how we’d meet again and I felt as much pain as joy.
“It was an intense way to get to know someone: short bursts of intimate time, sharing hotel rooms in different foreign settings.”
My sadness was short-lived. Daniel announced that he was going to San Francisco to meet another investor and he had an idea: Rather than flying through Europe, he could fly the other way around the world, through Asia. “Where will you be in a month?”
I shook my head in giddy disbelief. I was starting to feel like this guy could appear at any time.
To my amazement, he did. He started tagging one- to two-day visits to Asia onto other trips, taking advantage of his travel-heavy lifestyle. A month after Hong Kong, he met me in Hanoi, Vietnam, for 24 hours. He attended a wedding in Boston a month later, and on his way back to Africa, he came to southern Laos for two days. Then he told me he’d been accepted into an entrepreneurship program in China. “I can visit you on the way there and back,” he said. He would return two weeks after our Laos encounter.
I counted. After those visits, he would have flown to see me five times in just three months.
It was an intense way to get to know someone: short bursts of intimate time, sharing hotel rooms in different foreign settings. Our relationship had mainly developed through words on a screen, and here we were, pooping in the same bathroom. His physical presence was always a shock at first, like my favorite character had jumped off the TV screen. But then it was comfortable, easy.
On date three, I got up the courage to ask if we were exclusive. “There’s no one else in my life,” he said. I figured that meant we were indeed in an exclusive relationship, but it seemed strange considering that we had no future beyond our next meetup. Privately, I panicked. I was falling hard for Daniel, and if this were ultimately all for nothing, it would crush me. But I couldn’t assuage my fears. We’d spent so little time together in person that it felt premature to discuss where this was all going.
I met him at the airport when he arrived and dropped him off when he left. Each time I watched him walk through security and vanish, right where the checkpoint ended. It was the invisible line I could never cross: the other side of the mirror.
“I was falling hard for Daniel, and if this were ultimately all for nothing, it would crush me. But I couldn’t assuage my fears. We’d spent so little time together in person that it felt premature to discuss where this was all going.”
“You and my life in Nairobi are parallel universes,” he said during our fourth date, 52 hours in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “The digital space in between connects them and sometimes I jump to your life. The universes haven’t met yet but they always run parallel.”
I thought about Daniel on trains and buses as I wound through Southeast Asia. I sent him photos and videos of my Vietnamese notes or hitchhiking in Cambodia, of misty temples and jaw-dropping mountains and all the wonderful things one sees and does while traveling.
This wasn’t supposed to be a love story. When I left Guatemala, I intended to concentrate on figuring out my career. But in large part, a love story was what it had become. As I laughed with Daniel on our weekly Skype dates, as we counted down to our next meeting, as we kissed in terminals and prayed against flight delays, an idea began to emerge: I could move to Kenya.
It seemed insane, of course. As of date four, we’d spent all of seven days physically together. Maybe I couldn’t see his flaws through a computer screen or find our incompatibilities buried in text messages. “You don’t know him,” said my mother. But the facts were clear. Daniel’s business was in Kenya and I was traveling without an end date. I was the one with the flexibility to choose where I lived.
I thought of myself as independent and career-oriented, and the notion of following a guy tormented me. I didn’t want to be one of ‘those girls’ who built their life around someone else. I’d always advised friends against going out of their way for relationships. Well, this would be going pretty far out of my way ― to Africa. Nairobi is a global hotspot for international development, so it wasn’t like he lived in Nebraska. But still, did online interaction plus some short stints in person justify such a drastic move?
“I thought of myself as independent and career-oriented, and the notion of following a guy tormented me. I didn’t want to be one of ‘those girls’ who built their life around someone else.”
The thing was that I believed if there was a true match out there for me, Daniel was it. He was my intellectual equal or greater, someone I’d always learn from and be inspired by. I’d never encountered that in a man before. He reminded me of how important it is to stay curious and venture outside what’s comfortable, and he shared my passions for travel and foreign cultures. He was so sure of himself and pursued his passions with such focus that he showed me how far I was from my own potential and made me challenge what I thought I was capable of.
As a pair, we balanced each other out. I was driven by intuition and he by logic. I lived on an emotional roller coaster, whereas he was even-keeled, someone who could ground me. It didn’t seem like a relationship I could pass up.
I never told him I was thinking about moving to Nairobi, not wanting to get his hopes up unless I was sure. He didn’t say anything either. I had the impression he was waiting for me to come to my own conclusion.
It came: date five, 30 hours on the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc. It was my birthday weekend. I called it “island meetup” and insisted we listen to reggae and drink mojitos on the beach, but my excitement was tinged with terror. Daniel had warned he wouldn’t have the flexibility to visit again in the near future and I hadn’t made a decision.
Lying in bed, hands intertwined with mine, he handed me a book. “For your birthday.”
It was a book of words for emotions in different languages. I smiled. No boyfriend had given me a present that showed they understood me.
“There’s something else.” He flipped to the back, to a piece of paper taped inside. I unfolded it slowly. It was a Photoshopped plane ticket.
Passenger - Rachel Abbott
Destination - Nairobi
From - Wherever
Date - Whenever
“Daniel,” I breathed. “Are you serious?”
“Come visit,” he said, smiling. “Check it out and see what you think.”
I dropped him off at the airport and sat outside the terminal. I opened the “ticket,” smoothed it out.
I thought through it all: the incredible improbability of meeting in the first place, from Guatemala and Kenya to a boat in Boston. Two people converging on a single point from different countries. A guy who’d flown around the world to hang out with me.
I looked at the evening sky outside an airport in Vietnam and laughed at the absurd beauty of life.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll move to Kenya.”
“Independence and lifelong partnership aren’t mutually exclusive. If you believe someone will challenge you and help you grow, it’s worth deviating from your path.”
That was a year and a half ago, and Daniel and I are together and happy. I worried I was compromising my autonomy by moving to Kenya, but I was right about what I’d gain from the relationship. In all his depth and brilliance, Daniel has been a constant inspiration, and being with him has made me a truer version of myself. Having moved to Nairobi because of him didn’t change my dedication to finding a fulfilling career, and ultimately (miracles!) I did find my way ― not in international development, but as a journalist.
Individualism is the ethos of the times. We advise each other against crafting our lives around a partner: If the relationship doesn’t fit with your plans, screw it.
Maybe I’ve become a romantic, but I disagree with that now. Independence and lifelong partnership aren’t mutually exclusive. If you believe someone will challenge you and help you grow, it’s worth deviating from your path, even if you have to deviate all the way to Africa.
This article was first published on HuffPost US Personal
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