This is 40: how a trip to Sri Lanka made me realize I’m exactly where I’m meant to be

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Sometimes, the best birthday gifts are the ones we give ourselves. For me, that means exploring the world – and a globe-trotting adventure was supposed to be the way I celebrated turning 40 in April 2020. 

But the pandemic had other plans and left me spending this milestone birthday home alone. So, after two heavy years of isolation, health concerns, a global racial reckoning and political tensions in America – when borders began to reopen in 2022, I had one goal for my 42 birthday: to go to a new country. Sri Lanka fit the bill.

As an author and full-time entertainment attorney based in Los Angeles, I didn’t have much time to plan a detailed travel itinerary. Nor did I want to book a tour full of retired couples or families with children. Instead, I chose Flash Pack because it specializes in adventures for solo travelers in their 30s and 40s – and I’d had such positive experiences on past trips to Vietnam, Bali and Morocco.

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Being in my 40s – unmarried, without kids – feels like the exception rather than the rule

I arrived in Sri Lanka five days before my birthday, not sure if I would even tell the group I’d be quietly marking a milestone on the trip. Our itinerary was full of things that appealed to me and that was the best way for me to celebrate: a hike to the top of Pidurangala rock, cycling through the temples of Polonnaruwa, touring a spice plantation, a local cooking class to feed my inner chef, visiting tea terraces, a safari at Yala National Park and releasing baby turtles into the Indian Ocean – all with plenty of time for me to reflect. 

After only a few days, my travel companions were no longer strangers, but new friends. This was exactly where I was meant to be at this moment in my life. Being in my 40s and never having been married or having kids feels like the exception rather than the rule. Like something society asks you to explain if you dare deviate from those norms. 

But the best thing about growing up is realizing that the path less traveled is still a path – and it’s okay to be on it. Meeting people in the Sri Lanka group who were similarly situated was a welcome reminder that there are others on the same road – you just have to know where to find them. One of the best things about traveling is finding the people who make you feel like you’re home.

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Meeting people in Sri Lanka was a welcome reminder there are others on the same road

On my 42 birthday, I woke up with the sun and sat at the edge of the grounds of a tea plantation, fringed by the mountains in the Mandaramnuwara Valley in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. Warm hues crept across the sky. Birds and insects filled the day with their hum. Wind rustled through the tea leaves. I was surrounded by the sweet scents of hydrangeas and other blooms. The morning mist felt refreshing against my skin. 

I took a deep breath, letting my lungs fill with the clean mountain air, and wondered how many people ever get to experience such a beautiful and remote place, let alone start a new year there. Gazing at the sun rising over the mountains, I considered the things I’ve accomplished so far. In my lap was my debut novel The Taste of Ginger, a childhood dream that had finally come true in 2022.

I have been overwhelmed by the number of immigrants who have reached out to share that my novel made them feel seen and understood. And by the number of non-immigrants who have said that the book made them think more deeply about the experiences of immigrants in America. With the launching of that book, I felt like I had found my purpose and it has given each day since so much meaning.

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I’ve worked hard, so that now – in the prime of my life – I can focus on exploring new cultures

My second novel will be released in January 2023, giving me the confidence to know I can – and will – continue to craft the underrepresented stories that matter to me. I worked hard in my first career so that I have the option to retire from my corporate life now – in the prime of my life – and focus on exploring new cultures and meeting new people.

Sitting on that mountaintop, I reflected on some of the challenges I’d faced in getting to this place. There have been issues with my health and heartbreaks. Loved ones who were taken from this earth too soon. Friends who have come and gone. Periods of financial insecurity during my childhood. And the overarching emotional and psychological toll of living as an outsider in North America. 

No matter how difficult, I knew that each of these experiences brought me to this exact moment, this life, this perspective… and most importantly, as a woman embarking on a new career as a writer, they gave me something to really say.

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No matter how difficult, those experiences brought me to this exact moment

I have traveled to over 70 countries so far – each one changing and shaping me – and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities for growth. I can’t ignore the fact that these adventures, early retirement, and ability to now launch a writing career that challenges and inspires me, wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been single and child-free at this stage of my life.

While I’d love to meet that perfect-for-me partner one day, I told myself long ago that I had to build a foundation upon which I was dependent on myself for my happiness and strength – and I’m proud that I’ve done that. I didn’t want to wait for someone or something that wasn’t guaranteed before I started living.

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Meeting others on the unconventional path has fed my soul and fueled me to keep going

The unconventional path can be lonely at times with so few people on it. But when I’ve encountered others on that same journey, the depth and meaning of those relationships has fed my soul and fueled me to keep going and explore what happens next. 

I didn’t end up with the husband, the kids and the white picket fence that a younger version of me assumed I’d have at this age. But I couldn’t have had those things and still ended up where I am today. 

The life I’ve created is fulfilling in unexpected ways – and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I can’t wait to see where future adventures will take me now that I’ve learned to release the expectations of others, breathe deeply regardless of where I am, and forge my own path on the road less traveled.

In addition to being an avid traveler, Mansi Shah is the author of The Taste of Ginger and the upcoming novel The Direction of the Wind (out January 2023).

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

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