“Is it safe?” Hans* asked in a thick German accent, hunching over to light his cigarette. “To travel alone as a woman in Sri Lanka?”
This was a question I heard as I traveled through the country. No matter how many times I was asked, I still didn’t know how to answer.
I’d met him five minutes before when he plopped down beside me outside a guesthouse in Ella, a village in the Sri Lankan hill country. Based on his appearance, I decided he wouldn’t understand how I felt: That traveling alone as a woman was both the most terrifying and empowering experience of my life.
“As safe as anywhere,” I said instead.
I’d come to Ella to hike. Just outside town, paths ascend to peaks with views of verdant hills and tea plantations. I was headed to Ella’s Rock. The owner of the guesthouse told me it wasn’t easy to find the trailhead, but doable. Just in case, I drew myself a map.
I left the guesthouse and walked along the only road out of town. As I did, the sounds of the tuk-tuks, or three-wheeled vehicles, gave way to the songs of birds. I inhaled moist air and felt grateful for a moment of peace.
After five minutes, I arrived at railroad tracks. My map gave no indication of where I was. Going back didn’t feel like an option, so I turned left.
Twelve months earlier, I had been at a similar crossroads, with no clear directions. But I wasn’t in Sri Lanka. I was at home in Seattle.
After 13 years in public service, I had no clear sense of how I wanted to move forward. It seemed silly to feel unsettled in my thirties. I should have left that impulse behind a decade ago. I shouldn’t want something more, especially if I didn’t know what that something was.
I did know I wanted to abandon the life map I was following. So I gave away most of my belongings and put the rest in storage. What remained were two backpacks and a one-way ticket to Thailand.
The first seven months of my journey were spent with a partner. We climbed temples in Cambodia, drove through France, and rode camels on the dunes of Morocco. However, I knew something wasn’t right.
I’d left home hoping to explore unmarked paths and find new inspiration for my life. Instead I took refuge with well-traveled routes and the comfort of someone else. I knew that whatever I was searching for, I needed to look for it on my own. So I said goodbye to my partner and bought a ticket to Sri Lanka.
Back on the railway tracks, I continued to look for a sign I was headed in the right direction. I passed a woman washing clothes under an outdoor faucet and paused to watch her rinse out a shirt. When she looked up, we both smiled.
“Ella’s Rock?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “That way?” I gestured in the direction I’m walking.
“My house,” she said, pointing behind her. “Come back?”
“Yes,” I said, unsure of what she meant. “Thank you.”
I located the trailhead and, after exerting muscles I’d long forgotten, reached the summit. At the top, craggy gray rocks stood in contrast to the hills below, carpeted in a blanket of emerald green. Perched on the boulders were 10 couples. Again, I had traveled far only to find another well-visited spot.
Disappointed, I descended Ella’s Rock to the railroad tracks. As I walked back to town, I was so lost in thought I failed to notice a figure before me.
“Hello,” said the woman I met earlier.
“Come, come,” she said, beckoning to me.
I entered her house, leaving my worn Adidas on the porch. Her house was made of the same red clay that lined the railroad tracks and spilled onto the rails after torrential rains. Plastered over the faded blue walls was homework written in the hand of a child.
She brought me a platter of food. I hesitated. I didn’t want to take from her when she had so little, but it was an honor, and I accepted her offering.
“Emiko,” I said, pointing to myself.
I spoke no Sinahlese and Shalini hardly spoke English. We relied on the upturned corners of our mouths to speak. When we ran out of smiles, we touched each other’s arms to communicate. As we did, I felt my own heart beat and knew that my journey didn’t even need to leave the walls of her house. My path would be an exploration of my own heart.
As I sat with Shalini, I realized I’d traveled halfway across the world, but the journey I was seeking was within. I didn’t just want to see countries; I wanted to find a place within my heart I hadn’t touched yet.
I set out to travel alone because I wanted to see if I could rely on myself, even in countries where I knew it would be difficult. I wanted to stand on my own two feet and feel all of my strength and courage. I wanted to be brave.
I hadn’t been scared to visit a foreign country alone, but I was terrified to look inside myself. To confront my own fears. To let myself feel vulnerable. To question my choices. To feel. To stand in the wake of my pulse.
As I left Shalini’s, she walked me back to the tracks.
“You know way?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, as I looked at the path ahead. “Thanks to you.”
As I departed, I turned around to see her watching me. When she waved, my heart swelled. I realized our time together allowed me see my own map for the first time. I was ready to begin my journey inward.
*names have been changed