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Can travel heal a broken heart?

February 6, 2014
China

He flashed that smile; his green eyes twinkled under the fairy lights on Orchard Road that Christmas evening. I traced the dent on his cheek and muttered, “Dimples. That’s what it’s called in English.” “Grübchen,” he replied in German, and we walked hand-in-hand under glittering lanterns and trees covered in artificial snow.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and I found myself on that stretch of road again. The fairy lights are gone. So is the guy with the grübchen. What’s left is a dent in my heart, and a strong desire to kick myself for what just happened. Had I followed the first item in my rulebook—thou shall not fall in love with a long-term backpacker—I would’ve saved myself from this heartbreak.

But it happened, and ended as quickly as it came. It didn’t start in ways that you would imagine. No, not after hours of conversations during bus rides in Cambodia or some cinematic love-at-first-sight encounters in southern Thailand. He was not the first backpacker who had shown interest in me either. There were a couple of guys before him but I was too quick to dismiss them, sticking to my belief that developing feelings for someone doing a round-the-world trip is as good as effortlessly digging my heart’s grave. People always leave anyway.

We met in my city, which made it all the more heart-wrenching when it ended. He was travelling around Asia then, I happily surviving in my world with occasional encounters with backpackers. He flew to my city twice after our first meeting—which is considered two trips too many to a small island-state. We had initially thought we could make it work despite being in two different continents but the map is not something we can bend and adjust in our favour.

Though it happened in a span of months, it still felt long enough to have me crushed by the end of it; heartbreaking enough to leave me contemplating packing my bags and fleeing this city tainted with memories of—and with—him. I can’t sit long enough in Starbucks without being reminded of our conversations on geography and the NBA; I can’t play a quiz app on my phone because I know I wouldn’t score perfectly without him by my side. Every corner of my city feels like it’s stamped with that grübchen-filled smile. I cannot simply look away; I wanted to run away.

I have to admit, I’m the type who turn to airports for sanctuary. My knee-jerk reaction to any looming source of stress is to book a flight some place new and unheard-of, hoping that the ‘foreignness’ of it would leave me in awe, and push the stress away. Travel keeps my sanity when everything feels overbearing, the very reason my overseas writing assignments and personal trips are scattered all over the calendar to give me enough breathing spaces. It’s relatively easy to do so: Stressed? Book a flight. Come back. Work. Stressed again? Repeat. My magazine job is a 9-to-5 with specific deadlines, and as long as I don’t check my emails during trips, I will be fine. I wanted to apply the same approach to mend my heart, to go some place where there will be no reminders of him. My job and career, however, is not something I can just pack in my bag and bring with me, and of course, a broken heart has no offline button, no airplane mode, no deadlines to beat. Emotions have no sense of place and time; the soul-crushing pain is within me, and I’m afraid movement of any kind may not necessarily equate to moving on. The grown-up thing to do is to face the memories, no matter how sad, and not to crumble with the pain. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Can travel heal a broken heart? I hope it does. And I’m going beyond hoping; I’m off to find out.

On Valentine’s Day—yeah, that commercial excuse of a special holiday that makes single people feel miserable for being alone!— I’m going to the place where the guy with the grübchen and I had planned (didn’t go beyond planning though) to meet up months ago when he was still on the road. I’m visiting some temples in Java, the place that signifies the time when both our hearts are still whole and full of eagerness, the place (other than my city) where my being alone would probably be at it’s hardest. I hope that the gods would somehow present their divine intervention to heal my heart. I’ll still be back in my city to work but I made sure that a trip (for a few days, at least) is a monthly endeavour: an overseas writing assignment in March, a company trip in April, a writing trip in May, a holiday in June. I’m not sure if it would be travel or time that would eventually help, but I could only hope that somewhere between getting lost and finding my stories, I also get my heart back to its painless state. And find my way back to love, in time.

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