Fear. An emotion which has governed much of my adulthood and caused me to live half-asleep. Fear of loss. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of new places and meeting new people. Fear of not being enough. And now, fear of not living fully awake and fear of regretting not following dreams.
I went to Sri Lanka seeking answers, guidance for what to do next. What is my purpose, what do I really care about and want to spend the next decade working towards and dedicating myself to? I went to Sri Lanka because I was afraid, and the only way to face my fear of being alone in uncomfortable places was to face it, not run from it.
I have been a corporate social intrapreneur for twelve years and lead global corporate responsibility for a US lifestyle brand, so I am no stranger to solo travel for work with factories across Vietnam, China, and India. I care deeply about my work and the positive impact it can have on communities and decision-making at my company. But I had a problem: Prior to my first trip to Sri Lanka in October 2018, I would have nightmares for at least a month leading up to any international trip, usually about two weeks in length, and would have to drag myself onto the plane in Boston for take-off.
How can a corporate responsibility leader working in the supply chain not enjoy and appreciate the global travel education she has been afforded? Am I doing the wrong work?
A mentor at The Aspen Institute asked me, “Why do you do this work? What keeps you going and why do you care so much?” I struggled to find a meaningful and purpose-filled answer, so I set out to face my fear of “being away” and hoped to scare myself into a revelation of answers to these tough questions.
It was a Saturday morning, after a week working in mainland China, I woke up in a lovely sun dappled hotel room in Hong Kong. And then I remembered I was flying to Sri Lanka that afternoon for two weeks of holiday, one week of surf and yoga retreat at Sunshinestories on the south west coast, followed by a week at their sister company, a boutique hotel on Weligama Bay called Ceylon Sliders (aka “Sliders”). This was my first-ever solo (non-work) travel internationally. Sri Lanka was a new-to-me country where I didn’t know a single person and knew little about the place or culture.
Panic set in. What had I done? Why am I doing this? Is it too late to cancel? Before now, I had never been away for more than two weeks, and here I was at the beginning of five total weeks in Asia, a trip of my own design, intended to acknowledge and get over a massive personal block, fear.
I called my family on the east coast of the USA, late at night for them, and I was in hysterics. I can’t do this. I was hyperventilating and shaking. Alone. In Hong Kong. Alone, for another 4 weeks in a part of the world I had not warmed up to, even after ten trips.
I did board the flight from Hong Kong to Colombo, but I was so wiped from my physical reaction to fear I felt hungover.
Then hours later I landed on “the gem of the Indian Ocean,” the island of Sri Lanka, and my life and my perspective would change profoundly. Here I would find what I was seeking, which as it turns out, was inside me all along.
“What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it.” Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
Fear dissipated to a dull anxiety as I rode with one of the other solo female guests from Colombo to Ahangama. Within 30 minutes of arrival at the Sunshinestories villa, and meeting the other female travelers, and the incredibly humble and welcoming team of locals and foreigners, fear and anxiety were only an afterthought. I had just been welcomed into a family, and I was going to be okay.
I am a beginner surfer and the sport actually scares me, and as for yoga, at the time I could barely manage to sit through a class. Yet here I was for a week of surfing and yoga followed by a week of unstructured time. Eek. Triple eek. Getting uncomfortable in a quest for growth and unlocking answers became my theme. In so doing, I learned more about myself and this new place than I’d ever anticipated, and in ways I could not have anticipated.
By Day 3 in Sri Lanka I knew I had found my place and my people. Over those two weeks I felt like my true authentic self; I met the happiest, healthiest, most confident and awake version of me. I felt a self-love and freedom of spirit I can only compare to the delight of being a young girl growing up on the beach and exploring tide pools with my little sister. This was a self of adulthood I had not met before. A me that I loved, for the very first time.
Sri Lanka taught me the importance of slowing down and being present. Hemitah, hemitah – slowly, slowly. I met strangers more kind and generous than I’d known possible. In practicing open-eyed and open-minded curiosity I entered a whole new world, like walking through the looking glass. And if I thought I knew the definition of “community” before visiting Sri Lanka, it was only because I read it in the dictionary, not because I had truly experienced it previously.
Sri Lanka is…
Lifelong friends, local and foreign. Warmth, generosity, and spirituality. The brightest smiles you’ve ever seen (and my mom is a dental hygienist). A place to develop and test new skills.
Sri Lanka is…
Homes, tropical landscapes, and bird sounds that make you see and hear familiar ones in a whole new way. It is new food discoveries. Strangers helping you out in any variety of ways, from bandaging a foot to switching boards with you in the water if yours is too short, to offering an impromptu Sinhala lesson, to teaching you to eat with your fingers (way more fun!). It is the smell of jasmine and sandalwood incense, and wood fired cooking, fresh fruit and coconut water.
Sri Lanka is…
Sunrise, sunset and full moon (Poya) surfing, afternoon tea, hoppers and marble games, the magic of sea turtle life, and thrilling jungle rides – no matter the weather.
“…if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.” ~ Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
If we allow ourselves to get lost and ditch all familiarity and preconceived notions of self or others, we can undoubtedly get positively swept away.
In the past year+ I have visited Sri Lanka six times – gihila enna, go and come back. I am no longer cripplingly afraid to leave home, the future of my work is becoming clearer, and I feel reinvigorated with purpose. I know the importance of recognizing what feeds the soul and fosters wellbeing, which for me is time spent with a curious mind and open heart engaging with communities like I found in Sri Lanka. When not in Sri Lanka, I am beginning to learn how to apply these lessons at home, to be more awake, more present, less dominated by fear and more embracing of the mantra “I am enough.”
“…the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new places but in seeing with new eyes. Yet one of the subtler beauties of travel is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter…You can teach them what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach.” ~ Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
The gem of the Indian Ocean is a beautiful island, please do visit. But like all environments, it is fragile. So please be mindful and spend your dollars and time favoring conscious businesses which seek to positively impact and sustain the culture, community, and environment that makes Sri Lanka so special. Check out greats like Sunshinestories and Ceylon Sliders.
Words and photos all by Ashley Davis.