Love and Travel in the Time of Tinder

Modern-day love is much like modern-day travel - has made the world a revolving door.  
Illustration by Sumedha Sah.
Illustration by Sumedha Sah.

A little over two years ago, I met Israel on Tinder. He was Mexican, and beautiful, which sounds redundant, but in my defence, he was a particularly beautiful one. He was travelling across India for three months— the ol’ Varanasi-Jaipur-Udaipur circuit—and we matched during the two weeks that he was in Mumbai at the end of his trip. The conversation moved rapidly from Tinder to WhatsApp, and we soon met for drinks at my favourite dive bars, Matunga breakfast dates and many auto-rickshaw kisses back to his Airbnb digs (Aai-Baba at mine would probably not approve). It’d be a breezy summer hook-up, I figured, as I spent afternoons digging around for souvenirs at Bhendi Bazaar with him, dropping by the crumbling but glorious Taj Icecream for a scoop of sitaphal, wearing our loosest pants for a ghee-drenched thali-with-aamras at the famed Thaker’s, and ambling around old Bandra lanes. He tried (and failed) to teach a clumsy me to roll the perfect joint, insisted I drink my tequila without “the stupid salt” like Mexicans did, and told me stories of childhood Christmases at his grandmother’s in Puebla.

If this all sounds like a string of unreal, nausea-inducing clichés, it is. I was surprised at how quickly we became close. We marvelled at this together, fancying ourselves part of some cut-rate Before Sunrise. It was all pretty disgusting and very, very near to perfect.

When Israel left for home, post a teary airport goodbye, we mailed each other. Actual handwritten letters, with Polaroids and the occasional tiny gift. We had even discussed me visiting Mexico for my next trip.

Over time though, life happened. Our respective schedules caught up and the letters petered out. One day, he wished me on my birthday and I realised it had been months since we had last spoken at all. And when the time to book a flight for my trip came around—the dates I was supposed to be in Mexico—I picked China. The idea of flying halfway across the world for romance now seemed like zabardasti se dragging out what had run its course.

It’s a story very much of our time. We meet people, have an intense connect and then they move—to a different city, a different country—and then we never see them again.

Never before has our world been so much of a revolving door, with so much capacity for meeting people from utterly random places, and as much the possibility of losing them forever to other, equally random places.

It’s something that has been driven by the popularity of dating apps—Tinder being the most popular of the lot. So many of us use it when we travel—for a hook-up, a drinking buddy or a local to discover a new city with.

My friend K used it while in Rome, and not just to do the Romans. “One of my favourite memories of the trip was haggling at this flea-market a Tinder dude took me to,” she recalls. “It was the kind of place I would never have thought to visit.” In China, some of my favourite hutong bars, live music venues and jiaozi places were those I first visited on Tinder dates with people who had been here longer.

Illustration by Sumedha Sah.

Illustration by Sumedha Sah.

Despite all the rolled eyes it inspires and the lunkheads it throws up, it genuinely can put you in touch with people that are interesting enough to make you want to spend some of your trip with them. Some of them you want to stay with a little bit longer. And if not for this specific perk of modern-day travel, your paths would probably never have crossed.

“There was this girl I met on Tinder ago who first brought me here,” laughed Michael, when I asked him how he discovered Cellar Door—a pocket-sized bar tucked away inside Fangjia hutong. Bathed in candlelight, walls covered with postcards of music icons, it used to be among our favourite Beijing haunts. When it shuttered last month, it broke my heart. That old chestnut about good things and endings, anyone?

It’s now been three months since I’ve begun seeing Michael, and we’re close. From September though, when he leaves to go back to the U.S., we probably won’t be. He and I will meet other people, maybe they’ll stay, or leave in turn. If this all sounds highly depressing, hey, perhaps it’ll turn out another way. My friend Cameron met a lovely woman on Tinder, and now they’re moving to Hong Kong together. Could that happen?  It’s possible.

But probably not. The thing about modern-day love is that it refuses to just stay still, with work and degrees and assorted life plans ushering people in different directions.

Occasionally, Israel and I still message. He talks about us maybe sending letters again, and I play along. In all likelihood, we are never going to be in the same room again, and though he’s a plane ride away, I know I’ll probably never take it.

Modern-day relationships, for so many of us, are forming, evolving and then often dissolving. We are taking our time to put down roots as we figure out who we are, and while our relationships might be transient now, the intimacy they bring doesn’t need to be so.

Because if not precisely for this constant movement, we wouldn’t be meeting people from parts of the world we couldn’t even point out on a map (or maybe that’s just me, I always sucked at geography). We wouldn’t be having perspectives shifted or new passions discovered or the loveliest hutong bars visited. This constantly changing, frustrating nature of finding love today, spurred by technology, is also what’s made it so damn exhilarating. I wrote about the exhaustion of dating in Beijing recently, about the constant fear of exoticisation that clung tight to my skin, and the need to just fit in.

“You’re beautiful,” said Michael to me. He had just read it. I hadn’t told him about the piece, unsure how he’d react, but it got posted on his Facebook feed. We spoke for hours about it—this razor-sharp white American boy and I—and racism and fetishisation and feminism. One dude called me an Indian princess, another one discussed intersectional politics. I approved of the balance.

Come September, all of those discussions will move entirely to digital platforms for the foreseeable future. There will be more teary goodbyes but then, it’ll be okay.

“Visa breakups are the f***ing easiest breakups,” says my friend Naomi, when I occasionally whine to her about them. “Out of all the breakups in the whole goddamn world, you choose the visa breakup over every other kind literally every single time. They’re the least hurtful in the heart, nobody needs to get rejected and the only thing that makes the relationship gently wither away is that people aren’t physically close to each other anymore.”

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    Mithila Phadke is a journalist from Mumbai, recently transplanted into Beijing. Her writing covers remote valleys in North East India and crowded bylanes of Old Bombay. She treks occasionally, eats constantly and tweets as @PhadkeTai

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