ALONE together

Urvashi H.V.
18 min readNov 28, 2023

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Earlier this year during a conversation with my therapist she asked me to set up a few things in my life that I could look forward to and that would bring me joy. The goal was to find happiness in my life as it is rather than constantly lamenting how different my life would be if I had a partner.

So I began plotting. My go-to happy place for the last few years has been Goa. But booking yet another solo trip to Goa felt like I was performing a post-breakup pick-me-up ritual sans the breakup. Why relive that same tired routine? So I picked the next option on my list, Sri Lanka. I found a nice beach side resort that fit the bill. A few days of “vitamin sea” (I hate that phrase but it’s so accurate) would cure me, I hoped.

I made all the bookings in mid-September, for an end of November trip, hoping to savour the excitement of anticipation. September went by, and then October. Two weeks before the trip I squeezed in a visit to one of my best friends from college. I was going to spend Diwali with her, her husband, her brother, her parents, and her baby boy. I was so excited to meet her little one for the first time and spend some time with her after a painstaking four year gap.

The two days flew by, a blur of lunches and dinners, card games and beer, peppered with a dog walk, and dancing to “wheels of the bus go round and round”. It was so lovely. Except for the moments of tenderness I saw that ripped my heart to pieces.

My friend had a stomach upset one evening and had taken some strong medication. On the car ride home, jammed in the backseat with her, her husband, and baby, I mostly looked out the window. Because next to me, was a baby asleep on his mother, and the mother asleep on her husband’s shoulder. I wanted to scream. Not that I even want to have kids but I sure as hell want a shoulder to fall asleep on.

I cried myself to sleep that night.

When I got home, this upcoming Sri Lanka trip felt like a cruel reminder that I would be travelling ALONE. If I had a stomach upset I would have to walk to a pharmacy ALONE, take the meds ALONE, curl up in pain ALONE. No one to bring me dinner if I was tired, or take turns with to carry the backpack. No one to watch my bags if I wanted to pee. No one to take pictures of me. I was angry and sad and angry again for the next two weeks. I almost cancelled my trip entirely. Why put myself through all that when I had a comfortable apartment, a cuddly cat, and an internet connection right here.

But the thought of not going felt slightly worse than going. So I went.

Photo by Danilo Ugaddan: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-people-at-market-945982/

At the Bangalore Airport I sat, ALONE, watching the groups of friends, families, couples, and every other kind of pack animal at the gate. I sipped my iced coffee bitterly, casting my evil eye far and wide. Just my luck that I got a seat next to a couple that was feeling cuddly. At least I had extra leg room so I jammed my eyes closed and prayed for sleep to take me. Thankfully, it did.

It was such a short flight that it didn’t even feel like an international trip. The airport was still full of brown faces, speckled with a few white tourists. Basically the same as Goa. Fuck me. I got a SIM card and found out (after multiple unanswered emails ahead of the trip) that the hotel I had booked did NOT in fact have an airport shuttle that they so gloriously advertised on booking.com. Taking a cab felt too expensive. It was an hour away from Colombo, and the damn airport was also 45 minutes away from Colombo in the wrong direction.

So I googled and googled and googled and hedged my bet on somehow finding a train. I had time to spare, thankfully, given that I was ALONE, after all, with no agenda other than to sit at the beach in my ALONE-ness. I managed to get an Uber from the airport after dodging several over-enthusiastic taxi drivers hoping to scam a tourist. Outside the airport at least it felt like I was in a different country. Sinhala signboards and unfamiliar license plates. A slow trickle of excitement was finding its way back into my brain.

At the Colombo railway station and thanks to a surprisingly helpful Tourist Information counter, I managed to get a first class train ticket to Bentota where my hotel was. I had time to kill so I took an auto (tuktuk in Sri Lanka) to a nearby cafe and grabbed a chai and some food. Took the tuktuk back and stood ALONE (in the middle of a throng of people) on the platform with absolutely no way of knowing if I was getting on the right train. After checking with a tour guide herding a group of white tourists I knew I was in the right compartment, but still unsure if it was the right train. Only when the ticket collector didn’t throw me out did I finally settle in. Thankfully the compartment was mostly empty, the AC was blasting, and train seats have plenty of leg room. I took my (thankfully) window seat and opened up my (now mostly falling apart/spilling) food and chai and ate.

I frantically stalked my blue dot on Google Maps to make sure I wasn’t going in the wrong direction. And then suddenly the view in the window burst into a bright blue. It was the Indian Ocean. Beaming in all its afternoon glory. This train track was right on the coastline. The sun hit my face and the water sparkled, and the waves flopped onto the rocks and my brain flooded with a pure childlike joy. It was worth it. This trip was actually worth it. If nothing else but for this train ride along the coastline with a view of the bright, blue, sparkling Indian Ocean. I had only seen Instagram videos of this kind of thing. I was stunned. I smiled to myself and stared out the window like a happy dog.

Just as suddenly, I arrived at my stop. I hadn’t even noticed because I had stopped looking at the blue dot on Google Maps. I practically ran out of the train and onto the platform. I allowed myself to be (most likely) scammed by an over enthu tuktuk driver who took me to my hotel. Which was GORGEOUS. My room was sparkling clean, the AC was blasting, and I had a balcony that overlooked the pool and the ocean beyond. I flopped onto the bed and let all the stress, anxiety, anger, and sadness just fall off me. By the time I showered and changed it was already past sunset and the small beach village outside the hotel was completely dark. But now fully bathed and finally relaxed I had a beer (room service) for dinner and slept like a baby.

I woke up feeling like a million bucks. Let’s fucking DO THIS. Why lounge in the hotel when there was a whole country experience. After a nice spicy idiyappam and potato curry breakfast I set off to Galle. I had missed the train and the next one was a while away. So I took a cab instead. Let me tell you the highways in Sri Lanka are gorgeous. In what felt like no time I was at the Dutch Fort in Galle.

It was another breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean, dancing in the afternoon sun. ALONE-ness be damned, I was in heaven. I walked around the touristy bits of the Galle Fort area, had a spectacular poke bowl for lunch, all guilt of not eating local cuisine put to rest when the freshness of the tuna squelched in my mouth. I smiled through the whole meal, taking breaks in between so I had more time to enjoy it. I followed this up with some pre-planned coconut-vanilla gelato at a tiny little shop down the road, and then stopped a coffee shop on the way to the train station.

Even the second class compartment of that train (there was no first class) was jam packed, so I stood near the door. A (german?) girl (woman?) sat on in the door way. In front of me was a Sri Lankan man who had sat next to me on the platform bench, whom I had spoken to briefly asking about the train timings. Another Asian tourist stood alone at the other door. Four people, travelling alone, together. Half way through the journey I sat next to the german? girl? woman? in the door way and stared into the blur of green in front of me. On the other side was the ocean, flashing in bits and pieces between trees and houses. I felt my ALONE-ness melt away even more. Here were three other people like me. Two other tourists travelling ALONE like me.

At every stop a new variety of sodas and snacks (fried prawn!) came and went. The german? girl? woman? and I smiled at each other when it started to drizzle and our feet were getting wet. As I neared my stop I stood up again and an Australian woman of Sri Lankan origin started up a conversation. In due course the Asian man also joined in, and the Sri Lankan man talked to the Australian woman in Sinhala. Four people ALONE, together. It was a joy of solo travel that I had known and forgotten about.

I got off the train in the pouring rain (thankfully I had an umbrella) and walked back the few hundred metres to the hotel, not minding in the least that my pants were soaked and my sandals were pooling with rainwater. I took a hot shower and changed. Sadly the beach was out of the question for the day, it was close to sunset and still drizzling. So I went down to the bar and sat with a beer and my book, and felt at peace. I was so glad for this trip, so glad I didn’t cancel. Despite the Indian aunty-uncle group giving me the side eye from the adjacent table. Indian girl (woman?) wearing short shorts and a crop top, sitting ALONE, drinking beer. A real horror/shocking spectacle to be witnessed. I went to bed with concrete plans of morning beach time and Sri Lankan lunch, breakfast be damned.

Bentota beach is.. for lack of a less cliche phrase, a slice of heaven. Soft, beige sand, clear (sometimes blue, sometimes turquoise) water. Even with the water up to my chest I could still see my toes. The morning sun was kinder than the afternoon heat and the water was cool. A slice of heaven. I started to feel like I didn’t deserve this. Like this beach was too good for me. What a strange feeling to have. The tide was gentle so I floated on my back, the silence of the water in my ears, the sound of my breathing amplified, feeling the buoyancy of the water keeping my whole body afloat. The body I spent so much time hating felt like it was being hugged and loved and accepted. It was a body that could experience a slice of heaven.

I walked back to the beach to see that an artist who was selling his paintings on the beach had drawn a line drawing of me in the sand. I smiled. It was a chubbier silhouette than I had wanted to see but it was still sweet of him to do that. Sadly for him I continued to decline buying his paintings. I went back to my room with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I sang in the shower and took pictures of myself without hating what I saw. I beamed at the pictures of the body that had just experienced a slice of heaven.

Next up was a short walk to a highly rated Sri Lankan restaurant for lunch. The waiter played Bollywood music for me since I was the only one there ordering lunch at 11:45 am . I got the fish curry and rice, which came with a side of dal fry, mango chutney, and papad. I ate it with my fingers like a proper South Asian, mixing little bits of everything and savouring the whole spectrum of flavours, sipping beer in between. Two pieces of rambutan also magically appeared along with the finger bowl at the end. It was a spectacular lunch and absolutely worth skipping breakfast for.

Back in the hotel I was feeling restless, I wanted more adventure and sitting at the beach all day didn’t feel like it would cut it. In the meantime my cousin’s husband had sent me a long list of recommendations for Colombo. It was tempting enough for me to skip the last night (which I had already paid for) in Bentota and find a hotel in Colombo. Which I promptly did and checked out gleefully. The next train was a few hours away so I indulged in another intercity cab to Colombo.

My hotel was on the outer edge of the main city, on the top floor of what appeared to be a near abandoned office building. Or maybe it felt that way because it was the weekend? I couldn’t tell. But the non air conditioned common areas with their white-blue light gave it a real post-modern apocalyptic feeling. The spring in my step was starting to fade. But the room was nice enough so I plucked up my courage and headed out for the day.

My first stop was the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. I expected a few boutiques and bars but it was waaaayyyy fancier than that. The porches outside the bars had some very well dressed people. Suddenly and forcefully my tattered black drawstring pajamas and sweaty, damp white crop top looked super out of place. They were nice enough for a beach village, no doubt, but the fancy part of a city, absolutely not. I started to panic. Clothing is the armour that protects my self confidence. While I might not always be the best dressed, putting in the effort makes me feel prepared for the venue and the people.

I took a deep breath and headed to Pettah Bazaar, hoping to find a cotton export store where I could find a rejected Old Navy or Gap shirt to throw over my crop top, at the very least. After I walked through a few lanes of electronics and hardware stores, the exhaustion from a long day in the sun started to sink in. Pettah Bazaar was not going to be my solution. I googled and found a nearby mall and hoped the air conditioning would cure me. I was wrong.

It was a fancy mall in the nice part of the city on a Saturday evening. It was filled with the English speaking elite, in their linen dresses and designer handbags, giving me the side eye. My appearance screamed broke-backpacker-tourist and I wanted to hold up a sign that said “No! No I’m not! I swear!”. I dragged what little energy I had left and set out on my mission to go through every single floor of this five storey mall to find something, anything, that would upgrade this travesty of an outfit. I managed to find a stylish white linen top that could camouflage my tattered black pants somewhat and still work with my low-end birkins. Somewhat relieved I headed back to my hotel for a shower and change before heading to a highly recommended Sri Lankan restaurant for dinner.

At the hotel the receptionist gave me my complimentary bottle of water. 500 ml. I could drink that in one gulp. I asked for more and she said I would have to pay for it and that it would be cheaper to get more water from a grocery store that was 400m away. There was also no option to refill my water bottle. I wanted to cry. My feet were aching, I smelled like old socks, and I really did NOT want to walk even more to get water. But I had chosen this budget hotel so I would have to face the consequences of my actions. ALONE.

Before leaving my room to get that damn water, I tried on the new outfit one more time. I had no makeup, no jewellery, and my pants stank of a whole day of walking. I briefly considered buying some detergent to wash and then iron the pants into wearability. I stood looking at myself in the mirror and after a few seconds of deliberation mentally cancelled my dinner plan. There was absolutely no way that I would walk down the road to get water and detergent, wash and iron my pants, put on a half done outfit and show my face in public looking like a mess. Dinner plan CANCELLED. That’s an advantage of travelling ALONE, I guess, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want to.

I dragged myself back into the humid night to the grocery store at a gas station nearby. I bought some bottles of water, chips, cup noodles, and chocolate biscuits to put together a “dinner” for myself. I also stuffed myself into a tiny alcohol shop filled with men trying to get their Saturday night fix, to get myself some beer. My “dinner” in hand, my feet aching, my sweaty crop top sticking to me, I got back to the hotel for a hot shower. Lo and behold there was no fridge in my room and my beers were at room temperature. The urge to cry was pushing up against my throat. I was too tired for this. I begged the receptionist for some way to cool my beers and bless her heart she found a mini fridge in another room and sent it to mine. Small mercies.

Before my shower I went to plug in my phone and discovered that all the power outlets were European. What the fuck. I had charged my phone at multiple cafes and in my previous hotel room and had no issue. Why now, universe, why now! My phone was at 32%, there was no way I could make this last till I got to the airport the next afternoon. Trying not to crumble I started googling again. Uber Eats had an “electronics” section. Thank you, universe! I found a converter and paid for priority delivery. 45 minutes. Deep breaths.

I finally went in for that shower hoping to emerge to a knock at my door with the converter in the delivery person’s hand. But no, he would not come upstairs. So I pulled my grimy black pajamas on over my boxers and went back downstairs. Half way there I realised I had forgotten to bring the cash to pay him. I didn’t even have the energy to feel like crying. I had no one upstairs I could call to meet me halfway with the cash. Yay for travelling ALONE. I trudged back up, got the cash and trudged back down. My phone was at 22% and I was at 0.001%.

I picked up the parcel, trudged back upstairs, impatiently ripped open the box, angrily stuffed the charger into the converter, angrily stuffed the converter into the power socket and angrily stuffed the charger into the phone. Then I angrily opened the fridge and angrily opened the beer and took a very long sip. It had the medicinal effect I hoped for. I calmed down. I opened up the chips which turned out to be stale and soggy and stuffed them into my mouth regardless. I connected my streaming account to the TV and put on a comedy special. The laughter and beer and AC were cooling off my hot head. The redness in my feet faded. I skipped the cup noodles, demolished the chocolate biscuits and fell asleep. I had survived. ALONE.

But my trials were far from over. The next morning I checked out four hours ahead of my flight and waited in the lobby for a cab that was 6 minutes away. 6 minutes without AC started to feel uncomfortable so I escaped to the next door coffee shop to wait in the AC and get some breakfast. Cab #1 refused to move for a while and then called and said he would be there in 15 minutes. What? He was 6 mintues away per the map? I cancelled. Cab #2 drove right past me and kept going. When I called he also said he would be there in 15 minutes. What was happening? Tuktuks weren’t allowed on the highway to the airport so I booked Cab #3. I asked the coffee shop guy to beg the cab driver in Sinhala not to cancel because I needed to go to the airport, and kindly he did.

In the meantime the blessing of my cold brew coffee with sweet cream was ready and I practically chugged it. Allowing the thick sweet cream to coat my mouth with sugary, creamy joy. Then, along with my sandwich, the coffee shop guy gave me a coupon for a free coffee at the airport. My heart melted. It was clearly cut from a loyalty card and was meant to be the reward for a fifth purchase. I smiled and thanked him. ALONE together. The cab thankfully arrived and I ate my (falling apart) sandwich, covering myself with breadcrumbs but grateful for an early airport arrival, an AC cab, and a stomach full.

The airport was confusing and backwards. I’ve passed through my share of airports around the world and this just made no sense. Normally it’s ID check, bag drop, security, emigration, and then boarding. But this? There was security at the door who checked my ticket but not my ID. Then there was a bag scan where they checked my ticket and ID. Then there was check-in and bag drop but no security again after that. I was so confused but was thankfully offered another small mercy of getting an exit row window seat at bag drop that I didn’t have to pay for. I plugged in my earphones and willed my heart rate to go down. Deep breaths. Everything was backwards but it was okay. I headed to emigration. I got to the top of the escalator and realised that it was badly backed up. Thankfully again, a small mercy that I had arrived so early.

There was a traveller trying to get people to join the back of the queue instead of jamming in at the top of the escalator. Eventually the line went back down the stairs. People getting to the top of the escalator and having to go back down to the back of the line was a sight to witness, equal parts hilarious and chaotic. Someone said the backup was because the emigration officers’ systems were down. Ugh. The queue contined to pile up and the LED screen next to me radiated warmth in an already overcrowded space. But I was ALONE together with these other frustrated, confused travellers.

Eventually I struck up a conversation with a British lady next to me and it helped pass the time. She said I was brave travelling alone in South Asia as a woman. My spirits lifted. She was probably my mom’s age and had just finished a 16 day trip around Sri Lanka with her husband. Chatting away about arranged marriage, my choice to move back to India from the US and human rights in South Asia, we didn’t really notice that the queue had started moving again. Just before it was my turn, we said our goodbyes and safe travels. ALONE together, a small mercy.

Thankfully my passport is littered with multiple entry visas to the US and Canada, and stamps from Bhutan, Thailand, and Malaysia (humble brag) so I didn’t get too many questions and was off to try and find my gate. Which was, of course, at the other end of the airport. The gate had yet another bag, ticket, and ID check. WTF? But I was there 15 minutes before boarding time. I had to sacrifice buying souvenirs for my mom and the free airport coffee but at least I had made it. I refilled my water bottle, connected my phone to wifi, listened to a podcast and played Candy Crush, letting my body finally relax. I took my exit row window seat opened my book and escaped my current reality for a fictional one.

Soon enough I was back in Bangalore, (it really is a ridiculously short international flight). I picked up two bottles from Duty Free (as one must), got through immigration without so much as a second glance from the officer. I collected my bag and exited the airport into the perfect 25 degree Bangalore weather and got a cab. I picked up my cat from the boarder’s house, got home, took a hot shower and plonked on my sofa.

I had done it. I felt brave, I felt fulfilled, I felt alive. The trip I had looked forward to and then dreaded and then enjoyed and then survived, was everything I had needed. It had been a reminder of my own independence, my strength, my survival instinct, my prior solo travel experience and the fact that we are never really ALONE, we are always ALONE together. We are made up of airport conversations and co-passengers on trains. We are made of rambutans offered by waiters and free coffee vouchers offered by baristas. We are made up of people who share recommendations or painstakingly string together English when you say “No Sinhala”. We survive tiring days thanks to kind receptionists who move fridges across rooms for you and tour guides who reassure you that you’re boarding the right compartment of a train.

My self pity party about loneliness was only because I allowed myself to vegetate at home alone, for days on end. Not because I was the last person left on earth who did things alone. Just as the therapist had recommended, I had found joy in my life as it was. I was reminded that there is more than enough joy and adventure in a life without a partner. I was reminded that I had had the privilege of travelling far far away at a very young age, which equipped me to do wild things like travel abroad alone at this age. I was reminded of the privilege of my education which allowed me to have a high paying job that could pay for my adventures. I was reminded that I had plenty and more to be grateful for.

So thank you, Sri Lanka. Thank you, universe, for the small mercies and overwhelming joys. Thank you to my body for surviving, for enjoying, for experiencing, and for rising to every occasion. Thank you to Google Translate, Uber Eats, WiFi connections, and power adapters. Thank you to kind strangers who eased my ALONE-ness and friends who told me to “shut up and have fun, dude.” I survived. ALONE. Together.

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Urvashi H.V.

Tech Marketer, Mental Health Advocate, Body Acceptance Struggler