What I learnt after travelling the world

Over the last few years I have traveled to 13 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.

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Moving to Czech Republic #5: How did it change me?

This post is part of a longer series. You can find the other parts here:
#1 Why did I do it?
#2: Getting in
#3: Adapting to Czech Republic
#4: Adapting to Czech Culture

So here are the big questions. How did this experience affect me? How did I change? Was it worth it?

I went into this process naïve. I was so focused on getting to Europe that I never considered what it would be like to actually be there. I didn’t prepare for the cultural differences or the language barrier.

When I saw these differences, I just thought “OK, so that’s how they do it here”. I was curious and open and that helped me to settle down. If I didn’t know something, even it was something very basic, I asked about it. I might have sounded stupid but I just didn’t know. In some areas, I had to become a 3 year old again and learn what everyone else learnt at that age. My parents never taught me about seasons, winter clothes, living on my own, relationships or European food, drinks, utensils or toilets. I had to learn all of this on my own.

Given the changes, it might sound surprising when I say that I didn’t get too homesick after moving here. The truth is that I didn’t feel too close to anyone or anything back home to miss it that much. After a lifetime of being on my own, I have a tendency to keep people distant. It is not good for my social health but it became very useful when moving.

When living abroad alone, you are completely on your own. Without family or close friends, you have to handle your entire life on your own. From the basic tasks such as shopping and all tasks around clothes to more complicated ones such as maintaining your social life, tackling visa issues and visiting doctors. You can never stop since there is no else to pick up the slack. Most europeans are used to this individualistic culture. But it was new to me. Add the language barrier and those tasks get even harder.

Inevitably I had to spend a lot of time on my own. With the entire weight of my life on me, I was forced to face my demons of low self worth, apathy and pessimism. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t struggle. I wrestled with these issues for most of my time here. But with time, I adopted ways to deal with it. There are stories about people finding solace in prison. That is the nature of being put into challenging environments. You are forced to adjust your mindset or you will not survive.

What I realized is that apathy was useless. Feeling sorry the poor state of my relationships and achievements was not going to improve the situation. Bringing myself down by running a loop of negative thoughts was not going to help either. It only paralyzes you from taking action. So I started phasing it out. I can never stop negative thoughts from coming to my mind but I can choose whether to add more negative thoughts to the pile or not.

Pessimism was a more tricky issue. By rejecting and failing myself in my mind, I was trying to avoid real rejection and real failure. So now if I find myself thinking that something would not work, I say no to the fake rejection or failure. I will take action and then deal with the real rejection or real failure if it happens. I have done it before and I am strong enough to do it again.

I had the unique situation of being one of the only Sri Lankans in Czech Republic. I am now used to seeing the surprise on people’s faces when I say where I am from. I am either the first or the only Sri Lankan they have ever met. This makes me an unofficial ambassador. Everything I say or do, they will apply to the idea of what Sri Lanka is and how a Sri Lankan is like. So I constantly ponder whether I am doing a good job at this.

Over the course of answering hundreds of questions about SL, I started to question whether my answers were correct. A lot of what I know about life in SL was determined by my family. I learnt about values, traditions and lifestyle through them. But my family was different so what I consider to be Sri Lankan culture might only apply to us.

With no Sri Lanka diaspora, my only solution was to dive into the local culture instead of staying in a comfortable circle of people familiar to me. Through this I picked up a lot of new mannerisms and values. My primary mission has not changed but a lot of my other values has shifted. This includes being more secular, emphasis on travel, social norms, attire and work/life balance. I’m sure this list is longer. This is one reason why I haven’t visited SL again. Everyone back home is expecting me to be the same person that left and I am not that person anymore. This is what I call the expat’s dilemma. Because you are a foreigner, you will never be a complete local in the country you moved to. But because of what you have seen and experienced, you won’t feel home in your own country either.

I did all of this much earlier than most people so everyone overestimates my age. I have stopped sharing my age entirely because of the shock it creates. Maybe it is just in my head, but I feel that people tend to disregard me when they know the truth. I have entered a different stage of my life much earlier than most people do and I want to stay there.

To bring this series to a close, I don’t regret doing this at all. I sometimes chuckle and ponder whether I would have gone through all this if I knew about all the struggles first. I guess this applies to a lot of things in life, you truly don’t know what you are doing and how it will end. With what I have said so far, you might be discouraged to try this yourself. Don’t be. It will be incredibly challenging but you can get through it. Like most things in life, all you need is persistence and patience. It got me here so it can get you here too. What you will gain through this is an amazing amount of growth and an uncountable number of amazing experiences that you could never have even imagined before.

Moving to Czech Republic #4: Adapting to Czech culture

This post is part of a longer series. You can find the other parts here:
#1 Why did I do it?
#2: Getting in
#3: Adapting to Czech Republic
#5: How it changed me

Back in Malaysia, Marie told me that “Everything is different” in Europe. How can everything be different? But after coming to Europe, I understood what she meant.

The most consistent issue I face in CZ is the language barrier. Coming from Sri Lanka and having visited India and Malaysia, I took it for granted that I could get by with English since it was widely used in those countries. In SL it is also an official language so even the packaging had an English translation. This is definitely not the case in CZ. Here everything was in Czech. The first time I went to a restaurant alone, I was given a menu in Czech. When I tried to go to the toilet, the doors didn’t have the standard male/female signs. Instead there was only the Czech word for man and women.

Google translate was my savior in those first weeks. It’s instant translate feature has saved me more times than I can count. I could just point my phone camera at something and it would translate it on the spot. In this case, I used it on the menu and got a rough idea of what each dish was. I still had no idea what the dish was so my experience at a restaurant was a complete gamble in those first weeks. I also pointed google translate at the toilet door which translated one of the words to “wow”. So I went to the other door on a hunch. Later I discovered that the Czech word for man (Pani) also can also be used to show surprise which meant that I had used the ladies’ washroom.

The struggle continued when I went shopping. The packaging was either in Czech or had every European language except English. Signing contracts in Czech were more of a concern. My phone, bank and accommodation contracts were only in Czech. Sometimes I relied on a friend to translate who usually gave me a brief translation. Partly because legal documents are not the very interesting to talk about and also because they didn’t know English well enough to translate the complicated terms. What I discovered is that Czech is a very colorful and descriptive language where some words had no direct translations to English.

The biggest irony is that the foreigner’s ministry (Ministry of Interior) didn’t use English. From a legal point of view, I understand this. They didn’t want to be held responsible for any misunderstanding durings translation when most of their officers spoke little to no English. At least in Prague, there is a chance I might run into an officer how speaks English but it’s never a guarantee.

Once in Budějovice I was tired of asking my friends to waste hours with me at the ministry so I decided to go on my own. After waiting for an hour, the officer asked me to speak Czech and I said that I couldn’t. I slowly explained that I only wanted to change my official address. When she saw that I wasn’t going to leave, she gave a printed notice that read “Official communication language is Czech. If you cannot speak Czech, you need to find a translator at your own cost”. Since then I have always asked a friend to come with me and I’m incredibly grateful to all of them. I secretly think that this is an integration test. To corresponding with the ministry you either needed to learn Czech or know some locals well enough to have them come with you or be rich enough to afford a translator or visa agency.

Eventually I got used to this. I picked up a vocabulary of random Czech words that is sufficient do most everyday things. But that hardest thing for me to adjust to was being left out of conversations. Both of the companies I worked at tried their best to make things comfortable for me by having meetings, slack channels and JIRAs in English. But this didn’t change the fact the banter was always in Czech and I missed all of it.

I can’t count the number of lunches with my colleagues where I sat in the corner not knowing what the conversation was and unable to contribute anything. For a while I pushed to have conversations in English but I stopped eventually. When the conversation switched to English, all the small conversations around the table stopped and one person would translate what there were talking about. I didn’t want to do that to them. Moreover, the weight of continuing the conversation in English would then fall on me. I had to keep speaking in English or they would soon encounter a term they couldn’t translate and the conversation was back to Czech. I felt really low the first few months because of this. But now I have gotten used it. The introvert part of my personality loved it. Now if I have something to ask I ask it and my coworkers would bring up the more interesting topics up with me. I call this the bullshit filter. I only get the rich gossip instead of the everyday jibber jabber.

The Czech Republic is a country with a strong drinking culture. It is one of the largest producers and consumers of beer and it clearly shows. Every street had a bar that served alcohol. This is a stark contrast to SL where due to religious and cultural reasons drinking is not publicly accepted. In my entire extended family, I have never seen or heard of any of them drinking. My dad proudly brags about how he has been sober for all of his 75 years. Even I was completely sober before moving to CZ. The same can’t be said anymore.

While my initial notions about how alcohol is bad is gone, I still prefer non-alcoholic drinks whenever possible. But drinking is so ingrained into Czech and European culture that it is impossible to get away from it. After a few hours into a bar, people open up more than they ever did while they were sober. Some people find it impossible to be social without alcohol and I find that a bit sad. It has become a mandatory social lubricant.

The CZ is the most atheistic country in Europe. Most people here don’t have a declared religion and identify as atheists. Meanwhile I am a Buddhist raised in a conservative Buddhist family. My mom saw herself as religious and tried to pray as much as possible. My dad wasn’t very enthusiastic about visiting temples and praying but instead kept declaring how he was living life by the precepts. I followed my dad’s lead and I was never very religious. I always strived to be respectful during any religious event, unlike most of my generation who tended to ignore or dismiss it. Whenever my mom insisted I do some ritual, I tried my best to believe in it even though I was skeptical. She believed the word of some fortune tellers too so some of these rituals were very random. Once I had to take care of plant placed in a particular direction to improve my learning ability. I developing small rituals of my own too, believing if I did something a certain way I would get what I wanted. My parents definitely believed that you needed religion and I believed it too.

But that is far from the truth. Despite the atheism, Czech Republic functions normally. Crime is rare and I feel there is less crime here than in SL. This might have more to do with average wealth of a person though. A lot of people have their own principles which they got from their parents and they live by it. After being in this environment, my already week belief in rituals and the supernatural faded away. Instead I became more principle based, living my life on a set of principles from Buddhism. Instead of relying on an external deity or a force, this puts the power entirely in my hands and I prefer it that way.

What is more surprising in the face of this is the number of honor systems here. A lot of services simply trust that you will pay and don’t actively check whether you have paid or not. The biggest example is public transport. For all the metro, tram and buses in Prague, there are no gates to pass. You can simply walk in even if you don’t have a ticket. The same applies to many restaurants and bars that rely on you to relate what you have ordered when paying the bill. Judging by how widely the systems are still used, it must work.

A question I get asked often is what I used to do in SL for fun. Apart from sitting at my computer all day, I had no answer to give them. At least in my family, we rarely did anything. Until I came to CZ, I spent most of my time travelling to and from school or university and then consuming something on my computer or doing more work. The primary focus of life is study, work and family and there is little time for anything else. Whereas in CZ where I am either travelling, trying new things or attending an event. There is always something to do and I have gotten better at hunting for events in Prague. Due to the flexible working hours and efficient transport system with a short commute, I find more time to do this as well. Most people in SL lose a large portion of their life to the commute.

Sri Lanka has a family oriented culture. Everything is done together with family or with a group. The idea of travelling alone sounds absurd, the whole point of travelling is to have fun with a group. We don’t have the concept of moving out either. Children will live with their parents until they get married. As a result, your family influences you a lot. They will tell you what to study, where to work and who to marry. While some families give their children the choice, many of them don’t. Most people don’t have any experience living on their own and rely on their parents for most of their life.

In CZ and Europe, individuality is the norm. As soon as the kids finish high school, they move away and live on their own. Living with your parents here is a sign that you haven’t got your life together and many are embarrassed to admit it. The upside of this is the independence, you can do whatever you want, whenever you like to. But the downside is the loneliness and the fact that you have to do everything yourself. This is probably the reason why there are so many social events here. People need to go out to find company whereas in SL you always have the company of your family.

The shift in how relationships worked was new for me too. My entire extended family in SL was built through arranged marriage. My mom actively discouraged me from getting into a relationship saying that it was a useless distraction. When the time comes, I would be paired with a bride so I had no need to pursue a relationship. A lot of couples did exist in SL but a lot of them had to keep it secret or be tactful about it since they knew their families might not approve.

Arranged marriage does not exist in CZ. It is entirely up to you to find a partner. So there is a large emphasis on looking good and going out to meet new people. Girls especially tended to dress more provocatively. People were promiscuous and talked somewhat openly about it whereas sex and everything related to it is taboo to an unhealthy level in SL. Some couples lived together without getting married which is unheard of in SL.

When I talk to people who have visited Sri Lanka, they tell me that Sri Lankans are incredibly friendly. What I would say is that most people would try to help out in someway or react positively to any queries. This only increases towards foreigners. This is shown by the number of people that gather on the site of an accident. We are looking for something different to talk about within our repetitive lives.

On the other hand, I have heard a lot of expats say that Czech are rude or unhelpful. Usually they don’t know many Czechs in person either. Having known and talked to many Czechs, this is my conclusion. Many of them are reserved and they do tend to keep to themself. If you look at a stranger in public, they will respond with the same neutral expression they had before. This might have something to do with CZ being cold for most of the year and people are rushing to get indoors. Some cashiers or waiters are not very positive. Mind you, they have the same reaction to other locals.

What I sense is that most people are not confident in their English so they hesitate. A lot of them speak English just fine but they have a much worse impression of themselves. The common issue is the limited vocabulary which I don’t think is a real problem. You can describe it to me and I will probably get it. After almost 2 years, I have gotten very good at it. I have also developed the ability to detect how comfortable someone is with English and I adjust my vocabulary, pronunciation and speed accordingly. I think all expats would agree, we don’t mind how you speak as long you do speak to us.

Because of this discomfort around English, a lot of people are cautious when first talking to me. A lot of the older people just shrug when I ask something in English. However if I ask them with my very basic Czech, they will give me a detailed answer in Czech that I partly understand. However the more time I spend with them, the more they open up. I have gotten to know a lot of my colleagues this way and all of them are extremely helpful and curious. I have had great times filled with dark humour, deep conversation and discussions about what the English or Czech word for something is. Some of them have gone out of their way to help me and I would definitely not have been able to stay in CZ without their help.

My informal theory about their attitude is this. During communist rule the locals couldn’t trust anyone. Even their neighbors could be spies who would betray them to the secret police. So they became reserved and cautious about the people they trust. The parents taught this to their kids and the attitude continued.

One of the more interesting things that I have noticed is the form of English most people speak. They think in Czech and translate that verbatim to English. The result is what the Czechs call “Czenglish” and it was incredibly fascinating to me. This results in phrases worded in Czech word order, mistranslations for words that have multiple meanings in Czech but not in English (e.g. akce means action and event so they might say “There is an action happening tomorrow”) and English words read with Czech pronunciation (e.g.: VGA - VaGaAa). After being around a lot of Czechs, I’m picking up “Czenglish” too.

When you are in a shop or restaurant in SL, you directly ask for what you need and silently accept it. The politeness is implied by the tone of voice. You would only use formal greetings and thank yous in formal speeches or when someone has saved your life. In CZ, when you walk into a place you say “dobrý den” (good day), you pad your request with “prosím” (please), say “děkuji” (thank you) when they respond to your request and then “nashledanou” (goodbye) when you leave. The same applies to all the other European cultures I have seen. For every 100 words you speak, around 50 of them are niceties. Now I’m not sure whether we are being rude in Sri Lanka or the Europeans are being too polite.

Moving to Czech Republic #3: Adapting to Czech Republic

This post is part of a longer series. You can find the other parts here:
#1 Why did I do it?
#2: Getting in
#4: Adapting to Czech Culture
#5: How it changed me

Back in Malaysia, Marie told me that “Everything is different” in Europe. How can everything be different? But after coming to Europe, I understood what she meant.

The weather is different

I am a tropical guy.The lowest temperature in my city was around 20C and it is usually 30C with 80% humidity during the day. It could only be too hot. What we called cold was a region where the temperatures ranged between 10C and 25C.

When I come to CZ in March, the temperatures were around 15C. I was freezing. Walking at night to my room on the first day, I couldn’t believe how cold it was. I was shivering and I couldn’t bear it. So I put on layers. I turned up to the office with a winter jacket, long sleeved shirt, thermal underwear and jeans only to see a colleague with a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. I'm more used to it now but I still wear a jacket indoors to be “more warm”. The most common question I get asked from my warm coworkers is “Bash, are you cold?”. The tables are turned during summer when I ask everyone else “Is it hot?”.

I had never through winter or seen snow before coming to CZ. I was curious about whether I could even survive it. One day at work in April, a hail storm started. My colleague Juli pointed to the window and said “Bash, look outside!” I was glued to that window until the storm ended as I saw snow for the first time.

Going skiing in the Austrian alps in December and to the north of Sweden in March, the temperatures were around -20C. It was the lowest temperatures I have ever faced and I lost my fear of winter. I am now looking forward to it instead. Snow is still exciting for me and not annoying like it is for most locals. If there is any snowfall, you will see me staring out of the window like an excited 5-year-old.

The food is different

All stereotypes have some truth to them and in SL, we love rice. For us lunch can only be rice and this condition remained true for every single lunch I have there. What keeps this interesting is the wide range of curries that we have. We also have several dishes that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I loved spicy food so I kept telling my mom to add more chilli and gobbled up the chilli paste wherever I found it.

For my first few weeks in CZ, I had no idea what any of the dishes were. The cuisine was completely different and the translations could only give me a vague idea. I eventually discovered that Czech cuisine tended to be very heavy and usually featured large portions of meat. This was served alongside potatoes that were either mashed or fried, “dumplings” made of wheat or potatoes or good old rice. I liked it but if the menu said something was spicy, it was lying. This is what drew me to the numerous chinese and vietnamese restaurants. There my colleagues would stare wide eyed as I poured spicy Sriracha sauce and consumed red peppers by the boxful. They then took on the challenge of testing my limits and kept bringing spicier and spicier food to me. Apart from the Korean noodles, I have vanquished them all.

The utensils are different

In SL we eat everything by hand, even rice. I think Sri Lankan food taste best when eaten by hand. But I was an exception. My dad fed me with a spoon and I started eating with a spoon too. My friends and family made fun of me for this. I eventually taught myself to eat by hand in public to avoid the comments. I still ate by spoon at home. The only time where it was normal to use utensils was at formal occasions and even then it was always the fork and the spoon.

Cut to the restaurant on my first day in CZ when they give me a fork and a knife. What am I supposed to do with this? Partly stabbing, partly slicing, I somehow consumed the steak. I have become much better since then through practice. I still have an eating pattern similar to the fork and spoon and keep the utensils in the opposite hands. I am waiting to see who will call me out on this.

The toilets are different

I grew up using a hand shower to clean my behind. It was the same in the countries I had visited in Asia. When visiting rural places, I had the mini nightmare of squatting at a latrine with a bucket. I was not used to that at all.

On my first day in CZ, I looked around the cubicle for a hand shower. There wasn’t any. There wasn’t even a tap in the cubicle. Instead there was a roll of toilet paper lying on the commode. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had never used this before.

The rule of the road is different

As a kid I always sat on the right side of the car behind my dad who was driving in the seat in front of me. I felt safe there and I kept this habit until I started driving myself.

When Patrick picked me up from the bus station, I was startled to see the steering wheel on the other side of the car. That short drive to the university was bewildering. My senses kept telling me that I should be on the other of the road. This felt wrong. Since then I have been given many rides across CZ. It is still weird to see a steering wheel on the side where I am used to seeing the dashboard or riding shotgun on the right without a steering wheel.

This might seem like a small change but it has a huge effect. When crossing a road, I kept looking at the wrong side of the road. When walking along a path, people kept to the right and escalators thare are going up are also on the right. I adapted to this so if I go back to SL, I am going to run into everything and everyone now.

The traffic is different

Driving in SL was an adventure. You had motorbikes, tuk-tuks and buses with no space for any of them. Traffic was a way of life, not the exception. You can never give an accurate estimate of your arrival time. If it was rush hour, you are going to be standing still for a while. Guaranteed.

When I was learning to drive, I decided that I wanted to follow the rules. I was nearly eaten alive by the honking afterwards. So I embraced the chaos and found bliss. That changed after my dad bought a large Land cruiser. It had huge blind spots all around and I couldn’t see the front either since I wasn’t tall. Every move was a calculated gamble. Driving in traffic, I was leaning against the steering wheel to see if a motorcyclist had snuck into the gap in the front. Driving on small roads was a continuous math problem of figuring out whether we could fit alongside the vehicle coming the other way. Sometimes I had to charge forward before the other driver came closer.

If you wanted to cross the road, you had to cross the road. If you stood at crossing, you will be waiting for a long time. You had to calculate the stopping distance of the closest vehicle and then make your move. A zebra crossing was purely optional. My dad had the ability to cross the road anywhere. I adopted a more careful but still aggressive approach.

I found none of this in CZ. Most roads were completely empty which made me wonder how they were funded in the first place. Traffic jams still happened but it was slowdowns instead of the complete gridlock that I was used to. As a rule they have their headlights on all the time, even during daytime which sounds completely wasteful to me. But the biggest difference was how calm most drivers were. They kept a large gap between the cars and a steady speed, sometimes not overtaking for hours to follow the lane markings. Moreover, if you were at the edge of a crossing, most drivers would come to a complete stop to let you cross.

The public transport is different

To catch a bus, I would go to the nearest bus stop and wait. There was no timetable so I wouldn’t know when the next bus will arrive. I had to ask the route number from my dad and that’s the only way I knew which bus to take. Traveling late at night was mostly impossible. When the bus finally arrived, I would get on and ride for 2.5 hours to travel the 25KM to my university. Most bus drivers played loud music on the bus and even if they didn’t, the sound of the bus is loud enough to keep you awake. The buses would sometimes even stop for random passengers at the side of the road even if they weren’t at a stop.

What irritated me the most were the long stops that the buses took at major bus stops to collect passengers. These stops could take up to half an hour. I like to think that the conductors were delusional since they saw an empty bus instead of the three rows of people standing with some of them hanging outside too. A lot of these problems arose from the fact that most buses were privately owned. They were competing against each other to collect passengers and make a profit.

Overall the experience was neither comfortable or convenient so many opted to use their own vehicles. We had a train system from the victorian ages and it struggled to cope with the large amounts of passengers. It was extremely slow, especially when going to the mountainous central regions. It took around 9 hours to travel 200KM. I started joking that we have long transport times to make us feel like we have a large country.

Coming to the small city of České Budějovice, I was amazed by how well the public transport system worked. Each stop was clearly marked with the name and the numbers of all the buses that stopped there. There were timetables that showed exactly when a bus would arrive and to what other stops it would go to. You could buy a transport pass which allowed you to travel an unlimited amount within a given period. No more hunting for bus conductors with spare change. The system’s punctuality was a wonder to me. The buses would arrive at the exact minute they are supposed to. Busses being late were an exception not the norm.

In Prague the system was vast. With metros, trams and buses, you can get within walking distance to any point in the city. Using Google maps or the Prague transport app, you can find the exact route you need to take. That meant you knew which connections you had to take and how long it would take. Now I am late because I am careless not because I had no choice. Travelling longer distances was much better too due to the power and Wi-Fi onboard the trains and buses. That combined with the silence and increased comfort meant that you can actually do something productive instead of vainly tossing your head back and forth to get some rest against the heat and noise.

The technology is different

In SL my home internet connection was 16Mbps down and 2Mbps up with a 50GB monthly limit. This was split 35 for peak hours and 15 for off peak hours (0:00 - 6:00). You had to always keep an eye on the limit or else your speed would slow down to an unusable crawl.

Here I have 100Mbps down and 10Mbps up with unlimited capacity. My friends back home were shocked when I mentioned this. People here are surprised when I tell them that home connections have limits in SL. With no restrictions, some people use youtube autoplay as their only music player which is something you cannot afford to do in SL. Moreover with free WiFi everywhere, I just leave my phone in airplane mode. Many online streaming services that are unavailable in SL (e.g.: Spotify) are available here.

I am constantly surprised by the spread of technology. There is a digital system everywhere. Most railways stations have digital displays showing the schedule. All buses and trams have displays and announcements about the next stop and the whole route. Even a small restaurant in the middle of a forest has free WiFi. This doesn’t mean that everyone is tech savvy though. One of my favourite past times has been watching people trying all sorts of ways to scan their receipt to get out of the automated barrier of the restaurant (Delmart, Národní třída)

In SL, most people use English in their phones and computers. We didn’t have support for Sinhala or Tamil in our devices until only a few years ago due to the different alphabets. Most of us still continue to use English out of habit. Here people use Czech on all their devices. They had language support from the very beginning so they are used to it. For the first time, I understood what using a computer must be like for my parents. I am familiar with Windows to the point of remember the exact wording of the options but now I’m completely clueless.

Moving to Czech Republic #2: Getting in

This post is part of a longer series. You can find the other parts here:
#1 Why did I do it?
#3: Adapting to Czech Republic
#4: Adapting to Czech Culture
#5: How it changed me

After I realized that getting to San Francisco was a dream, I tried to be more realistic. Being a Sri Lankan, I had no free access to anywhere and I needed a job before I could even set foot in a country. Alongside short volunteering opportunities, AIESEC also provided year long internships which was exactly what I wanted.

The original plan was to my internship year abroad unlike everyone else who did it locally. This meant living by myself and supporting myself for a year in a country I have never been to before. I felt sure that if I asked for a position at the company that I volunteered in Malaysia, they would give it to me. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something new.

It was now around July. I needed a minimum of 11 months in an internship before the next semester in September. I started searching months before my batch mates. I spent days searching and applying for opportunities across Europe and Canada on the partly functioning AIESEC portal..

I knew my chances were slim so I wanted a backup. I did several interviews with local companies and got an offer from all three of them. They were some of the best software companies in Sri Lanka and it was tempting to abandon my seemingly wild goose chase. But a part of me just couldn’t let me do that. I thought that if I gave up, I would spend the next year dreaming about what could have happened if I persisted. There was one company I was very interested in but due to a schedule clash, I ended up giving a lecture to my junior batch instead of going for their company visit. This was secretly the first step in their recruitment process andI wonder what could have happened if I had gone for that visit.

Hunting for internships on the AIESEC portal was a trying process. A lot of the opportunities I applied to didn’t give me any response. I didn’t even know whether the opportunities were still open. I had a similarly frustrating process while applying for my exchange to Malaysia so I was expecting this. But this was on a different scale. I applied to over 15 opportunities and heard back from less than 5.

When I occasionally got a reply, it was still a hit or miss. I might have a skype interview that went well and they would not respond again. What was more frustrating was getting no response after I had taken the time to do a task for them. Still the worst part of the entire process was the rejection. Once I was acing the their interviews and tasks for an opportunity in Copenhagen. Finally the race was between me and one other candidate and the company picked him. They said that he was more experienced in data mining than I was and that if they had the capacity to hire 2 developers they would have taken me on too. But they didn’t.

I was now running out of time and out of hope. I had only a few days left to notify the local company if I wanted to start with them. This was the straightforward option. It was open, available and predictable. But I couldn't take it. So I kept scrolling down the AIESEC portal.

Early on in the process, I found an opportunity in Prague that I liked. When I got no response through AIESEC, I tracked down the company and contacted them directly. To my surprise, they got back to me. I immediately started building these fantasies of what it would be like to be in Prague. I did the research and the math. It looked incredible. But then they asked me to do a task and evaluated that I was less experienced that what they were looking for. I heard my fantasies shattering in my head. From then on, I avoided getting too attached or fantasizing about an opportunity until the last word. I mentally dismissed the idea of getting to Prague or the Czech Republic.

Almost a month later, I got an email from an opportunity that I had applied to ages ago. It was again from the Czech Republic. I was feeling very dejected by now but out of habit I responded without expecting success. To my surprise, the process kept moving forward. I had a chat with the CEO, did a test and a task. I could not believe it when he said he chose me.

10 minutes later, the euphoria was replaced with anxiety as I researched the visa process. Getting a working visa for the Czech Republic was not going to be easy. What made it even more complicated was the lack of a Czech embassy in Sri Lanka. There was only a consulate that promised to contact the embassy in New Delhi on my behalf but never did. Eventually I contacted the embassy directly and that marked the start of the long, unpredictable, anxiety-inducing roller coaster ride that is immigration.

Communicating with the embassy was a lottery draw. Some of the emails I sent were completely ignored. When they responded, I had to be lucky to get a response relevant to the original question. This was when I started making my emails simple and brief without any emotion or detail.

I discovered that 9:30 is the lucky time with the most chance of getting a response. A few weeks later, I finally managed to receive a long list of required documents. I also discovered that they were not willing to accept my application remotely over mail. This meant that I would have to fly to India to submit my application in person.

Putting aside the elephant in the room, I first had to get all these documents. This included a police report, a medical report and verified copies of my qualifications. Getting each of these documents proved to be a challenge in its own right. Moreover all of them had to be approved by the foreign affairs ministry in Sri Lanka which took its role very seriously. Initially I was glad to find some instructions online. Soon I found that this was too good to be true when they revealed the secret conditions for each document after I waited 3 hours in a queue.

I requested the police report at HQ which triggered a wholescale investigation into me. Officers from the cities that I lived in visited the two address to investigate whether I was a criminal. To complete the process, I had to get a report from the mayor of our area who asked for my original birth certificate. I was incredibly grateful that my parents documented me properly and kept my records safe.

I got my medical report at a private hospital which involved x-rays, blood and urine tests. The ministry then told me that I had to prove that the doctor was real and pointed me to the medical board that managed all the doctors in our district. To get my high school degree verified, I had to go to the British council which oversaw Cambridge examinations for the entire country. With the documents “super verified”, I was back to the ministry for another 3 hours to get that small stamp at the bottom of each.

Just when I thought that I was getting to the end of the document hassle, I discovered a bonus requirement. The embassy only accepted documents in Czech and the translation had to be done by an official translator. I was dumb struck. How on could I ever get documents translated into Czech in Sri Lanka? We had no close ties with Czech Republic to warrant the need for translators. My Dad stepped in here and somehow found a place in the depths of Colombo for the translations. I didn’t ask questions; I was just grateful that he could do the impossible.

There is something satisfying about collecting these documents. It was a complete verification of my character on paper. It’s like crafting something in Minecraft, you had to collect a variety of resources to finally craft what you wanted.Getting back to the elephant in the room, I still needed to go to India to submit my application. I think my parents thought that I would give up before this. But they saw me spending days going to one ministry after another and slowly discovering the entire governmental system in Sri Lanka. It was then they realized that I was going to really go through with this.

My mom was terrified when she heard my plan to go to India alone. She saw India as a place filled with scammers and organ robbers. My dad played it cool but I knew he was concerned as well. At the insistence of my mom, he finally decided to travel with me to New Delhi as ‘moral support’.

Looking back, I was naïve and optimistic about the visa process. I read online that it can take up to 60 days for the visa to be approved and I assumed that it was the worst case scenario if my documents had defects. Since I personally collected and verified each document, I was confident of their authenticity. I imagined that I could get the visa in a few weeks. I planned to apply in New Delhi and then fly to Czech Republic. So packing a large luggage with the stuff for CZ, we set off to New Delhi.

Dumping the entire stack of documents at the counter, the officer pulled them through and casually returned some of them saying that they were not required. This was after I had paid and spent several hours on them. He pointed to my proof of accommodation document and asked me to reach out to my contact in CZ to submit a notarized copy. After paying for the application, I asked him how long it would take. His answer crippled my plans. Dazed, I asked him “Would it somehow be possible to get this in a few weeks?” He shook his head and replied “It is definitely going to take 2 months, maybe even more”

Back in the hotel room, we started brainstorming. It was already October and I had to start now if to have an internship that can count for my degree. I was briefly excited by the plan of getting to CZ on a short term visa that could be issued sooner while the long term one was still being processed. But AIESEC did not support this by citing the issues they had before.

Soon the inevitable dawned on me. I had to wait.Since I was already in India, I wanted to make the most of it and travel. I asked my dad and surprisingly, he agreed. I guess he saw how much of a blow this trip was for me after all the effort I put in. So he returned home with my large luggage. Only then did it hit me that I was now alone in New Delhi. Pushing past the initial panic, I checked into my first stay at a shared hostel and spent a week travelling across India. I travelled to the birthplace of Buddhism while reading books about Buddhism. I was searching for a way to deal with the bad cards that life just dealt me.

Back in SL, I did something that I am not proud of. I told my university that I was already in CZ. It was the only way I could have the required 11 months. Their review process was minimal so it was easy to fake. I even wrote emails describing the weather and the transport to sound more convincing.

Due to this lie, I couldn’t be seen by my university. I couldn’t meet any of my friends because word would spread. I lived on the street next to my university and that didn’t help either. If I stepped out of the house there was a chance that I would be spotted. This was an instance where being well known by my lecturers and batch mates did not help. I had just unknowingly signed up for months in isolation and hiding.

What made this worse was the lack of an agenda. I had nothing to do. The semester was over and my friends had started their real internships. I had offers to work but the shortest contract was 6 months. I couldn’t commit to that because of the pending visa. While the idea of staying at home, provided for by parents and doing nothing might seem like heaven to some, for me it was hell. I wanted to do something productive with my time but couldn’t figure out what.

The uncertainty was slowly killing me. A visa application was not a guarantee. They could still say no. All the effort and time I spent might be for nothing.That lack of a process to track the progress of the application didn’t help either. The only contact I had was the embassy email which kept copying the same message. “Your visa is being processed. We will contact you when the process is complete”. It was a black box with plenty of room for me to fill with doubt and pessimism.

All factors added up, this was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I spent my days at home with visits to the gym and the occasional visit to a relative being the exception. I decided to build an app so I spent day and night working on it. I told a few trusted friends about my treachery and met up with them in secret a few times. I truly believe that it was my gym routine, app and these chats that kept me sane. This was my entire life for 4.5 months.

My mind didn’t make this wait easy. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if the application was rejected. All this suffering would have been for nothing. I knew that I brought all of this on myself. If I did a local internship like everyone else, I would not be going through this.

The ultimate tipping point came after 60 days. This was the standard deadline and the visa should have been issued by now. But it wasn’t. There was worse case deadline of 90 days so I kept waiting. The 90 days passed as well and there was still nothing. I was now fighting to move on. Every day I thought to myself “You idiot, just give up. Give up and all of this will be over.”

I desperately tried to make myself believe that. But I couldn’t. No matter how much I shouted at myself, there was a small voice that said there is still a chance. It hadn’t been officially rejected yet. But if I am wrong, then I am wasting even more time. That small voice stood firm. You are going to see this through. You either do or die.

After months of work I published my app. That left me with more time to ponder my fate. I started looking for local internships again. I was trying to move on but my persistence refused to. One day, I finally had enough. I walked to my university and in to the office of the internship coordinator I had sent the fake emails to. I admitted my deception to her. “I lied to you”

It is over. I can finally move on now. I didn’t have an official rejection yet but it didn’t matter. Two days later, I found myself thinking about other local companies to apply for internships at. YouTube was on autoplay and the orange light from the sunset come into my room through the balcony. Out of habit, I turned on WiFi on my phone as “Start again” started playing. “3 emails received”. Expanding the notification, I noticed that the first one was from the embassy. Tapping the email, I read it twice to make sure that I was reading it right. The visa was approved!

Filled with excitement, I told my mom. Of course, she credited the latest ritual she did. I was barely listening. Why couldn’t this have come just 2 days before? But then perhaps this was my trial. Maybe I had to tell the truth first. I wasn’t going to waste any time now. I ran to the DHL office down the street to find out how to mail my passport and found it closed. As I was coming back, I saw my dad pulling our SUV into the garage. As he stepped out, I excitedly told him that it had finally worked.

A few weeks later, I found myself on a plane. It was the longest and farthest trip I have ever taken in my life, for the longest stay away from home that continues to today. Knowing what I know now, I know there is no way that I could have ever predicted what happened next.

Moving to Czech Republic #1: Why did I do it?

This post is part of a longer series. You can find the other parts here:
#2: Getting in
#3: Adapting to Czech Republic
#4: Adapting to Czech Culture
#5: How it changed me

When moving to Europe was just a crazy idea in my head, I remember searching online for what it could be like. I only found top 10 blogs that listed reasons why you should do it and very little about what the actual experience was like. Moreover, I couldn’t find anything written by someone moving from an Asian country like Sri Lanka. That is the gap that this series of posts is aiming to fill.

Obvious disclaimer first, this are my experiences. If you are considering moving to Europe in the future, your experience will not be the same. Where we are from, who we are and our financial situation will be unique to each of us. However, I still believe that your story will be “somewhat” similar to mine.

Why did I decide to do this?

My 2-month AIESEC exchange to Malaysia changed my life. I was just a stereotypical computer geek before then. Being the only son of two overprotective parents, I used to spend most of my life indoors in front of screens. I didn’t know an alternative, I assumed that life was like this.

It was a strange curiosity that drove me to do the exchange. I pondered what life would be like without my parents. Could I even survive on my own? However, I was so focused on getting an exchange that I never considered what it would be like to be there. I never thought about what would happen if something went wrong. For the first time in my life, I lived on my own, got to know amazing people from around the world and did something adventurous every weekend. What I discovered is that there was so much more to life than screens. I wanted more.

Back in SL, I soon realized that this was not possible. My friends were not exposed to the high dose of adventure I got in Malaysia so they were still content with doing something occasionally. I found myself back to my old life of University, TV series, games and the occasional hangout with friends. But now this was not enough. I was constantly having flashbacks to my time in Malaysia and I couldn’t explain this to anyone. My friends and family didn’t have the same experiences to relate to me.

I struggled to deal with the independence that I lost too. Compared to other Sri Lankan parents, my parents were very lenient. But I still felt chained. I missed the spontaneity. In Malaysia, I thought of something and then did it. On a whim, I travelled alone to an island by bus and boat, rented a bicycle, cycled, dipped in the sea with only my boxers, napped in a hut in the middle of a paddy field, went go-karting and then had dinner in the local food market. Now I needed an action plan to present to my parents if I wanted to walk a hundred meters to the shop. If I was going out with friends, I had to give a detailed presentation on where I was going, who I was going with, how I am going to get there, what I am going to do there, till when I am going to be there, what time I am getting back and whether any girls were going. While my parents rarely said no, everything had to planned. Their care for me meant that there was no room for spontaneity.

A few months later while pondering about the upcoming internship year, a crazy idea struck me. I could do my internship year abroad. My initial goal was to get to San Francisco, to get to Silicon Valley where all the great tech companies were. Naïve and overestimating my abilities, I actually applied for internships at Google and other companies. I even started studying complex data structures and algorithms to prepare for the interviews.

A few delusional months later, I realized that this was not going to happen. So I turned again to AIESEC. There was very little presence in the US but there were more opportunities in Europe. In Malaysia when I asked Marie about how Europe were different, she told me that everything was different. I didn’t understand this. Malaysia was different to Sri Lanka but I could point to specific things and say that it was different. How could “everything” be different? “You have to come and see for yourself” she chuckled. While chatting with her after I got back, she always seemed to be doing something interesting. She would be travelling or doing something with friends while I was in front of my screen at home. I pondered whether I could have a life similar to my experience in Malaysia in Europe.

I had another hidden reason. I didn’t feel like I belonged in Sri Lanka. Whether it was with my family or my friends, I felt like an outsider. In the case of my family, I was born between two generations so I was too young to be in one generation and too old to be in the other. In the case of friends, while I spent my time around a lot of people, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t feel like a valued member, I was just the guy who was invited if he was around.

With the group of EPs I met during my exchange, I felt like I belonged. Even though I only knew them for a few weeks, it felt like they cared and wanted me to be around. I had never felt this before and I kept thinking about this. A part of me felt that I could only find this was outside of Sri Lanka and I really wanted to find it again.

Around that time I was eliminated from several competitions. I didn’t handle failure too well so I was felt very low. I wanted to get away from it all. When I told my friends about this idea, they suggested that it might be better to do this after the degree. But I was in a rush. If I postponed this now, I felt that I might lose the opportunity for good. I felt that this was urgent, that I had to do this now or spend the rest of my years pondering what could have been.

With everything added up, I put my foot down on this crazy idea.

How I became a Techie #2

Fighting back tears, I ran into the garden to get away. To my surprise, I found some of my stuff! We deduced that the thief had collected the stuff in the garden and couldn’t carry all of it. I was still angry. He got away with my first computer and an external hard drive with a lot of the photos I had taken until then. He also stole all the peripherals and cables to my desktop which made it unusable.

The cops never found who did it. But my cousins stepped in to help. One of them gave me a netbook and the other gave me all the peripherals I needed to get my desktop running again. At that moment, I was immensely grateful that my family owned multiple computer stores.

This netbook proved to be a great learning tool. It was underpowered and struggled to handle my power user workload. I wanted to make it faster by trying Linux which was tricky since it didn’t have a disc drive to do the install from. The simple solution was to get an external disc drive or an USB drive. I had none of these and I didn’t want to buy them. Mostly because it was hard for my dad to afford it. It was this constraint on money that lead me to learn as much as I did.

Instead of buying new stuff, I always tried to use what I already had plus some cheap hacks to get the job done. So instead of simply burning a CD or making a bootable USB drive to install Linux, I rigged together a crossover Ethernet cable, setup a DHCP server and configured a TFTP server to send a bootable image over the network to do a PXE boot on my netbook. Each of these steps required a lot of research and the final process was extremely complicated. But I learnt a lot through it. By trying multiple linux distros on my netbook, I got pretty comfortable behind a linux shell.

One of my closest friends at that time was a gamer and a hardware enthusiast like me. Sushi and I would sit next to each other at school and spend all day talking tech and games. Once he mentioned that his dad had a room full of unused computer parts. With this, our hardware “smuggling” operation began. He would pull some parts from the storeroom and bring them piece by piece and I would then reassemble it back home. Processors, RAM sticks, motherboards, hard drives, power supplies and video cards, we smuggled the whole lot. Soon I had a complete 2004 era Pentium 4 machine built entirely out of his parts. I call this “smuggling” since our school prohibited electronics. I will never forget the tense day close to the end of the term when both of us had motherboards in our bags and luckily escaped the likely bag checks.

This machine became useful when my router decided to brick itself. Instead of buying a new router like a normal person, I set out to fix it. By this time I had ditched the casing entirely and I had both machines sprawled across a table. I found out that my router’s ROM chip can be re flashed through JTAG. Soldering a header onto the board and figuring out a way to use the parallel port to talk JTAG, I hooked the board to the old machine. After several days of troubleshooting loose wires and options on the flash program, I successfully brought the router back from the dead.

My desktop was now starting to show its age. Surviving several lightning strikes and random part swaps, it was a frankenstein of multiple failing onboard features and add in cards. Seeing the frequent BSODs, my dad suggested that I buy a new machine. I made the right choice by deciding to buy a laptop and picked out the highest spec machine available, a HP Envy 15 with a quad core i7 4700MQ, 4GB DDR3 RAM, a Nvidia 740M and a 1TB HDD.

Most people are careful when they buy something new. Not me. On the same night I bought it, I took it apart to replace the slow HDD with my SSD. Over the years I upgraded everything that could be upgraded, even the display. This machine is my trusty silver stallion to this day and I have learnt and created everything with it. With two screws sticking out to support the hinge, a random hole from drilling the wrong place, a dim strip on the display, loose USB ports and a fan that sounds like a vacuum cleaner at full load, my big boy has seen better days.

I was now entering 11th grade and questions about life after school were running through my head. I knew that I wanted to do something related to computers. With no concrete ideas in mind, I picked computing as one of my A Level subjects. Alongside piles of outdated information on computer systems, this my first dive into programming with Visual Basic. Not the modern Visual Basic .NET but the antique Visual Basic 6 from 1998 with Windows 98 style windows, forms and buttons. Ugh.

The exam for the computing subject included a coding project to build and document a software system from scratch. I decided to build an invoicing system for a photo studio owned by a friend’s dad. This was my first taste of a software project and it was tough. Unlike my classmates who “shared” their work, I was determined to complete the project on my own. After almost half a year of work, I proudly walked up to my teacher and handed in my project first. It featured a novel UI styled after the Windows “Metro” design with Windows 98 style components, documented in a 200+ page tome.

Gradually I got involved with the rising computer society in my school. I took on the task of teaching computer hardware to a class of 5th graders and older. It was really challenging to get them to behave but I managed to get something across to them. One event I remember very well is creating the ‘hardware’ section of a computing challenge for our school. We bought some used computers and disassembled them for the main challenge of building it again. I had to prepare a set of questions too and I threw in questions like “Name a model of a processor”. These questions were very easy to me, but judging by the failing marks they got, it wasn’t the same for the others.

Another pivotal event for me was Codefest, an island-wide, inter-school coding competition. I was initially devastated to miss the chance to be on the team when I missed the call. So our teacher suggested that I make my own team. All the top computing students were already in the other team. So I put together a B team of whoever that would join me. This was my first experience of running a coding team and I did a pretty bad job of it. I underestimated everyone else’s capability and exaggerated mine. It was a voluntary competition so I couldn’t get them to commit either. But the worst part was that I didn’t have a plan. I kept dreaming of cool features we could build and what it would feel like to win. I was living a dream and blind to the scrambled reality of the project.

Going into the presentation, I was certain that we had no chance. The other team seemed to have a much better project. Even though we didn’t know the result, my demoralized team decided to stop working. But a few weeks later, we were selected into the country finals and the other team wasn't. I guess I pitched all the ideas in my head to the judges and they believed that we would build all of them.

At the finals I got on stage in front of 100+ students and teachers from schools all across the country. A few minutes before we were desperately trying to manually merge all the codebases together without version control. To my horror, as I glanced back at the 100-inch projection screen I saw that the app had crashed. I tried to restart it and it crashed again. The murmur in the audience grew with some laughter breaking out. The judges were amused and started teasing me on stage. While I was too shocked to feel it on stage, this moment haunted me for months. The embarrassment, the shame, the error message on the huge screen.

My pride was hurt and I wanted redemption. I wanted to build something that really worked. So I got together with a friend and started building a student information system for a nearby public school. We only knew VB6 so we used that with an access database. The final product featured a table view with search, a data entry form and a backup feature. We thought this was the end but then we were given the mammoth task of computerizing 1000+ student records. We had piles of folders filled with handwritten forms and we had to type in every single one of them. The Sinhala and Tamil names were not easy to type either.

By now I was certain that I wanted to study programming in university. Nonetheless, I was anxious. I had good grades but I believed it was not enough. I thought my lack of extracurricular activities and unsportiness would hinder me. Regardless, I got into a software engineering bachelor's program without any incident. All my anxieties proved to be plain wrong.

In university I followed my previous principle. I ducked the “sharing” communities and always submitted work that was my completely my own. While the others looked for modules that were easy to do, I took modules that allowed me to earn something new. I tried to understand concepts from scratch rather than blindly copying code from tutorials and stack overflow.

It was here that I learnt Java, web development with HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP, basic C# and basic graphics programming with OpenGL and C++. Knowing my parents’ ability to dismiss my achievements, I never told them that I sometimes scored the highest marks in my batch for some modules.

It took me almost 2.5 hours to get to university from home. My parents decided that it would be to move closer to university. After moving in, I built tech cave v2 with a wall covered in screens. Impressive as it looked, only I knew that I could only use one display at a time with my laptop. I still kept tinkering and my desk was still covered with computer parts.

Our curriculum featured a lot of group projects and I was elected the group leader for all of them. I never asked for it, they always voted me the leader. After being voted the Microsoft student ambassador for my University, I made it my duty to do some presentations to help my junior batch. One moment I won’t forget was getting a complete raise of hands from a class of 40 when I asked whether they would like to have another session with me about building IoT devices.

Once I started working as a Javascript developer in Czech Republic, I took on the odd jobs around the office that involved tech. I set up the dual touchscreen test bench for a real time production line system we were building and I took apart the lagging Mac mini in our office to fit an SSD. I still liked giving talks and I got the chance to do two of them, one about Javascript and the other about GraphQL.

Even though I have become a traveler, I am still a techie at heart. Moving forward, I am trying to increase my tinkering. I don’t see myself working for a company all my life and my goal is to build something on my own. What I realized is that instead of sitting on my ass thinking or planning it, I need to get to work. So my aim for the future is to start building small apps from the long list of ideas I have had on my mind. Maybe one of these might be my big break. I don’t know. What I do know is that I will always be a techie.

How I become a Techie #1

My dad was known by our extended family for his “I-can-fix-it” attitude. Whenever something broke, the car, the electricity in the house, the plumbing, the water pumps or any other electronics, he would take it apart, experiment and come up with a fix. I used to watch him do this as a kid and I developed a very similar mindset.

The fact that I was the only child influenced me a lot too. I was constantly by myself in our big house. I was lonely, with no one to play with or keep me company. My dad understood this and wanted to make me feel better. So whenever I developed an obsession, he tried his best to indulge me with it. In order words, I was spoilt. However, I had obsessions that were very different to other kids.

The earliest obsession I could remember was ceiling fans. I can’t explain why and how this began but I wanted to get a ceiling fan fitted to every room in our house. It was not because it was hot but more a sense of having a complete set. It was impractical because we didn’t many of the rooms in our house. But I still tried to convince my dad but he was struggling to make ends meet so nothing came out of it.

A lot of what I did as a kid was determined by the presents I got. One of these presents was an electronics kit with a breadboard and electronic components like resistors, transistors and capacitors. I was only seven or eight at the time but I got hooked on electronic circuits. After learning how to read circuit diagrams and trying out the circuit designs in the book that came with the kit, I wanted more.

So my dad got me more circuit kits and leveled me up to printed circuit boards. He taught me how to solder and I started soldering my own circuits. A lot of the circuit that I together didn’t work but that didn’t stop me.

It was now time for my next obsession and it was audio cassettes. I became obsessed with recording my own tapes, to transfer music from CDs into tapes. Like my dad, I developed a liking for English music, mostly 80’s and before. I used to convince him to buy CDs and then blank tapes for me to transfer them over. It was useless obsessions I had. We already had a CD player at home and in the car. However, the CD player in our car skipped every time we hit one of the numerous potholes in SL so tape was the only decent way to listen to music on the move.

One day whilst particularly bored, I noticed the VCR placed below our TV. I didn’t know what it was and what it could do. My dad had bought it during one of his trips abroad but then never used it afterwards. I plugged it in, pushed various buttons on it and looked behind it to see a variety of connectors. I knew those connectors were audio and video outputs that go into the TV. Eventually when I finally figured out that this could record VHS video tapes, I had just found my next obsession.

One of the local TV stations was airing Knight rider. I fell in love with that show and I now had a way to record it. I used to look forward to 9:00PM every Friday to fire up the VCR to record the episode. I didn’t have an instruction manual but through trial and error, I figured out most of the functions on this VCR.

Computers didn’t interest me that much until now. My parents decided to visit a relative they hadn’t see in a long time. The auntie there casually instructed her son to put a game on for me. When I asked him what the two disc drives were for, he said that one was for playing CDs and the other to record them. From the moment I heard that, I wanted a computer for myself.

But my dad could not get this for me. A computer was expensive and he could not afford it. I remember the pained expression on his face whenever I asked him and I felt guilty for even asking him. But I wanted it and I wanted it bad.

My passion for reading transformed into a need to learn about computers. I was a junior member of the British Council library in Colombo and most of the books available to me were fiction books. But I wanted to get the computer manuals that were in the senior section. Eventually I convinced me dad to get a membership and checked out 900+ page manuals on how to use windows 98 or windows 2000. The junior section of the library did have computers which you could book to use. This was my first dive into the internet and I tried to get a slot every time my dad took me to the library.

This went on for several years. Through reading I got to know a lot more about computers. I can’t remember how but one day my dad announced that he would finally be able to get me one. I was over the moon but my mum was against the idea. She was concerned that I might get addicted to computers like she had heard from other relatives and the media. The only way I could get her to consent was to promise that I would keep it under control. This was a promise that I repeatedly broke.

My dad decided to buy the computer from my cousin’s shop. For his budget, they offered us the most entry level machine they had. What bothered me the most was that it only had a CD writer and no DVD writer. I looked at the next modal but my dad’s budget was set so this became my first computer. An all in one from a manufacturer called Hasee with a Pentium M 1.8Ghz single core, 1 GB of RAM, 160 GB Hard drive and a CD writer running Windows Vista.

We went on a Friday to pick it up and my cousin said it needed more setup so he could get it to us next week. This drove me over the edge. After waiting years, I didn’t want to wait any more. Eventually we arranged to bring the computer back next week so that I could take it home today. I was never more eager to get home than on that day.

At home I set everything up and I couldn’t believe it. My own computer. But there was a problem. The sound was not working. My dad called my cousin and he guessed it was because of the incomplete setup. But I figured that the disc that came with computer should have something for this. I can still remember the surprise in my cousin’s voice over the phone when I told him that I fixed it. I was a 11-year-old kid who after one day with a computer was installing audio drivers on it.

My mom’s premonition came to be true when that computer became my ultimate obsession. I spent all my time on it, exploring the OS and all its features and finally being able to do all the things I had only seen in the books before. Soon I got internet via a USB ADSL modem and a 512 kbps connection with a monthly bandwidth cap of 1GB. I got hooked on flash games and then a cartoon series called “Code Lyoko” which had partly aired on TV before being pulled. I could now find the entire series on YouTube. This resulted in an internet bill that was 7 times the base price due to excess use.

I got more and more hooked on video games. Especially racing games like Need for Speed. I loved it and I spent a lot of time playing it. Many other kids had time restrictions on their computer use, their parents would only let them use it for a few hours every day. But my parents didn’t try to enforce this on me. After finishing need for speed most wanted, I hit a technical limit. The next game in the series, Carbon, need a dedicated graphics card which my PC did not have. To make matters worse, I couldn’t upgrade my machine since it was an all in one. The only way to get around it is to buy an entirely new desktop. I cursed my cousin for selling us an all in one but it did teach me a lot.

Buying another computer was completely out of the question for my dad and I knew that. So I started researching computer hardware in an attempt to force my computer to play Carbon. I learnt about the components and the interfaces inside and the various model of CPUs and GPUs. I tried various software hacks and even went as far as buying the PS2 version of a game to run on an emulator on my machine. None of this could overcome the basic fact that my machine didn’t have the right hardware

I can’t explain why but I was desperately wanted to play Carbon. Ultimately my grandpa turned out to be my savior and he agreed to pay for the second computer. Both my dad and my grandpa didn’t know the real reason I wanted a second computer. But this was how I got my second computer, a desktop with a Core 2 Duo E7400 2.8Ghz dual core, 4GB DDR2 RAM, 250GB Hard drive, a DVD writer and most importantly, a dedicated graphics card (Nvidia 9400GT)

My dad and I bought this secretly knowing that my mom would be against it, as she was to many of my previous obsessions. Indeed she was angry for weeks and initiated usage limits on the computer for the first time. I was frustrated but a few months later these dissolved away too.

I was content for a while. There were plenty of games I could play and that kept me occupied. I got really fascinated with networking so I setup a network in my room between my two machines through a router. My room was now filling up with computer hardware, with 2 computers, a printer, a scanner and many other random peripherals.

One day I was woken up by a shout. “We have been robbed!” I immediately ran to my room and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was completely empty. There was only a cable left on the table. It was all gone. I was devastated. Everything I had collected over the last few years was gone.