Street food, unbearable heat and hitchhiking. Mathilda Nassar, a female solo traveler from Palestine, shares her stories and adventures from a solo trip to Sri Lanka in this week’s Women Who Travel Solo.
How did you get started traveling?
I first became interested in traveling during my first year of college at Roanoke College. There was an alternative spring break trip to Nicaragua to build latrines for people in a small village called Ochomogo. I had such a great time there and it inspired me to travel more. A couple months later, I found out that I had won a national fellowship to do independent research in China for 6 weeks. Since then, I have traveled to more than 25 countries.
Why did you decide to travel to Sri Lanka alone?
After graduating college two months ago, I decided to take a month off and travel. I started in India, where I stayed with a friend I had met at college. Her family was one of the most hospitable families I’ve ever met. After India, I wanted to go somewhere else totally alone without a plan. I originally was going to go to Nepal, but the earthquake struck the day I was going to buy my ticket. I then decided to go to Sri Lanka last minute because it was close and would be a relatively cheap plane ticket. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
Tell us about your experience as a solo female traveler in Sri Lanka.
When I first got to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I felt very overwhelmed. I didn’t know anything or anyone, and I didn’t have a plan. My plan was to not have a plan. I was excited but very nervous. My first night there was miserable. There was not AC in my room and the mosquito net didn’t keep the mosquitos out. The next day, I met two travelers from Iran and we decided to travel around the country together. The first few days we went out into Colombo city and tried to interact with the locals. One Muslim family invited us into their home and offered us milk tea, which was the best tea I’ve ever had. Their English was good and we had a very nice conversation.
For a few nights, we went to the casino because it had AC and good food. I learned how to gamble for the first time. I ended up making a net gain of $15, which is better than nothing. It was at that casino that I saw how money could make people go crazy. Coming from an immigrant family of 5, I learned that money is not the ultimate source of happiness but that it is necessary in small doses.
One day, we decided last minute to go to Kandy. We went to the train station one hour before the train was set to depart. We found the lines long and hot. We purchased third class tickets for $1, but once we got on the train we were told that third class did not have any more room for us. We paid the difference for a second class ticket and sat on the floor of the train by the door, overlooking the landscape. It was one of the best train rides of my life, despite the lack of seats and cool air. I stayed by the door and watched all of the mountains and valleys and trees and mists, and I loved it all.
30 minutes away from Kandy, the train stopped and we were informed that it had broken down. We jumped out as the sun set and began our trek to the city. After an hour of meandering in the darkness and attempted to hitch hike, someone on the street told us there was a bus coming. We hastily hopped on the crowded bus and waited for the city to emerge.
What recommendations do you have for solo travelers in Sri Lanka?
I definitely think that Sri Lanka is a female-solo-traveler-friendly country. When I walked around by myself, I was never harassed or cat called. Some locals would try to greet me but only because they are curious about foreigners. Overall, Sri Lankans are very hospitable and friendly and open.
I would recommend trying street food, as its not as bad as Indian street food. I ate most of my meals in Sri Lanka on the street and did not have any unpleasant experiences. However, go for stands that are crowded because that means that this is a place that the locals trust.
I also recommend spending a good month at least in the country. It is extremely overlooked but I enjoyed it immensely.
What was the best part of the trip?
The best part of the trip was meeting other travelers like me with open and adventurous minds. These kinds of people are everywhere, especially in hostels. Deciding to travel with people I had just met was an exciting learning experience and I made friends along the way.
What was the worst part of the trip?
I would have to say that the heat in Sri Lanka was pretty unbearable. There was no relief from it. It was hot outside and it was even hotter in my room. It takes a lot for a person to get used to it.
Are there any safety concerns for women traveling alone to Sri Lanka?
Like I said before, I found Sri Lanka to be a good place for solo female travelers. I myself would try not to travel at night alone, but that it is a common safety precaution anywhere.
What advice do you have for women who are traveling alone?
Don’t be afraid to meet up with people. The joy of traveling alone is that you have so many opportunities to meet new people instead of sticking to your own group. Most travelers out there are just looking for adventure and trying to make the most out of life. Being too untrustworthy may cause you to miss out on some potentially great things. But always be cautious and listen to your gut.
Do you have anything else to add to inspire women solo travelers?
I’ve traveled alone to Scotland, Austria, India, and Sri Lanka. It’ll always be terrifying, but I think it’ll always be worth it.
Born in Palestine, Mathilda moved to the United States at the age of 12. The 22-year old just graduated from Roanoke College with a degree in international relations and is returning to Palestine to work for a year. After that, Mathilda hopes to attend graduate school at Georgetown University and work to find a just and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Women Who Travel Solo
Women Who Travel Solo is a weekly column that shares the stories of women’s solo travel adventures in hopes of spreading the message that traveling alone is not only safe, but wildly rewarding. Inspire other women to travel solo by sharing your story with Something In Her Ramblings. Email Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org.