Interludes on foreign shores

Jan returned from a spa vacation in Mexico, glowing, floating, and flashing a new, ornate silver bangle.

That glow was not from the hot springs; she had met Ricardo, the grounds manager. What began with a chat about the gardens progressed to a holiday affair. "I spent an entire Saturday afternoon watching him work on his tractor", she said, "and I loved every minute."

The spa was expensive; she had drained her vacation budget, but was already planning her return in four or five months. Jan is single, in her late 50s, and because she had not had a romance for years, this was a bombshell. We were out to dinner with several other women; scanning the table, I could see an array of reactions: titillation, envy, disapproval, and from Becky, rueful reminiscence.

Becky said, gently, "And who paid for the bangle?" Because Becky had her own story.

Thirty years ago, it was Mike, the snorkelling instructor, whom Becky met when she and two girlfriends went on an all-inclusive two-week to Varadero. She said, "He was friendly but not aggressive. He could talk about everything from marine biology to art. Of course, he was handsome! Really, it was as much me as him. By Thursday of the first week, I began to ask my roommates when the room would be empty. Everything I told myself should not happen, did."

"I promised I'd return within several months. My boyfriend back in Montréal was okay, but couldn't compare. There was more passion in one dance with Mike than in a night with my boyfriend. I even started researching immigration requirements for him."

All winter, she scrimped to afford another booking, this time with a private room. One Saturday, three weeks before she was to return, she saw Mike strolling down Rue de la Montagne with another woman, a woman who could afford to fly him to Montréal. "Maybe it's a relative", she thought, until she saw the kiss as they paused for the traffic light.

Thereafter, when anyone returned from a vacation with tales of romance with a local man, Becky rang the alarm. "While you are there, you will be the only woman who exists", she tells her. "He will look at no one else, and you will go to heaven—but then hell when you have to leave. And when the next plane lands, there will be someone new."

Becky has abundant empathy when she hears the stories. She still remembers the dancing, how Mike brought her lunch by the pool, the little shell anklet he tied on while admiring her legs—grace notes the boyfriend did not supply.

All these years later, she said that trying to assess Mike's sincerity was useless. At worst, he was out for a few extras in a country where enough food was a challenge; at best, they had been two consenting adults having a fling and she had been carried away—but she also had been awakened to a political aspect.

"There is a type of sexual tourism that operates that way", she told me later. "You would be amazed how many women have told me about their 'romance' and they don't even see what it was, because they have not paid for sex. It's more subtle: there is no demand for money, but the fancy dinners are signed to your account. Maybe there's a day trip to the special place he wants to show you—for which you hire a driver who happens to be a friend; or his sister needs money for school books.

I bought Mike a guitar—not an expensive one, but he definitely could not have had it otherwise. When I got home, I shipped him a pair of sneakers I knew he coveted."

I said, "For me the question is, Would the affair have happened without the goodies?"

"Possibly", Becky conceded, "but the more I talked to women who had taken these vacations, the more I think not. Word gets around; some women go to these destinations exactly for that. Even if you aren't interested, you can spot the men: the tennis pro's buddies who are always hanging around."

"Who paid for the bangle?" Becky asked Jan again. Jan replied that she had, but "Ric had spotted it!" And she bought him a matching one.

Her worry, Becky told me when we were alone, is that older women are more vulnerable. I immediately thought of a woman I knew whom I shall call "Anita", whose 25-year marriage was nearly detonated by such a situation. She went to a popular island destination with a girlfriend, and met a musician.

Anita returned at least eight times over the next three years, under the cover of humanitarian volunteer work (which she actually did) and language studies, to see him. On each trip she would bring a suitcase stuffed with guitar strings and sheet music, among other scarce items. She became an investor in a music school he was starting. Among other things, she told me that her lover adored her in the stretchy, lacy blouse that her husband said was "too young."

Two years in, she turned to her girlfriend and said, "I'm gonna go home and divorce Scott." Her friend told her to give it another six or eight months. By year three, Anita realized that the man would not leave his usual life (which included a wife in another town), and she returned to her marriage, which far as I know continues.

Becky and I talked about the most famous example: the real-life romance with a man known in Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love," known as "Felipe"— that one lasted twelve years.

"That book probably did more to cloud women's judgement than ten thousand Mikes", Becky said. "I have an open mind, a fling doesn't shock me. I just don't want Jan to spend a small fortune on something totally unrealistic.

You know all those packing lists you see on blogs? A woman who might welcome that kind of connection should pack her common sense along with her sunblock."


I'm torn - if I was single, I'd be all about having a fling on vacation. But I would know it was a fling...

But the money aspect? Travel with a budget, and if that budget is big enough to include a "companion," and you protect yourself in all of the adult ways, follow your instincts!

A fascinating topic, and you tell it beautifully. You're a very gifted writer!
I've never been in this situation myself but I know of 3 women who have - two ended in marriage while one ended in marriage followed by disaster. One couple met while she was on vacation and developed over a number of years (he was educated, had a good job, and she met his family over the years). When they married a number of friends from Canada flew down for the wedding and to check out the situation - he was legit, lasted the newly 18 months it then took to get him here and they have now been very happily married for about 10 years.
The second got married down there about 4 months ago after becoming a young widow about 2 years ago. Friends are a wee it worried but again, he is educated, has a good job and even his own business but we'll have to see how things go once he arrives in Canada (although the plan seems to be that eventually they'll go back and run a couple of businesses from there. I am keeping my fingers crossed for her as she deserves a lot of happiness but I still have some reservations - he should have his paper to come here within about 6 months.
The last one went through the marriage, got her husband here - where he promptly took as much money as he could and disappeared - she found him living with another woman that he had met while she was on vacation (just before he married the friend) - the plan was always for her to be used as the means to get here while the other woman waited - she was younger and far richer - I doubt they are still together.
I echo what Janice Riggs said - a fling is one thing but exercise caution, especially when you are the one footing the bills. Life is very different when on vacation in an exotic location with a handsome man than it is in day to day life spent commuting to a slightly boring office and huddled in 4 layers against the cold.
Jane M said…
Great post to read and think about. I would like to think that I would understand this is a vacation fling but then again.... When I was very young in the very early '70s and doing the backpacking through Europe my three girlfriends and I met up with fun young Irishmen in Greece. I had a delightful four day fling that restored my self-image after a broken hearted romance that last semester...but one friend of a friend was seriously contemplating a long distance romance with "Paul" who wanted to see her back in New York and already had mentioned marriage. Even as youngsters we knew that was suspect. Fast forward thirty years and another friend has done this twice, once while married and once after her divorce (surprise, surprise). In that second vacation romance one she actually got caught up in a time share purchase just so she could use it as an excuse to return each year to see him....because he had an "open" marriage. I always thought he just had an open palm. Neither the time share debacle nor romance lasted.
Roberta said…
I just returned from Cuba, where all the travel literature warned of/described this practice as basically an aspect of sex work. You could have a cozy relationship for a weekend or longer, but you would foot all the bills (man or woman). I don't think of myself as a woman of means, but I know that opinion might vary according to the income of the viewer! It seems there are enough exceptions to the exploitation story to make women hopeful for the lasting romance, and in the grips of endorphins. I always think of Terry McMillan and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back". Thank you for this very thoughtful look at a complicated situation.
Duchesse said…
Janice: Flags should go up if one party urges continuation and would profit from that financially. There are flings and flings; I have lots more stories and maybe you do, too.

margie: The cases I described in the post are ones where the local man had far fewer resources than the woman tourist; educated with a good job changes the situation. I like your last sentence! Another friend met a man on the plane when both were en route to one of those island holidays. He said he was single, an architect from NYC who needed R&R between his huge, exhausting commissions. They had a very good time together, for a week, and she was definitely hoping to see him. When she got home, she did some research and discovered he was a married dentist from a small town in Northern Ontario.

Jane M: re vacation flings •with a local• : I have seen all kinds of outcomes, including happy unions, but the majority are short-lived and the worst involve the woman being fleeced and feeling like a fool. But I also know one woman who told me, "I've been a 'sugar mama' and it was worth it...every time." There is a market for gigolos, same as "girlfriends" for male tourists.
Duchesse said…
Roberta: In the post, I quote Becky saying' "There is a type of sexual tourism that operates that way." But (not in the post), she also said: "Some of those men are the kind the woman could never attract at home. She knows- at some level- that she is paying for that attention, even if payment is thinly-veiled, and called 'helping my sister' or some such." Becky says some women pass around 'ratings' of the best resorts for companionship if one is looking for it.

In her case, she did not go there to find a lover, but many decades later laughs at her naive younger self.
Leslie M said…
I have nothing to add, but must say I'm thoroughly enjoying the stories.
materfamilias said…
Like Leslie, nothing to add but thank you for an enlightening and entertaining (and, as always, a very well-written) post. Thought-provoking and I love that your tone here, and that of your commenters, is frank but not judgmental .
This reminds me of a situation I know, but I will say no more.

We must also remember that long-distance relationships can be fraught even when there is no distance in the development index of the countries involved or any outright fraud. There is someone I still want to kill (don't worry, dear readers, I won't).

I was reading over the béret thread in the archives here and thinking that I bought a "merlot" angora béret a month ago, and that I might indeed be wearing it at the end of this week. I bought a Parkhurst cotton béret (made in Toronto) at the same time, thus the latter was discounted. They do also come in small sizes. Some European bérets come in children's sizes; for schoolchildren, not just tiny ones so they would fit those with small heads and flaxen hair...
Sisty said…
There is a Canadian movie about this very subject, starring Charlotte Rampling, called Heading South, about three women who travel to Haiti for sexual tourism. I had forgotten all about it until this post. The movie if I recall correctly focused on exploitation of the Haitian men and wasn't very sympathetic to the women.
LauraH said…
Fascinating stories and you tell them so well. Makes me feel I've led a very sheltered life :-)
Indeed, the Québec film Heading South ("Vers le sud" in French) is a world away from the fantasy of Eat, Pray, Love. It is based on stories by Dany Laferrière, a Québec writer of Haitian origin.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I have seen that, but the most unsparing (and also Canadian) film was "A Winter Tan" starring Jackie Burroughs, based on the memoir of Maryse Holden, "Give Sorrow Words". She was murdered by a Mexican lover- a young man who seems to have been in it for the money. He cut off her finger after he killed her so that he could get to her ring, which he wanted to give his mother.

"Eat, Pray, Love" is, however, not fantasy, at least according to the author. Gilbert says everything happened pretty much as she describes. But it is a fantasy to think every woman's experience can be the same as Gilbert's.
Sharon said…
The movie "Shirley Valentine" contains a gentler more humorous version of this story. Definitely worth seeing.
Unknown said…
I live in a small-ish Andean town which has a big group of mostly retired expats, and know at least two 60+ women supporting much younger - 20+ boyfriends. There are several male expats marrying younger local women... as one of my girlfriends said, "they are looking for a nurse or a purse" - in these cases, a nurse. As long as everyone has their eyes open, not my place to judge, I think the arrangements work - in some ways - for both sides.
BTW Gilbert recently left her Brasilian husband from "Eat, pray, love" for her best friend, a woman. I guess life is full of surprises.
Duchesse said…
Sharon: Yes. And I know another woman who actually did that- went on vacation to Corsica, fell in love with a local, returned to Canada, broke up with boyfriend, married the Corsican. But it did not work out.

Unknown: Plenty of late-life marriages/partnerships are made with a different set of expectations than those entered early in life. Alice Munro's "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" is an exquisitely-written account of one such arrangement.

I linked to that development in Gilbert's life •in this post•. "FIFL". (Follow the Frickin' Link.)
s. said…
Fascinating stories, all. I am discouraged by them, though: they seem to prove that past a certain age, many women have to buy male attention... or go without it, altogether. I think I might have reached that age, myself; I think I will never pay for love but who knows what the future will bring?
Anonymous said…
The link is to, not to anything about Gilbert.
Duchesse said…
dameeleanorhull: I have fixed ink; it is now to Gilbert's Facebook page announcement.
Duchesse said…
s.: I knew a woman who was the model of rectitude. After being divorced for decades, and having had very few dates, she hired a gigolo. The deposits were made regularly by EFT, so no tacky exchange of payment. She liked the man; he accompanied her to concerts, etc., as well as more intimate entertainments.

She must have been 60 when she told me this, and it continued into her 70s; eventually he moved to Europe and I do not know if she found someone else, or wanted to.

There are many, many forms of paying for love, or a facsimile. Maybe that's another post!

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