A guy who prefers to stay at home, play video games and tinker with tech. That is how I would have described myself a few year ago. But that was about to change.
My parents kept reminding me about how they weren’t going to be around forever and how I should learn how to take care of myself. It was a valid request, by being their only son, I relied on them for everything and I was not capable or confident of tackling anything by myself. Thanks to a major identity change, as I entered university I started to break free of my limiting beliefs and discover that I was capable of much more than I imagined. I could be funny, I can stand up for myself and I could push myself to do what seemed like very scary things (like speaking in public) or put another a way, after being limited by beliefs for so long, I finally finding out what my real limits were.
So when the AIESEC team in my university did their introduction session which included “jiving” (dancing) in front of some very confused first year students, I was drawn to that audacity. I didn’t know who they were or what they did but I knew that I wanted to be as ballsy. So at the last moment, I signed up and I discovered that their organisation revolved around “exchanges” where students of universities would volunteer abroad at projects organised by other students. After hearing an old AIESECer’s story about his own exchange to Indonesia, I become intrigued. A challenge came in to my head, a curiosity about whether I would be able to survive on my own and what it would be like to be away from my parents. But I never thought that I would be able to do it. My parents would never allow it. After all, they were the same people who would not let me to walk a few hundred meters to get something from the shop down the street.
As the weeks passed by, the registration date drew closer and the idea stuck firmly in my head. Figuring that I had nothing to lose, I mentioned it to my dad. To my surprise, he seemed to like the idea and his only concern was the finances. Then again, that was not so surprising. My dad was always my advocate, no matter what random idea I had. The real opposition was my mom. After postponing for days, I finally brought it up with her while fully expecting her to react along the lines of “Are you out of your F?@!?$? mind?” Instead, she quietly said “But how are you going to take care of yourself?” That was not a no!
Looking back, there are many times when I have worked towards something without realising what I am getting myself into and what it will be like after the fact. I get so focused on solving the initial part of the challenge that I completely lose track of what comes next. So for weeks, I only thought only about getting selected for a project or getting the visa to get there and then suddenly, it was the day of my departure. This was really happening now and for the first time, I started to realise what it meant. I was going on an airplane for the first time, to a country where I knew only the person who would be picking me up, to live on my own for the first time. I tried to imagine what it would look like and I saw just darkness. In some ways, it felt like a bad omen - especially since I was flying Malaysian airlines.
Exiting the terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport, it hit me all at once. I needed to take a bus to meet my contact and he had sent me schedule. But is this the right terminal? Is it going in the right direction? What if he is not there? What if I lose my luggage? I was panicking and even though I found the right terminal, I decided to miss the bus on purpose, go back inside, calm myself down, fully verify whether it was the right one and catch the next one. One bus ride later, I met Adrian, the first non Sri Lankan I would get to know.
Everything was happening too fast for me to process. Big shopping malls, massive university complexes, exchange participants (EPs) like myself from all over the world, different food, different currency, completely different social dynamic. But the day seemed to last forever and I loved it. Everything was so unpredictable and interesting. Due to a planning oversight, I was immediately thrust into the middle of an ongoing project since there was nowhere else for me to stay until I joined my host family the next day. Not being one to idly stand by, I tried to contribute as much as could and I even volunteered and gave a speech to the high school kids who the participants of this youth empowerment project. The project agenda ended with the typical AIESEC fashion of a jive, together with the kids and EPs and it was an incredible experience. By the end of that day, as I laid on the spare mattress on the floor of the EP house, I could hardly believe everything that happened. And it was only day 1.
Day 2 began with Adrain driving me to the office where I would be working on my project for a company called the Incitement. It was here that I met Iman, who together with his wife Rojin, were my hosts. He showed me around the office and introduced me to the online volunteering system we would be building together for the next 2 months. Being my first real work outside university, this was quite exciting too.
The first week went by with me meeting the rest of my colleagues, getting lost in the largest mall I had been to yet, discovering how LRT trains worked and buying my own groceries for the first time. The week ended with me tagging along to volunteer at a project my company organised called Litter of Light where we built solar lights out of PVC pipes and headed off-road in 4x4s to install them in a remote village in the Malaysian highlands that didn’t have electricity. Watching the lights come on one by one as dark fell and traveling back with the view of the galaxy above us was an experience I would never forget.
By the second week, I had gotten used to my new routine. Whilst chatting with my colleagues, I mentioned that I haven’t visited the twin towers yet. “Seriously? You need to go and check it out”. So I did and like many times already on this trip, I was amazed. It also made me realise that I hadn’t seen the city yet. I hadn’t even considered exploring the city until to this point. My dad used to tell me stories about how he used to travel back in the day, where he explored India or Thailand alone. He was a pioneer of sorts, one of the first in the family to go abroad in an era where air travel was scary and novel. So I got curious, what made this “travel” so great anyway? I decided to find out.
Armed with a small city map, I set out on Sunday morning with a simple strategy. I will start at the closest LRT station to the centre and I will visit as many spots as I can, based on what was closest to me. Starting in the market centre, I wandered to the independence square with the art gallery in the corner and then to the butterfly park. Exhausted, I napped for a while on the lawn of the independence square before setting off into the Chinese district to find something cheap for lunch (I was constantly counting pennies on this trip since my dad was paying for it) As I ate on a small plastic chair outside of a Chinese restaurant, I noticed the KL tower in the distance. “That doesn’t look so far away” I thought and navigating mostly by line of sight, I made my way to the top of the tower as darkness fell. I ended my day by running through the closing doors to catch on of the last LRT trains. It was the longest I had ever walked in a day and I was completely worn out. But I was also smiling widely to myself. I couldn’t believe the day I just had and just how random it was. That sense of freedom, of just thinking and doing on a whim and of wonder at everything I had seen was a feeling that I had never had before. I had just been bitten by the travel bug.
A few weeks later, our company organised a retreat to Tioman, a small island in the west of Malaysia. The location itself was out of a postcard, with the beach going as far as the eye can see with almost no one on it. Whilst there, we went on hike to an inland waterfall where I accidentally drowned my phone. It wouldn’t even turn on so I stuck it in a box of rice for the next few days and forgot about it. This surprised me. Being a tech guy and considering that I had just gotten this flagship phone before my trip, I should have been devastated. But I wasn’t. By being unable to capture everything on photo or distract myself with the internet, I felt free. I also felt calm, knowing that I would be able to either fix it or buy a cheaper alternative when I get back and that a lot of my photos up to now were already backed up. This was not my usual mode of thinking at all and neither was the time when I leapt off that short waterfall by trusting that my colleagues would catch me at the bottom since I didn’t know how to swim.
One of the only downsides about my exchange so far was the fact that I had signed up for a project where I was the only EP. I liked the project since I got to fully use my tech skills and learn in the process. But I didn’t have the experience that other EPs did, of living and working together on a project that I caught a glimpse of during my first day. So I constantly kept writing the people I knew to drop in whenever something was going on and that was how I got myself invited to a trip to Malacca. It was also how I got invited into the EP conference which became a pretty surprising turning point.
Since my project was longer than usual, the batch of EPs who arrived at the same time as me were ending their term and a new batch was coming in. I met them for the first time when I crashed the night at the EP house so that we could set off together to the weekend conference the next morning. The conference itself was very AIESEC, complete with soul searching activities and of course, jives. But the side effect, was me getting much closer to this newer batch of EPs than the previous one. With Marie from Austria, Xenia from Germany, Kimsor from Cambodia, Heba and Nada from Egypt, Farhan from Pakistan and Kate from Taiwan. After the conference ended, since I had been in the city for longer, I became the one to show them the twin towers for the first time. We kept talking about the most random things and laughing at all the miscommunication that kept happening due to our different accents and backgrounds. It was one of the happiest moments of my life and over the new few days, I felt something even more surprising. For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly belonged and that a group cared about me and liked having me around. Even though, I was not on the same project and lived separately from them. And given how different we all were, this was the last place I expected to feel this way.
In the days that followed, I tried to spend as much time as I can together with them. There were days where I would finish work, travel around 2 hours to get to the EP house, crash on a spare mattress in the living room and then wake up earlier than all of them to catch the train back to get to work on time. These sleepovers might sounds mundane to many but being an overprotected kid, they were a whole new experience for me.
There are so many great moments I remember of us together, especially when we traveled together to Penang on a weekend trip. Before Malaysia, I was not a fan of selfies. I just thought they were very narcissistic. However on my first day here, I realised that a lot of the moments I would have together with the people who were there would not happen again and I wanted to remember. So I become a frequent selfie taker and when I compare the photos I took before the exchange with the ones I took towards the end of my time in Malaysia together with them, it’s quite clear that this is when I learnt how to smile.
Coming up to the final weekend of my exchange, I wanted to visit Langkawi, a island in the north of Malaysia that I heard good things about. The other EPs were already busy with something so it felt like it was not going to happen until I realised that I could go on my own. Unlike my previous strolls around KL, this was a much more tricky trip with 9 hours by bus and an hour by ferry, far from everything and everyone I knew. It felt quite scary and it would be an expensive trip. I pondered the decision for a few days until I stumbled on a quote that read “Money spent on travel will never be a waste” (or something like that) and true enough in the end, I didn’t regret it at all.
On my first day there, I found that there was no public transport on the island so I needed to take cabs everywhere. This wouldn’t do so after chatting up a taxi driver to get a discount, I got to my accommodation where I found that they rented bikes. Even though I had never ridden a bike on public roads before, I rented one and cycled 4KM to the beach to realise that I had left my swimming trunks behind. Nonetheless, while still not knowing how to swim, I stripped into my boxers and dived in. With no one to call me out, I must have spent several hours in the water and emerged significantly oranger and with some very salty boxers. Next I headed off to the rice paddy museum and spotting a hut in the middle of the paddy field behind it, I decided that it would be a good place for a nap. An hour later, I got back on the bike and on my way back, I spotted a go-karting track. Having never go-karted before, I figured now would be a good time to try so I pulled over and gave it a go. When I got back to my hotel, after what was the longest I have ever cycled in my life, I realised that I had forgotten about lunch entirely and I remembered the owner mentioning a food market nearby, so I headed out yet again to get some “Linner”. Just like my travels in KL, I loved the freedom and randomness of it all, only this was on another level.
I remember going to sleep the first day thinking that I have another two months left. Now there was only 3. I moved out of my host family to stay in the EP house for my last few days and while I was still having a great time with them, that counter kept ticking in my head. I didn’t want this to end and I seriously considered extending my stay. But there were stories of authorities not extending visas beyond 2 months and being new and uncertain to travel and visas, I was scared of causing trouble. So I had to accept that my time in Malaysia was coming to an end.
It was a very hard moment saying goodbye to them, knowing that it is unlikely that I would ever see them again and that our adventures together were at an end. It was another hard goodbye at the airport to Adrian, who had been my buddy throughout the entire exchange, beyond whatever AIESEC mandated him to do. I remembered the time when we hit a gaming cafe to play call of duty and then I crashed with him at his parents place before going to the immigration office the next morning. As I went through the immigration gates, I looked back and waved at him as he waited on the floor above. That was the last time I saw him in person.
Arriving back at the airport, I found my parents waiting outside the terminal. “I can barely recognise you” my mom commented. Sure on the outside, I was significantly tanned and due to a misunderstanding at the barbershop, nearly bald. But I knew the real changes were beneath the surface and I felt it full force as I walked back into my room. It looked so small and I sat in my computer chair trying to process all of it. Just a few hours ago, I was with them and now here I am. All those experiences are just a memory now. I took my phone to send a message saying that I arrived safely and to my horror, I had forgotten my Wi-Fi password. Tears welled in my eyes. I’m the tech guy who remembers entire spec sheets on every device he owned. When it comes to tech, I rarely forget, especially something as vital as this. But this experience was profound enough to do just that.
So why am I writing about this now, almost 5 years after it happened? Well, the truth is I never got over it. When I think about the happiest I have been, this exchange and the moments in it are still what comes to my mind, even though I have traveled further and done more since. I keep thinking about why this must be and honestly, I can’t come up with an answer that satisfies me. Maybe it was the low expectations; I hadn’t done anything like this before so I didn’t know what to expect and anything would have been impressive. Maybe it was the novelty, of doing and experiencing these activities and emotions for the first time. Maybe it was the naivety, the simpler view of the world I used to have before reality tore it apart. Maybe it was the different culture. Maybe it was the circumstances and the people, of being in just the right place with the right people. Maybe, it's all of them.
What I do know is that I struggled a lot in the months that followed. The life I knew and the circumstances that satisfied me before were just not enough anymore. I had caught a glimpse of a reality that I never knew I wanted and I wanted it again. The adventure, the spontaneity, the freedom, the community. I think many people who go on such exchanges accept that it is a one time experience. But I couldn’t do that so since then I have been on mission to recreate that reality which is what brought me to Czech Republic and keeps me here. and honestly, while it is definitely an improvement, it is not the same. Perhaps it is because I didn’t face the full responsibilities of adult life back then. But moving forward I can’t completely escape these responsibilities so I guess it is the time for me to accept that it was in fact a rare experience, one that I can occasionally get close to but never be able to recreate entirely and certainly not on a daily basis.
I originally got the idea of starting this blog after reading some advice online that said that having one would help cope with “reverse culture shock”. So that was this blog’s original purpose. It was an experience that I cared a lot about and I wanted to do it justice by writing about it in as much detail as I can. (Prologue, Day 1, Day 2). But I realise now, that no amount of writing can fully express what it was and what it means to me and so in the interest of moving on, this “short” post which skips a lot of those moments will have to do.