HUFFPOST PERSONAL
06/07/2018 08:30 am ET

I Gave Up Dating To Travel The World And It Changed My Life

Enjoying the view in Santorini, Greece.
Jen Ruiz
Enjoying the view in Santorini, Greece.

“You should really think about having a baby soon. I just think it’s something you should consider at your age,” he stated matter-of-factly, without even looking up from his book.

I wasn’t sure when “at your age” became a phrase that applied to me. I was 28 going on 29, and having a baby wasn’t on my radar yet. After all, I was still trying to find a man to make the baby with.

The socially oblivious medical student in my living room was the latest in a series of Tinder boyfriends. For years, I found myself on dating apps and websites in the hopes of one day matching with Mr. Right.

Every time it didn’t work out, I’d return to the hunt with renewed fervor, convinced that persistence and sheer will to weed through the candidates would pay off in the end. After all, I personally knew at least a half-dozen couples who’d found love online. Surely it was just a matter of when, not if, it would happen for me as well.

The more time passed, however, the more suspiciously I was viewed. It got to the point that I couldn’t even go on a first Tinder date without being asked the dreaded question, “So what’s wrong with you that you’re still single?”

There’s no good answer to that. I’ve tried, “I haven’t found the right guy yet,” or the ever popular, “I’ve been busy with my career.” No matter the rationale, I was greeted with a quizzical look and pronounced squinting, as if blurry vision would somehow reveal the glaring defect that had left me on the market for so long.

Clearly, my biggest problem was being on Tinder in the first place.

I’d invested energy, emotion and some of my best outfits into a mating system that left me feeling depleted and inadequate.

I’d invested energy, emotion and some of my best outfits into a mating system that left me feeling depleted and inadequate. I wondered what I could have accomplished if I’d dedicated my time to something productive or uplifting. With several hours a day, I could’ve learned a new language or become a certified yoga instructor. Instead, I’d spent time dodging judgment and eggplant emojis from “twin guy,” “banker guy,” “military guy” and “divorced in his 40’s guy,” to name a few.

“Med school guy” was the last straw. He passed his qualifying exams, six months and four attempts later, and left to complete his rotations in another state, never to be heard from again. I didn’t get back on my Tinder profile after that; I deleted it altogether.

The best part about being a single, young professional without so much as a goldfish waiting for you to come home is having the means and ability to pick up and go as you please. In searching for a new personal goal to accomplish before turning 30 that didn’t involve a husband or unborn children, I found travel.

I set out to take 12 trips in 12 months before my 30th birthday, publicly announcing the goal on Facebook as the modern day version of declaring “no backsies.” It may have sounded excessive to some, but I needed the goal to be all-encompassing. I needed it to take up every inch of brain space, every minute of spare time, because any remaining gaps would inevitably be filled with self-deprecating thoughts and loneliness, especially as the new decade loomed closer.

Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Jen Ruiz
Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

With a renewed sense of purpose and dedication of my hyper-focused efforts, I ended up taking 20 trips to 41 cities in 11 countries, including Greece, Argentina, Iceland, Thailand, Cambodia and Cuba. I learned everything I could about finding affordable flights, reading books and blogs to become a self-taught travel hacker and accruing enough miles to land deals like a $38 flight to New Zealand, $22 roundtrip flight to San Francisco and $16 flight to Ecuador.

I taught English online every morning before going to work as a nonprofit attorney to supplement my income, from 7 a.m.- 8:30 a.m. on weekdays and 6 a.m.-10a.m. on weekends. I over-programmed my schedule to fit in trips wherever possible, sometimes landing on a return flight at 5 a.m. at an airport two hours away because that was the cheapest flight option, driving home, changing, and going straight in to work on a Monday morning. Since I lived in Florida, anywhere in the Caribbean was fair game for a 48-hour jaunt, including Aruba and Puerto Rico.

Most of my trips were between three to four days and taken solo because it’s hard to coordinate with friends to buy tickets and take time off simultaneously. To my surprise, being unaccompanied became my preferred method of travel.

It turns out, you meet more people when you’re alone. Having friends or family with you often serves as a buffer, keeping you from fully interacting with locals around you. What would have otherwise been cursory interactions with a bellman or rental car attendant turned into chance meetings of new friends. Every unexpected surprise, like being serenaded at an opera in Florence during the intermission or flying with an award-winning pilot at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, felt like the universe was rewarding my gumption.

I didn’t fear eating alone or going out by myself anymore. I was a tourist, and it’s normal for tourists to be alone. Being by myself abroad was empowering and full of wonders, not shameful and predictable like it was at home. Each successful trip, no matter how brief, was rejuvenating and emboldened me to continue on my mission.

That’s not to say the year was without incident. I lost my wallet once (and almost lost it twice), lost car rental keys and even had an issue with a handsy Uber driver overseas. There were times I questioned my judgment and asked myself who I was trying to impress with this lofty goal.

But as time passed, the virtual smiles and declarations of gratitude became genuine. I saw how lucky I was to have the freedom and mobility to travel. I felt humbled when strangers rushed to my aid. When I did lose my wallet, someone found it and brought it back to me with all my cash, credit cards and identification still inside.

Getting a blessing from a Buddhist monk in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Jen Ruiz
Getting a blessing from a Buddhist monk in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

My coworkers were understanding, covering meetings and hearings whenever I took a long weekend or sick day. My boss started to get more skeptical of the latter as time passed, but I felt secure in counting jet lag as a sickness and made good use of the leave and benefits allocated to me. My salary wasn’t as competitive for an attorney with my experience, but the cases were meaningful and the work/life balance allowed me to take more luxuries than if I had been working at a private law firm making a 6-figure salary.  

Despite myself, when asked to pick a favorite trip I always say it’s the few short days I spent exploring the South of France with a man I’ll refer to as “Frenchie.” I was halfway through the year by then and thought I’d evolved past needing a man. I met him while picking up a rental car and he volunteered to serve as a makeshift tour guide, taking me to lavender fields, tranquil lakes and French restaurants. Reluctantly, I let my guard down and got a glimpse of the feeling I‘d been searching for. It was intoxicating, and rekindled a yearning to have the sentiment present in my everyday life.

I don’t think the desire to find a match will ever go away, and it certainly didn’t wane by clicking “delete” on my dating profile. If anything, wanting to be loved is the one trait we all have in common, no matter our age, background or location.

What I’ve found is that few people are fortunate enough to find romantic love, and even if they do it might only last for a moment in time. It’s up to us to fill the gaps with love in other forms, from the kindness of strangers to the thrill of new experiences.

I haven’t re-activated my online dating profiles, and it’s uncertain whether I’ll find a husband or have kids within the next decade. I‘ve stopped trying to control the future or manufacture the perfect family by a pre-imposed deadline. What I do know is that there’s no need to wait for another individual to initiate a turning point in your life. You can make adjustments to look forward to your future regardless of who is in it.

Today, at age 30, I’ve quit practicing law and dedicated myself to traveling and writing full-time, two things that bring me joy and fulfillment. I hope to write a book about my year of adventure and maybe even start my own nonprofit organization one day. If a man ends up becoming part of that equation, great! In the meantime, the world is waiting to be discovered, and I have no time to waste.

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