I was sitting on a verandah, sipping on a cup of coffee, overlooking the main road of Kandy. At the table next to me was a group of girls, pouring through their Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, trying to figure out their next stop along their tour. We started chatting and the asked a curious, but common, question, “how can we get to know the real Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked this question on several occasions; and I think most travelers seek to get away from the toursits traps and get to know the true essence of a country (at least for a few hours…).

The benefits are incredibly apparent: a true culture experience that enables you to understand someone with a different set of life experiences. Well its surprisingly easy to do this: get out of sterile, isolating situations; throw out that guide book, and make yourself get out and actually talk to people.

It might sound simple, but just speaking to people can really alter the course of your trip. I don’t understand tourists who go around with headphones in listening to music. Riding on buses across Sri Lanka has been one of the best most interesting parts of my time here. When you’re sitting next to someone on a six hour bus ride, there is a lot of time to learn about the country from your travel companion, if you have headphones in the entire way you’ve just lost this entire opportunity. Talking to people on buses has led me to better understand Sri Lanka and its history. I’ve been shocked by what people have shared with me on a public bus, stories of war, survival, and new beginnings.

The Fulbright has been one of the best learning experience of my life, thus far. The past six months of living and working in Sri Lanka have pushed me to be a better communicator and a more open person. This experience has changed me, probably in more ways than I’m cognizant of. As a caucasian male born to a middle class family in New Jersey, I don’t exactly have a lot in common with the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman who has spent the last decade of his life running from war. Despite the differences between our worldview and experiences, I try my best to understand his outlooks. When I first came to Sri Lanka this was incredibly difficult to relate with people here. Sitting in someone’s living room and listening to their stories of life and death can evoke a range or emotions, and I often found myself falling silent – unsure of how to respond. After time I learned to understand and empathize with the hardships people have faced; I became comfortable enough to ask questions and engage in conversations.

If you want to be a better communicator, start by listening.

Sean

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