Sophie O’Carroll - Care & Community in Sri Lanka
The summer of 2012 I traveled to Sri Lanka to take part in a High School Special Care & Community project with my friend, Ellie. I particularly wanted to go to Asia, as it was the only main continent I had left to visit, and many of my family members had visited Sri Lanka and told me how beautiful and spectacular the country was, with so much culture and history.
Every day I recorded my thoughts and experiences in a journal, meaning that now I can look back and reflect on what a truly amazing time those 2 weeks were. I distinctly remember not being able to shake the feeling of awe that followed me about the first day, as previously I’d had no idea what to expect.
The very first experience of the country I had was the journey home from the airport, which was ever so slightly terrifying as the road system is totally different to the UK given the preference for horns rather than brakes! Being only 17 when I did my project, it was obviously going to be daunting being without my family so far from home but Projects Abroad were brilliant and really made us feel safe and cared for.
Staying with a host family – curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
I stayed with the Bandara family in a town called Panadura, on the west coast, with my friend and two other girls, who we both soon became good friends with also. There were so many people coming and going on our very first day, it was a little confusing working out who was who! It turned out one of the daughters were getting married that week so things were a little hectic, although it did mean we were fortunate enough to join the family for a blessing – this was totally unique, and without Projects Abroad I would never have experienced such a thing.
The whole family was very welcoming, and their home was beautiful. It was also nice that the daughters spoke English having gone to university in Australia so we could converse with them quite easily. It did take a few nights to adjust to the heat and having to sleep under a mosquito net, but soon enough I felt right at home!
For breakfast, lunch and dinner we usually had different variations of curry, rice or noodles – it was definitely to my advantage that curry is my favorite type of food. Although Sri Lankans usually eat with their right hand, our host family kindly supplied us with utensils! My personal favorite thing though was the gorgeous sweet tea we had at breakfast.
We had some time between our morning and afternoon placement so everyday a few of us volunteers staying near each other would wander around town, where there was a shop to pick up some snacks and an internet café so I could send an email or two home to let my family know I was safe and how I was getting on.
As we walked home the first day, the heavens opened and it began pouring down – I’m English, I thought I knew heavy rain but this was on a whole new level – we got absolutely soaked!
My Care Placement
The four girls staying with my host family volunteered at a pre-school in Panadura. Every morning we were collected by Bianca, the woman taking care of us whilst on placement, and delivered to the pre-school by tuk tuks. Bearing in mind the children we were going to be working with in the morning were in the age range of 3-5, I remember my very first thought on arriving was, ‘Oh they’re so adorable!’ – they were really shy at first but still had these massive cheesy grins on their faces so I knew we were in for a really nice few weeks with them.
The second day of our placement was the celebration of the full moon, so rather than go to the pre-school we went to the beach with lots of children from other pre-schools too. Here we played games and activities, which was slightly difficult as my friend & I ended up with the youngest group who different really understand so the little rascals kept running away with the ball or throwing it so we spent the day running around after them – definitely not the rules of the game!
You would think I had learnt my lesson after my first experience of rain, but I was still unprepared and without an umbrella when it suddenly began to pour with rain again. Thankfully someone took pity on me and let me shelter under their umbrella.
The pre-school consists of one main room, built with concrete half way up the walls and then wire mesh to the ceiling; there is also a small playground outside too with a rusty play set. It’s a whole different world to that I experienced back in the UK, but I’ve never known kids smile so much or laugh so loudly! They have so little but they’re so happy; they all live in the tsunami camp that was set up to house those who lost everything when the tsunami hit – it was years ago yet they’re still rebuilding their lives, it’s hard to put into words the emotion that hit as we drove through the camp each day in our tuk tuks, whilst people wave so enthusiastically as if they’re so happy to see us.
We did all sorts of activities with children, centered on a circus theme. The children had so much energy that playing with them completely exhausted me! One day the little terrors in my group covered themselves in glitter and glue – face, arms, legs, the lot! By the time I had cleaned them all up I was the one covered in the stuff! They were really sneaky as well! When they thought we weren’t looking they would hide packets of stickers in their bags – not that we minded, it was just funny to watch them with their cheeky grins. They loved to clamber up onto our laps and would fight over whose turn it was, rather than have to sit on their own chairs.
Our afternoons were spent in the same building but with children ranging from the age of 6 to 16. It seemed more of an activities club rather than a school. We did various arts and crafts activities, as well as some English language lessons, followed usually by volleyball or soccer. Sport was usually the two oldest boys against the rest of us; we were all hopeless and the ball continuously flew off in all different directions but it was great fun.
One afternoon I got into a bit of a heated discussion with a 16 year old boy who was convinced that ‘love’ was pronounced ‘laugh’ and would not accept otherwise, despite the fact that I am actually English and I got some of the other volunteers to back me up!
The weekend trips
After our first week of placement, the group of High School Special volunteers traveled 6 hours inland to Kandy. The views as we went up into the hills were beautiful. On arrival we went to see a dance show and visited the Temple of the Tooth, where the tooth of Buddha is believed to be kept. As it was getting dark by this time, it was nice walking around seeing places lit up by lights.
On the Saturday morning we went to Sigyria Rock and climbed all the way to the top accompanied by a local tour guide who spoke several languages. Although 1,200 steps up and down is rather exhausting, it was well worth it to see the stunning views for miles around.
In the afternoon we went by jeep to Minneria National Park to see elephants – meaning now I can cross both African and Asian elephants off my list of things to see! There were hundreds of them all gathered around a lake, even a few cute calves. As if we hadn’t been spoilt already, the next day we went on an elephant ride, where we learnt that the elephant – called Bahloo – ate 300kg of food a day and he was so well trained that he understood 26 different commands! The one command we weren’t told about though was when we stopped for Bahloo to have a drink, his party trick was so reach his trunk back and spray us!
Leaving Sri Lanka
The two weeks go by so fast, so my advice to anyone who is planning on going is to appreciate and make the most of every moment because before you know it you will be back on the plane returning home. You don’t just learn about Sri Lankan culture, but also that of different people doing the placement with you – so for me, French, Belgian and Australian.
I returned home with so many fond memories – such as the ‘French Toast’ that ended up being just bread and French fries! I am so glad I mustered up the courage to go all the way to Sri Lanka. It was really heart-breaking to say goodbye and leave people who had become really good friends. I learnt so much about myself as well as the place whilst I was away and definitely hope to return one day to the places that have left me with so many fond memories.