Back in October (2016) I was lucky enough to travel to Sri Lanka to volunteer for 2 weeks on a programme with the company Projects Abroad. Our group was based in Kolonnowa, Colombo, in the west of Sri Lanka.
During this time, we volunteered predominantly in primary schools, and focused on teaching them about their community, highlighting the roles of doctors, fire fighters, the police and so on. We were also around to more generally help the teachers with their own planned activities, like arts and crafts, or to help at breakfast time, which with 3 and 4 year olds could get a bit messy! We also painted an alphabet mural for one of the primary schools so that the children could walk along it following a painted ladder along the ground, hopefully having fun while trying to learn it!
On some of the weekdays we also volunteered at a secondary school and a local community centre teaching English to a wide range of ages, often making up games and teaching songs to try and help with memory and pronunciation of English words.
While volunteering and teaching was really fun and so different to anything I’ve ever experienced, I did find it challenging at times, especially not being the loudest of speakers. However by the end of the trip I’d become much more confident and felt so inspired seeing all of the children’s progress.
As well as the volunteering, on the weekends and a couple of weekday evenings we also had trips to see Sri Lanka more and explore the country’s culture and heritage.
Some of the sights we saw:
Temples: On one of the weekends we travelled to Kandy, where we visited the Temple of the Tooth. This houses the hugely important relic of tooth of the Buddha and is super extensive – even with a couple of hours we didn’t even have time to go around it all. Near to here we also saw some traditional Kandyan dances, such as the famous ves dance. We also saw a couple of temples in Colombo, as well as one pagoda, which were beautiful and really interesting.
Tea factory: we also went to a tea factory, and learned that green and black tea essentially come from the same kind of plant! It was really interesting to learn about the different collecting, drying and sorting processes that occur within the factory. During this trip I also must have drunk my entire weight in Ceylon black tea, and brought some back as well as some lychee black tea, both of which I’m such a fan.
Elephant Sanctuary/Paper factory: At the Millenium Elephant Foundation, we got to see and actually wash the elephants!! which was just surreal and amazing. We also ‘adopted’ 4 of these elephants for a year, contributing to the work the sanctuary does in caring for the old and sick elephants. Alongside the sanctuary there is also a paper factory which uses the elephant dung to make paper, even feeding the elephants leaves and bananas to get naturally green and yellow paper. You can buy products and find out more about the processes here
Turtles! On our first weekend we travelled to Galle and visited a turtle hatchery in Bentota. Here we saw tiny baby turtles as well as some truly huge ones, and the centre explained how they care for the turtles and release them into the wild when it’s safe, also helping out when new turtle hatchlings are trying to get to the sea. The beach this was situated on was also beautiful, so we took loadssss of pictures here too :)
We also went to a couple of beaches in Galle, more specifically in Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. These were really pretty, and Unawatuna isn’t far from Galle fort, which is interesting to see.
On our first night it was also a festival, so we were lucky enough to see a procession all the way down the road, wreaking even more havoc than normal Sri Lankan roads can appear to be in…
Drinking from King coconuts (which are orange!) were also a new experience, and going around various markets was really fun and we managed to buy some cool things, such as traditional batiks, elephant statues and even more tea!
I absolutely loved all of the food, in particualar egg hoppers are really good and were something I’d never heard of, but are a bit like basket-shaped pancakes with an egg in the middle. String hoppers were also a new and enjoyable experience, and are a kind of noodle. We were also lucky enough to have best pancakes I’ve ever had which were kindly made by the parents of the children we were teaching. These I think are called pani pol (or pol pani, I’ve seen both :// )and were very sweet, with coconut and jaggery (a type of sugar) in them.
While having some truly amazing experiences, we were also often reminded of the effects of the 2004 tsunami. Visiting a local museum with some truly devastating images of just what happened really shocked me and showed that how even more than 12 years later the country is still trying to repair itself, something I wasn’t half as aware of previously.