It was 2003. I was finishing my second year of undergrad and working away on a poster research assignment for my favourite class that term, Development Economics. I had chosen to research Sri Lanka. I started out knowing absolutely nothing about the country except that it had a very cool-looking flag and was oddly located by itself in the middle of the ocean. Good reason to research a country, right?!
My poster concentrated on the economic vulnerabilities of the country, particularly for communities displaced due to rapid building of dams. The displacement was real and resulted in hundreds being relocated from their homes to new make-shift communities.
From that poster I had retained random factoids about the country: I knew its national anthem from painstakingly making a border with the musical lines (which was a brilliant idea I came up with at 1 in the morning before it was due, thus a sleepless night). I knew it had previously been called Ceylon, was one of the world’s largest tea exporters, and was in this interesting position as an island nation.
But here’s the odd thing: since that second year poster project, I had learned nothing new about the country. Meaning? I had an outdated list of facts (my research was done IN a library WITH a card catalogue!) and realized that I had in some ways created this 12-year impression of what the country looked like. And if there’s anyway to enter travel in a NON-experiential way, it’s to have pre-determined expectations of the country. I HAD TO SHED MY UNDERSTANDINGS AND ENTER THE COUNTRY WITH FRESH EYES AND AN OPEN MIND.
HOW TO MERGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS WITH REALITY?
- Hire a guide and/or talk with locals. This is important on any trip, but especially one where you have pre-determined ideas about a place. Learn about current realities. Ask instead of assuming. Hear stories about current political/cultural/social/economic situations. Be open.
2. Read newspapers, before and during your travels. Finding out what is current news in the country is an important part of the learning process. Media, especially local media, is a great way to learn what are the important issues of a day in a society. It’s why cultural anthropologists use media as a tool for understanding communities. True, media shapes communities, but communities also shape media.
3. Make random stops along your journey, rather than simply passing through smaller towns and villages. Ken and I hired a driver (recommended during the rainy season especially!). We asked him to stop at the little fruit stands along the side of the road. One time there was a little makeshift rubber tree plantation set up to be explored. Not only did this give us a much-needed chance to stretch our legs, but also to just sit, enjoy, and be one with the smaller community. Having some freshly cut mango with two local women who stopped their farming activities to sit with us was not only refreshing, but a welcome chance to feel part of the smaller communities. (as an equally important note, it also ensures that your tourism dollars also make it to smaller communities where tourists less frequently stop).
4. Use your knowledge to your advantage. For me, knowing that Sri Lanka was “Ceylon” previously, and about the tea plantations, offered opportunities to talk to people about their country with some knowledge. But rather than asserting my knowledge, it offered opportunity to hear their perspectives. For example, questions like “when and why did the name change from Ceylon?” or “why is it still called Ceylon tea?” were ways to initiate conversation.
5. Try to enjoy your time with an open mind. This is where having a partner with you can REALLY help! One of the many things that brought Ken and I together is our love for travel. Ken is an amazing travel companion, in part because he always supports the things I love and want to see. For example, he knows my obsession for tea. He doesn’t share this obsession, but still made sure that an entire day was devoted to touring assorted tea plantations.
At the same time, Ken loves hiking. It was because of him that we ventured to Sigiriya to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and to climb Sigiriyia Rock (well, Ken climbed…I was just getting over a serious illness during that trip!) TOGETHER we learned about opportunities, ideas, places, and realities of Sri Lanka and its people. If you have expectations of a place, finding your perfect travel companion is a great way to have outside influence filtrate your traveling experience.
Another highlight together was the town of Kandy – botanical forests, cultural dances, walks along the river, and amazing avocado smoothies are just some of the highlights of this beautiful town!
6. Just admit the shortcomings. Let’s be honest – I learned about Sri Lanka when I was 20 with whatever mental capacity and research capabilities I had during that time. If I think about it actually, I know that there are many things I have forgotten, romanticized, or maybe just dreamt and/or glossed over. We have this way of thinking that places we travel to won’t change…when if someone told me they had visited Canada in 2003 I’d KNOW that my country was different today.
Call a spade a spade. Recognize your expectations for what they are, but reflect upon their shortcomings. Where did they come from? How can you supercede them?
In the end, I had a much richer experience in Sri Lanka because I took my pre-existing knowledge with a grain of salt and still tried to learn.