Who doesn’t enjoy traveling? Nonshout met Rokhan Direkz, a Sri Lankan who travels to places around the globe where other tourists doesn’t like to travel. He joined us to talk about his experiences in the countries he visited.
How did you come up with this desire to visit challenging locations where most people would not even consider going?
My passion for it probably dates back to my early years. On the concept of curiosity from childhood, many of these things were created. The desire to know about something. What is the cause of that? Why do people live in such ways? Why wear this color? Why paint the body? Why would someone choose to live in a forest? I picked up this because I was curious about these things.
During our time in school, we had a subject called social studies. World history, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, North Korea, and the Industrial Revolution in Europe were covered in that subject. I was curious to find out more about the locations of the cities after hearing the specifics about each one that were mentioned. Back then, neither the internet nor television existed. We only had access to the world through the books we read and the newspapers that were delivered to our homes. At that time, I remember there were magazines called National Geography in our house. When I turned them over, I was always curious. I then imagined going there someday. I believe the inspiration for traveling came from that feeling.
How many years have you been traveling around the world?
When I look at the countries I have visited, about 75%-80% of the countries I have visited in the last 10 years. Before that, the trips I made were just casual travels. But given the journeys I’ve taken over the past ten years, I believe the word “exploration” should be added in place of “travel.” They are journeys undertaken in order to gain knowledge of something.
How many countries have you visited so far?
I have currently been to 89 countries, as far as I can remember.
Are there some of the most memorable countries? Can you tell us what they are?
Several country names comes to my mind. But I can honestly say that before visiting a new country, I usually do some research on it online, read news articles, read books, etc. and try to get some idea about that country. However, when I visited one country, there was a country where I witnessed something entirely different from what I had read and learned. That country is Rwanda. The things I studied before going there, talked to people and even talked to people who had been to that country, I heard that Rwanda is a country like other countries in Africa which is poor, has problems, has racial problems, wars and riots. However, after visiting Rwanda, I had the opportunity to experience a totally different setting.
All the countries around Rwanda are in a terrible situation. That means ethnic issues, wars, civil unrest. But in Rwanda, a very peaceful, developed and friendly people lives. It is genuinely surprising that the country is operating at such a level given the situation in Africa. Because of this, the country called Rwanda drew a lot in my mind.
Considering that the worst racial genocide in history took place in Rwanda. I believe over a million people were killed in a span of 5, 6, or 7 days. The Hutu-Tutsi racist conflict is well known. It recently became a problem. It is truly amazing how they were able to overcome every obstacle and advance to this point. In fact, we use the word “coexistence” when dealing with racist issues in countries like Sri Lanka. The best example I see of the word “coexistence” is Rwanda, how did they solve the racial problem and improve the country’s economy. As a result of all these factors, when I think of the nations I have visited, Rwanda comes to mind first.
You told us that you have visited 89 countries so far. Which country do you want to visit again and again?
That’s a bit of a tough question. Because as a tourist, I love many countries. I love every culture and every type of food. One of my favorite places to travel repeatedly is New Zealand. The environment, the people, and everything else in New Zealand are beautiful, which is why I like to travel again and again.
In addition, I would like to visit Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Because it is difficult to explore these countries in one trip because of their splendor, as well as the food pattern and each type of people.
Are there any adventures that you had to experience during these 10 years of traveling to 89 countries?
Yes, I’ll only mention two specific incidents. Burundi, a nation that you may be familiar with, presented me with the most challenging situation. Burundi is a country bordering Rwanda. During my 2015 visit to Rwanda, this occurred. The day is clearly in my mind. In Burundi, a coup against the leader of that country occurred on May 13.
I think the military leader of that country seized the power of the state. At that time I had come some distance into Bujumbura (a city) with my driver. That means it’s hard to think about going back. Because people are everywhere. Swords and sticks were in everyone’s possession. I witnessed the same scenes that you have seen in some of the African films. Thousands of people. Some flee the country to neighboring countries. Towards the border of Tanzania, towards the border of Rwanda and on the other side I think Congo. My driver asked me, “Sir, why are we trying to enter when all these people are leaving the country?” But there was no other choice, because we had to go to the end.
Somehow my tour guide and my driver managed to save me and stop at a Catholic church there. That father was willing to accommodate us for a few days until the situation calmed down. They didn’t even let me go outside for a few days. It was the most difficult and terrifying experience I have ever faced. I still wonder how I survived there.
When you travel to different regions of different countries, you have to face different climates. How did these weather conditions affect your travels?
I don’t care much about the word weather. Because as a tourist traveling around the world, I think we need to get used to cold, hot and mild weather. But the cold I encountered when I visited the world’s coldest inhabited region was the most challenging weather I had to contend with.
I have lived in Russia for a long time and have a good understanding of winter. I personally like winter. A -55 Celsius, though. It is challenging to extend a finger to press a camera button on a mobile phone to take a picture for five seconds. Such a tight cold. Vehicles are not working. The wheels don’t turn. It’s difficult to even stay inside the car, if you keep your leg in one place for 5 minutes, it freezes.
In the village of Oymyakon (a Russian village), a glass of water left outside turned to ice within seconds. It is so cold. The most challenging task is going to the toilet. There are 400–450 residents in that village, which is extremely poor. The toilets are typically located far outside in typical homes. They don’t have electricity. If such a need arises at night, you have to wear all the clothes related to the cold and travel that distance.
Only the torch of the phone can be used to get light. It also turns off after a while due to cold. Such a difficult climate. But the people who live there are familiar with it. A place where they lived for generations. But it is difficult for us as people of a country with a hot Asian climate to bear that. I had to face a lot of difficulties. My fingers froze. Two of my cameras were not fully functional and had to be removed from use. I had to face such a difficult climate after moving to the coldest inhabited area in the world.
And what are the different places you hope to visit in the future?
There are several such planned places these days. But with the uncertain situation in the world today, those plans may not be implemented in the same way. So it is difficult to talk about it. Because we cannot say what kind of thing will happen in which part of the world.
But I have had in my mind for many years to study people’s cultures and traditions. Trying to go to several Asian countries for that. Preparations are being made for that these days.