Over the last few years I have travelled to 12 countries, most of them by myself. It’s still hard for me to believe that I have been living in the Czech Republic for 2 years now. This is a quick recap of all of it.
The world is an incredibly diverse place. This sounds painfully obvious but I didn’t really appreciate it before. I spent most of my life in Sri Lanka and that was my world. I thought everything I saw and did, our religion, culture and tradition, was “normal”. After my travels, I realized that “normal” is relative. When I speak about Sri Lanka to my friends in Europe, I constantly get a confused or fascinated look like I am speaking about a different planet. They asked me even more questions to clarify and soon I started to question things I had never even thought of questioning before. The long travel times, arranged marriage, religion, individualism, family, the list goes on. What travel gave me is a new perspective, to know how good or bad I have it. For better or for worse, it gave me choice and it showed me that no place on earth is perfect. Many people tend to idealize “everywhere but here” but the hard truth is that each place has it downsides which you don’t realize until you are really there.
There were a lot of times when things didn’t go as planned. But by surviving each of them, I slowly got used dealing with the uncertainty. While it’s still uncomfortable, I feel like I can walk into any place and figure it out.
A cliché phrase about travel is that you discover yourself. What really happens is that you are put into a completely unfamiliar environment. I had to describe myself to people who didn’t know anything about me or where I was from. They didn’t have any common references or experiences that friends and family from home would have. I had to explain facts about myself that I took for granted and by being away, I didn’t have the pressure to conform. When I was around people I knew, I felt like I should be the person they knew. Now I was free to be whoever I wanted to be, to experiment, to try something new.
Through my travels I met and personally got to know people from over 40 countries across the globe. From the start, perhaps due to my naivety, I didn’t treat them any differently because they were not from the same country. To me they were simply different people with different experiences and values and they were no different to the friends I had back home. Some of the best moments of my life were with groups of diverse people. The stories, the struggles, the insights, the things we magically had in common. All of it added up to an experience unlike anything else.
I started to realize that while stereotypes have some truth to them, they never tell the whole story. You simply cannot put people into a box, stick a label on it and expect them to stay in it. Stereotypes are just a shortcut our mind takes. It takes less processing power to put a person into a group than to perceive each person individually. Racism occurs when you you blindly believe something about a group. Everyone has their own reasons. The only way to break it is to put prejudice aside and really get to know a person. I am no saint, there were many times when I held an ‘all X is Y’ belief. But by recognizing it and reaching out, I was never able to hold it for too long.
Despite our differences, we are all trying to survive and live the best life we can. Our culture and society have told us stories about how to do that and these stories differ greatly from place to place. I learnt that there is no right way to life but only the infinite number of ways each of us choose to live it. I believe that most problems and conflict arise when you try to force people to accept a path without letting them figure it out for themselves. We can agree to disagree and then move on. I dream of a world where all of us can do that.
The most important thing I discovered is that is not the place that makes a journey memorable. It is the people that you are with. On the road, I was really lucky to have met some incredible people and to have incredible experiences together. I am a solo traveler and on many trips I remained the only person on my journey. Despite that, I tried my best to stay open and to reach out whenever I got the chance and when it worked, it created the most amazing moments.
Before all this, I never thought that I would be a traveler. I never even though that I would leave Sri Lanka and I didn’t want to. But I am very glad that I did. The only downside is that I am not satisfied with a “normal” life anymore. I want to explore and experience as much as can. I have a long road ahead of me to immerse myself in each sub continent and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.