Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Alone in Sri Lanka. Or: Can a codependent married person be alone for 6 days?

The bus driver started the engine and we scrambled to get Flounder and his two bags on the bus from Kandy to the Sri Lankan airport. Whatever lingering and meaningful goodbye I had imagined was out of the question now. We hugged awkwardly as he tried to balance his bags and get on the bus, and then he was gone and I was alone in Sri Lanka.

Travelling separately when our schedules were different always seemed like a good idea, but when it came time to say goodbye, even for the span of a few days, I felt surprisingly sad.

‘My sweet Floundie,’ I thought, as I wheeled past dozens of buses and through crowds of people. The city seemed different now than it had five minutes ago. Men who had ignored me with my husband by my side decided now would be a good time to strike up a conversation. I kept my head down, checking the map for my hostel. Maybe if I looked at this map I wouldn’t feel so lost, as if it could tell me the location of my hostel and also what to do with myself now I was alone.

I didn’t use to feel so disoriented, did I?  I travelled alone for three and half years, for 40-something months, navigating with paper maps, without hostel bookings, and, for the most part, without clear direction or plans. I used to love that solitary travel. Was I so different now? Had love, a constant companion, and extension of my best self changed me?

Maybe these six days alone in Sri Lanka would help me find out.

Sri Lanka
My phone wasn’t working, wouldn’t bring up the map, no data connection. The crowd around me swelled and slowed as I held up traffic. All this technological stuff this was Flounder’s domain. For a moment I imagined sheepishly telling him about this first failure, about having to ask passersby for directions to a hostel they had likely never heard of. I restarted the phone. No luck. I stared at it. It remained unmoved.

Neurons fired in my brain. I remembered I had turned data off. First obstacle: conquered.

I found the hostel in a central, if slightly shifty, side street, and was greeted by a sweet and irony-free young man. He showed me around and gave me a hand-written list of tourist attractions in Kandy. The temple of the tooth (housing a tooth from the Buddha, likely the most sacred of sacred places in Sri Lanka), traditional Kandy dancers and performers (at this mention, the receptionist modelled juggling, fire-breathing, and sword-swallowing, with more enthusiasm than talent), botanical gardens (the largest in Sri Lanka, a well-maintained leftover from British colonial times), the Kandy lake (a dammed lake, and one whose creation in the nineteenth century had been protested by local leaders, until the king of Kandy killed them all and staked their bodies as an example to others who might disagree with him; the lake project went ahead unimpeded), and an elephant orphanage (aww).
I hadn’t the heart to tell this enthusiastic young man that my plans for my last day in Kandy were a bit more gustatory in nature.

I drank soya cappuccinos at a local coffee shop that uses only Sri Lankan coffee beans. The country is, rightly, known for its tea and produces very little high-quality coffee, but a few small producers are looking to change this.

Next I caught a bus to a little town eight or nine kilometres outside of Kandy. I had passed this road the day before (when Flounder and I went for Ayurveda treatments) and my finely attuned eye had seen a few durian vendors. I had, naturally, partaken at the time. And I was, naturally, back for more today.

Enjoying some durian at a roadside stand
I won’t bore you with my durian rhapsodies here (I’ve written volumes about durians before). Suffice it to say, durian is my death row meal, it is a large (embarrassingly large) part of the justification for moving to Malaysia, and travelling eight or nine kilometres for a lunch of durian was a no-brainer.

The next day I said goodbye to my friendly hostel host and took the bus from Kandy to Colombo. I sat next to a smiling older woman. I smiled at her. When travelling alone, I was always look for older women to hang around. No man, young or old, would dare bother me when I’m near an old lady. They’ve seen it all, don’t take shit from anyone, and hopefully feel protective of me. Fact: the most badass person in any room is always an old lady.

Once in Colombo, I decided to take a three-wheeler (better known as a tuk-tuk or rickshaw) instead of walking the two kilometres to my hostel. This was new. This was a slightly new Sarah—one who considered her two bags, the heat of midday, and the less than $2 fare and chose to spend the money and embrace comfort.

I prepared myself to bargain, but the three-wheeler driver pointed to the meter. OK then. I pulled up the map and told him the nearest landmark. He zipped off with the all the stunning dexterity of a three-wheeler—this thing could do some tiny donuts, I tell you. He went straight where I would have turned and I thought for a moment that he was going to go a longer, slower route to get some extra rupees. I contemplated saying something, but remembered another guideline of Sarah travel: be smart, but above all be trusting.

Travelling with your guard constantly up is exhausting. Guard yourself against serious dangers, and then let go. Smile at people you meet. Believe your driver. Strike up a conversation with fellow passengers. Ask questions. Be open.

So I sat back in the three-wheeler and relaxed. He quickly got on track and seemed to know where he was going. We conversed and he spoke with such gentility and kindness. He helped me find my (hidden) hostel, and wished me a pleasant stay in Colombo. I rejoiced, a small victory, for choosing trust over suspicion.

Reclining Buddha from Dambulla Cave, Sri Lanka

I was finding my groove again. Not quite the same way Stella did. No, instead I was remembering what it was like to travel alone and what had made that kind of travel so rewarding.

Openness. Connection. Trust in humanity and trust rewarded.

In small ways, my journey continued. I made imperceptible choices, choosing to talk instead of be silent, to ask questions instead of end the conversation, choosing to trust instead of be suspicious.

I met other travellers this way (an easy prospect in a hostel), but I also met some lovely locals, including a couple who invited me into their home, who asked me about my life and about Sri Lanka (‘Beautiful! Wonderful! Great food!’), and who wanted me to look them up and stay with them next time I was in the country.

Travelling alone is great—great for meeting people, for being open and vulnerable and the small acts of magic that result. But after six days, I was glad to be going home to Flounder. Ultimately, small acts of magic are simply more magical when you have someone to share them with.

Travelling with this guy! The best!


  1. I love your blog - your perspective, your thoughts, your words, your introspection - SO. MUCH!!! Thank you for firing it back up and with so much heart!

    I love the reminder to trust. I haven't traveled nearly as much as you, or as far, but I've had to consciously remind myself to sit back, relax, and trust that the journey I'm on is the one meant for me. Maybe I pay a little more, maybe I take a longer route, maybe I'm worrying for no reason.

    Relinquishing control is so hard but so necessary and I think that's probably the number one challenge with traveling - especially without technology as a resource. Letting go, losing control, and enjoying the ride. That sounds so blissful but in reality it's *hard*.

    Anyway - LOVE the blog. And of course love the photo of Flounder at the end. That's got to be one of the best candid's ever. :)

    And Vince and I are still very committed to mid-to-late March 2017 visit... :D

    1. Thanks, Ali! Your encouragement was a big help to get the blog rolling again.

      Trust is a big lesson and, believe me, there have been times when it was NOT the right choice... However, I've tried to make a conscious effort to choose trust because a life with my guard up is just too exhausting.

      Thanks for your sweet support and we WILL be holding you to that visit. So excited!!


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