Santa Cruz native Evan Quarnstrom is on a post-pandemic year-and-a-half solo trip around the world and reminds us all of the benefits of travel and experiencing new cultures. Fear, he tells us, too often keeps us from life-changing experiences. Here, he details his experiences in Sri Lanka, Mexico and Brazil, all countries deemed “dangerous” by his family, friends and even (at times) the U.S. government. “When you make the transition from unknown to known, fears often vanish,” he writes.
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When I told friends in India I had purchased a flight to Sri Lanka, I was met with worried faces.
“Did you know the country is experiencing a financial meltdown? Aren’t there mass protests? It isn’t safe!” they warned.
My family in the United States was worried as well. A Google search for “Sri Lanka” will inevitably lead to stories of civil war and 2019 terrorist attacks.
I understood their concerns, but I was set on surfing the tropical beaches of Sri Lanka’s south coast during my year-and-a-half solo trip abroad. I was convinced I’d be fine.
And, despite our human instinct to latch onto negative news — particularly post-pandemic — my experience traveling to 25 countries (and counting) has taught me the world is generally safer than we are led to believe. It’s all about measured risk.
I discovered this to be true in Sri Lanka.
When I arrived in Sri Lanka and took my first steps on the streets of the nation’s capital, Colombo, life looked … normal. There were no riots. The air was humid and heavy, but people still dressed in business attire (seemingly oblivious to how it sticks to your skin) and rushed to downtown jobs. Others stood in line for coffee and pastries while rickshaws swerved and honked through traffic. A mix of temples, mosques and churches was sprinkled across Colombo, which gave me a first glimpse into the diversity of cultures that call this port city home.
In the beach village of Madiha, which I have called home for two months, life is slow and relaxing. People wave as you walk past. Kids gather in the afternoon to play cricket on the lazy streets. My host family repeatedly offers me free meals — my new favorite is a Sri Lankan breakfast of coconut roti and dhal.
I gather with surfers in the mornings; we bob over sea turtles and coral reefs in the crystal-clear waters. One man even offered me a free night in his luxurious beachfront rental, simply because we had a mutual friend.
There is a disparity between the picture painted of the country abroad and the reality.
While it is true Sri Lanka suffered decades of civil war and, more recently, is recovering from a financial and political crisis, not once have I felt unsafe. Sri Lankans are overwhelmingly warm, friendly people. They have welcomed me, even helping me learn their language, Sinhala. On one memorable occasion, when I got lost on a dirt road and pulled over to ask for directions, a man repeatedly thanked me for coming to Sri Lanka, despite the shortages of medicine, gasoline and other commodities, inflation and the U.S. travel advisories that have deterred many tourists.
American fear of travel abroad predates the pandemic. But three years of pandemic news and quarantine have exacerbated those doubts, making many wary of exposing themselves to the wider world. There is even a phrase for this. It’s called “reentry anxiety” and according to the American Psychological Association, it is affecting nearly half of American adults.
One way to counter this fear is to jump back in. When you make the transition from unknown to known, fears often vanish.
That transition also happened to me in other “dangerous” countries like Brazil and Mexico.
I spent six months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before leaving, I knew about the city’s notorious, violent reputation. Many Brazilians even warned me not to go.
But in Rio, I discovered one of the most amazing, vibrant, culturally rich cities in the world. I spent four months in Rio and not once did I have any negative safety experiences. I spent time surfing, listening to lively street music, eating delicious food, and getting to know a population of active people who enjoy the outdoors, similar to my friends in Santa Cruz and California.
I was careful, yes. But I also did not let my fears guide me.
And in Mexico, a country clouded by travel advisories and cartel wars, I have discovered quaint little towns where people leave their doors unlocked and kids play in the street at night. I’ve visited mountain villages where older men and women prepare traditional dishes while conversing in Indigenous languages and coastal cities where surfing and fishing rule the locals’ slow way of life. In some areas, I’ve seen levels of safety I would be hard pressed to find back home in the U.S.
Westerners, we Americans in particular, tend to have a glamorized, overly optimistic opinion of our country. Sometimes it’s important to realize those exaggerated fears we might harbor are unfounded. In fact, people living abroad might have those very same perceptions about our country.
“You’re from the U.S.? There are crazy people with guns and mass shootings, right?” foreign friends have asked me. “Why are there so many homeless people? Don’t you care about each other?”
Their perceived fear of my country — which is not entirely misplaced — just highlights how our perceptions are all relative. We are often trained to expect the worst when we are fed extreme stories of a country that are more the exception than the reality.
Throughout all my travels, I have admittedly had some minor inconveniences — a wallet stolen in Chile, a credit card stolen in Mexico. I know people who have been robbed at gunpoint.
But I’ve also had four bicycles stolen in the U.S. Our cars often get broken into and rifled through when parked at home on my Midtown Santa Cruz street. When I was young, I witnessed a gang fight rip through the Capitola Mall.
But do I think it is dangerous to live in Santa Cruz? No. The same goes for those “dangerous” places abroad, like Sri Lanka.
To be fair, my point is not to discredit claims of insecurity nor devalue anyone’s experiences abroad. Of course, violence, theft and crime exist everywhere.
And traveling as a man undoubtedly has its benefits compared to women who travel solo. I’ll never be able to understand what it’s like solo traveling as a woman, but I’ve met many inspiring female travelers who have found ways to enjoy solo adventures safely.
This doesn’t mean you can travel abroad and dismiss common sense. Good decision-making and instincts go a long way to staying trouble-free.
But my big-picture message is to not be afraid to go abroad and experience the unknown, to not be afraid to follow your gut and take a risk, and to not assume the worst about a foreign country based on anecdotes.
As I look back on the past 16 months, it’s crazy to think about the people and places around the world that have always existed and are now part of my personal story.
All I had to do was take the initiative and step out the door.
Evan Quarnstrom is a Santa Cruz native with an affinity for surfing, the outdoors, traveling and studying languages. He graduated from Harbor High School in 2010 and went on to study international business at San Diego State University. After seven years working in the surfing industry, Evan now works as a freelance writer and online English teacher. He has been to 25 countries and counting. His previous piece for Lookout, on skimboarding versus surfing, appeared in January.