There’s no debating it, travel is a privilege available to those who are free enough, wealthy enough and have enough time to enjoy it. As a Canadian freelance travel writer, I check two of those three boxes. First, I live in a country where, for the most part, people have the freedom to choose when and how to cross its borders. I’ve also got a flexible schedule that allows me to take off to a destination halfway across the planet without disrupting my regular life too much.
In general, the places I’ve visited as a travel writer and the people I’ve met have had a huge impact on me. While it’s easy to book a super-relaxing vacation that doesn’t require you to set a single toe outside your gorgeous, beachfront, five-star resort (no judgment, you do you), the kind of travel that allows you to cross paths with regular people and real communities has (sorry for the cliché you’re about to encounter) completely changed me.
For me, travelling has never been as profound an experience as it was on a recent trek across Sri Lanka. After a brief layover in Istanbul I boarded a Turkish Airlines flight to Sri Lanka and set off on a National Geographic Journeys tour led by the Canadian travel company G Adventures, circling the country starting from the bustling capital of Colombo. From there, we ventured to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Anuradhapura, past the vibrant city of Kandy, up into the mountainous, tea-growing regions of Nuwara Eliya and on to Horton Plains, where a short hike led us above the clouds to one of the most stunning views you can imagine (it’s not called World’s End for nothing).
But it wasn’t the awe-inspiring landscapes that affected me the most — it was the people we met along the way who were kind enough to share stories and meals with us and teach us about a way of life that’s fundamentally different from how we live here in Canada.
One of the first things I noticed was the way our Sri Lankan hosts ate their meals (no, this isn’t another diatribe about putting your smartphone away during dinner, but seriously, put your smartphone away during dinner). Based in a Buddhist tradition, Sri Lankans believe that a healthy meal should engage all five senses. Food should be pleasing to the eye (plates are typically made up with an arrangement of rice, curry, salad, coconut sambol, vegetables and meat in vibrant sauces), it should have a spiced flavour and aroma and there should be a side of crunchy flatbread to provide sound. As for the tactile experience, Sri Lankans typically eat with their hands in a four-fingered scooping motion that uses the thumb to push each bite into their mouths. It’s a custom that forces, in the gentlest way possible, a person to really sink in and experience a meal (and yes, the inability to scroll through your Instagram feed does help).
Too often, I’m guilty of treating food as a quick way to fuel up instead of appreciating the time, effort and ingredients that go into the art of cooking. Not only has slowing down at mealtime made me feel better physically, but it has also provided me with a nice mental break from whatever work I’m doing that day.
The second big thing I noticed was the traffic — or, more specifically, how people dealt with it. Sri Lanka has a major freeway running in and out of Colombo, but most of the route we travelled was along narrow, single-lane roads shared by cyclists, pedestrians, public transit, tuk-tuks, scooters, cars and the dogs that seem to be everywhere throughout Sri Lanka. They’re the kind of roads you’d see in the Scottish Highlands or the wine-growing regions in Portugal or Italy — and cars need to coordinate with one another in order to pass each other. Long-distance buses get priority to make the journey as fast as possible. Cars pull over for the buses, stop for dogs, and pause to wave pedestrians across streets. Any honking horns you hear are either a friendly warning or a go ahead signal. The road rage we run into on our wide streets and six-lane highways? That’s not a thing. So I’m going to remind myself that I’m not the only person in a rush to get somewhere — and that I don’t always even need to be in a rush.
I spent the week with the G Adventures Chief Experience Officer, Sam, a Sri Lankan man who generously shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the country’s politics, geography, history and culture. I learned so much from Sam, but there was one thing that especially stuck with me: he described a reverence for teachers that bordered on worship, which is based in a Buddhist tradition. Sam told us that he didn’t just appreciate his teachers, he loved them. As a kid growing up in Canada, I liked school but I definitely thought of it as an obligation. Later, it became a financial transaction — I was paying for my spot in university, or in a creative writing course or in a yoga class. Sam’s stories about his teachers made me rethink that relationship — my yoga teachers, for example, have made a huge difference in my life. What I’ve learned from them has helped me sleep better, balanced my emotions and decreased my anxiety while improving my overall health and (with a little luck) even extending my life. I can’t put a price on that… but I have changed the way I think about them: I love my teachers.
Of course, you don’t have to book a seat on the next flight to Sri Lanka to kick off your self-improvement journey. But travel — especially the kind that takes you to a place where the culture is so dramatically different from your own — is almost guaranteed to give you an entirely new perspective on the things you have and the privileges you live with.
It can be scary to visit an unfamiliar place with a different language and customs you’re clueless about, so it felt good to travel with a local guide. But seeing Sri Lanka with Sam came with an added bonus: instead of worrying about figuring out a train schedule or finding a hotel, I got to focus my attention on learning from him and from the people he introduced me to. For me, it was a new way to travel… and it changed me.