I spent six years writing a weekly budget travel column, and for most of that time, I was single. (Yeah, you try to maintain a relationship when you’re out of town 200 days a year.)
Most friends were sympathetic to my solo plight. But one, a married friend wishing to live vicariously through the life he imagined I led, was not. Whenever I mentioned a woman’s name in an article — a bus-mate or barista or guide or Couchsurfing host or Airbnb neighbor that had given good advice or said something worth quoting — he tried to read between the lines to see if romantic sparks had flown.
They almost never had. In part, that’s because a travel writer with constant deadlines does not go out on the town each night. He stays in, writing or frantically planning the next day. And anyway, what’s to say I was interested (possible), the woman was interested (unlikely), and that I had the game to make it happen (almost inconceivable)?
In a way, that’s too bad, because romantic relationships on the road can be great gateways into experiencing a foreign culture intimately. But in another way, it’s lucky that I missed out because navigating the dating scene abroad can also be a minefield.
So, when is it ok to hook up with a local?
The answer is complicated, of course. Much more complicated than whether or not it’s OK to hook up with a fellow traveler, someone more or less in the same situation as you. But when financial and power imbalances come into play, things get tricky — just as they do back home.
I learned my first lesson on this at age 23, after a three-day fling in a small city I was passing through in the Dominican Republic. I saw it as a fling, anyway. She saw it as something completely different. “I finally know what love is, and you’re leaving tomorrow,” she cried as we said goodbye. Streams of letters (yes, letters, this was the 1990s) followed. You can hear the end of the story in the video.
Since then, I’ve been much more deliberate and careful about interactions with locals in countries abroad where casual flings may not be as common or socially acceptable, and engaging sexually with locals can have lasting consequences.
More recently, as a journalist, I’ve interviewed travelers about their experience in Rio de Janeiro, where local women at Copacabana beach often mingle with foreign travelers. It’s complicated territory that I’m by no means an expert in, but I scratch the surface in the video below, and slightly below the surface even more in Chapter 6 of my new book, Rediscovering Travel. Both are meant as conversation starters, not definitive answers. I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments section of the video on YouTube or via the contact page at sethkugel.com.
Seth Kugel is the author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious, out this week from Norton. He was formerly the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times. You can purchase his new book on Amazon.