When Clara Bensen, 28, started online dating, she did not expect to go travelling with a new lover – and only one outfit – within weeks...
Sitting in the back seat of the stranger’s grey Subaru, speeding through the formerly war-torn Croatian countryside, I listened gratefully to Jeff – my travelling companion, for want of a more defined term – sat in the front, making small talk with the man in green fatigues who had picked us up at the roadside. He was telling Jeff that he worked in wines, but when he drove down the dirt track surrounded by barbed wire, it became clear something had been lost in translation. He worked in mines.
I was tired and dishevelled, but I never felt in danger with Jeff by my side – even when hitchhiking. I’d been wearing the same green dress every day by this point, for almost three weeks, and was travelling with no luggage other than a couple of pairs of knickers, toothbrush, my credit cards and an iPhone – by choice.
The adventure had begun two months earlier, in June 2013, when I opened an online dating account. I was 25, living in Austin, Texas, and had recently recovered from a two-year period of severe depression after a breakdown. I’d been isolated, and was desperate to rejoin the human race, so online dating seemed the perfect solution.
Fifteen minutes later, a quirky, curious profile caught my eye: ‘I like free people,’ One_Man_Tent had written. ‘People who don’t fit the archetypes. People with unique pasts.’ I immediately wanted to know more.
One_Man_Tent, aka Jeff, was a university professor in Brownsville, a town close to the Mexican border, and was 14 years older than me. As I later found out, however, in person you’d struggle to place his age. After a couple of weeks of messaging,
he drove the five hours from Brownsville to meet me in person for the first time. Getting ready, I felt a heady mix of nerves and excitement – somehow I just knew my life was about to be turned upside down.
The attraction was instant. That night, when he kissed me in a dive bar, it was the sort of sensuous, sweep-you-off-your-feet kiss that I had intended to avoid on a first date. After that, we were inseparable. Two nights later, I felt comfortable enough to tell him I believed there was something magic between us. I was doing it all wrong in terms of dating rules, but Jeff said he liked a woman who started a second date with a declaration of cosmic connection.
Six weeks later, we were boarding a plane to Istanbul, with no luggage or even a carry-on bag. We had no itinerary, no hotel bookings, and no plan, other than to make our flight out of London back home to Texas, 21 days later. In between, we would be staying on sofas and airbeds of friends and contacts we met along the way.
I had done some travelling before – a backpacking trip across Europe, and a trip to India when I was 17 – but never as unencumbered as this. I’d always had a rough plan and would feel uncomfortable without so much as a hostel reservation.
The idea of no baggage was Jeff’s – he moves through the world freely, and often without a plan, though he had been planning this trip for a while, mentioning it from our first messages. Then, at some point it went from being his trip to being our trip; we’d only met a handful of times when we booked the tickets. It was a kind of social experiment for us – we both wanted to push ourselves to enjoy travel without the usual tourist trappings.
There was no plan with regards to our relationship either. We were both keen to keep things open, no labels or promises.
If either of us met other people we wanted to date too, we agreed that was fine.
My parents had their concerns about me taking off overseas with a man I’d just met online. I had reservations too – what if it all went horribly wrong? But just a few months earlier, I had given up any hope of having a ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ life, so now I wanted to go out and grab life. We agreed that if it didn’t work, we’d go our separate ways, finish the trip solo, no hard feelings.
I worried about sustaining the romance of our fledgling relationship without make-up and flattering outfits. I wanted
to look good and feel sexy, but I was messy and dirty and tired almost from the very start, but Jeff and I were so into each other, neither of us cared. I washed my one dress and three pairs of pants with soap, in sinks, or in a washing machine when
such a luxury was provided.
We travelled through eight countries using almost every mode of transportation possible: an old train along the Turkish coast, an uncomfortable, cramped bus through the Balkans, hitchhiking through Croatia, and a couple of bikes in London.
We had our only major row in Sarajevo, when I accused Jeff of flirting with a girl on the bus. That incident made me realise that maybe I wasn’t as cut out for this open relationship idea as I first thought.
But long stretches on trains and buses fosters a special sort of intimacy – us just talking for hours as we moved from place to place stands out more than any one particular spot in our journey.
Three years on, Jeff and I live together. We’re monogamous, and while we call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, there’s still a sense of openness – we never take for granted how things are going to play out. We’ve taken four more ‘no baggage’ trips, and each one continues to be an incredible adventure. It’s taught me that objects aren’t fulfilling but experiences and relationships (however spontaneous) are.
‘No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love And Wandering’ by Clara Bensen (£8.99, Running Press) is out now