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Houses in a village on the mountain, surrounded by dense vegetation

My Sri Lanka Experience

By Katie Penberthy

Last updated: 28th July 2014

As Operations Manager I talk to many of our volunteers organising their life changing trips. Recently I was lucky enough to leave the behind the rainy Tunbridge Wells office for the Gap 360 Sri Lanka programmes.

This was my first time to Sri Lanka. The flight was easy enough, direct with Sri Lankan Airways. The heat of the tropical climate met me off the plane and I felt excited for the week long adventure ahead. I was met at the airport by our project representative and transported to the teaching project location in Kandy by a welcomed air conditioned minibus. The transfer took 3.5 hours through a winding but stunningly scenic drive. After an 11 hour flight I was worried that I might nod off but the spectacular landscape made the time fly by! I honestly have never seen so many shades of green! Beautiful!

Kandy is a gorgeous and vibrant mountain town, the volunteer house is located a few kilometres from the city centre. The city is easy to get to (the bus only costs 10p!) and the volunteer house is in a friendly local community where everyone knows everyone! Lots of volunteers were already at the house relaxing after a long day volunteering. Most were chilling reading a book or getting ready to go into a local pub to watch the world cup football game. There was lots of amusing rivalry between the volunteers of different nationalities supporting their home countries! It was a great atmosphere and the co-ordinators joined in!

I was staying alongside the volunteers in a shared dormitory. It’s basic but clean, sleeping between 4-10 people. Everybody seemed to enjoy being together and really helped form friendships. It was a really fun atmosphere.

The food is something I was really looking forward to in Sri Lanka since I love a good curry! The food is mostly vegetarian to reflect the religion in the area and the general diet of Sri Lankan people as a whole. On my first night I had an aubergine curry with rice and I begged the house ladies to give me the recipe as it was just too good to be true! The following nights were just as good with a mixture of dahl, rotti, noodles and fresh vegetables. For all you spice-fiends out there don’t worry – it wasn’t so spicy that it would make your eyes water!

Once I had settled in and got used to the heat I was taken on a whirlwind tour visiting all the different teaching and childcare programmes. This was the most exciting part for me, to see what it was like for our volunteers and the project work that they were involved in. The first thing to strike me is the huge variety of projects to get involved in and really brought everything to life for me!

Volunteers and children playing at an orphanage

Our Sri Lankan team work with 5 orphanages some of which are sponsored by the government and some of which receive no official funding. My first stop was the babies orphanage and it was heartbreaking to see children as young as two weeks old being abandoned. Being a developing country there are a number of underlying reasons why this happens, for example, there are no social benefits for underprivileged mums and abortion is illegal. I guess this was my first wake up call to see how different this was to life that I know in Britain. Despite being a bit of a sad place at least an orphanage exists to give these young ones a chance in life. And much help is needed. Volunteers provide an invaluable support by helping to bathe, feed, change nappies and generally care of the children. The babies and toddlers crave human touch so much that even just playing with them makes such a huge difference in them. It’s incredibly rewarding.

And its not just the young ones that are cared for, the older children at some of the other orphanages who are at school during the morning, the volunteers will interact with them in the afternoon. It was great to see the relationships being built between the kids and the volunteers. The emphasis is on teaching the children something productive as opposed to just playtime so that the children gain something from the experience. Of course there are lots of fun things to do from arranging football tournaments to art and craft activities!

In addition to these orphanages, there are so many schools and pre-schools in the area who are desperate for volunteers to assist them that until more volunteers are able to go over to Sri Lanka we have had to create a waiting list based on need!

One of my favourite projects was the disabled orphanage which is run by the Mother Teresa Foundation. This project is crying out for volunteers as there are over 100 disabled women and children in need to care. The nuns do a fantastic job with the limited resources they have but since each person needs specialised care any assistance volunteers can give are greatly appreciated. It was clear from speaking with the volunteers at this programme that it is one of the most challenging but one of the most enjoyable!

Another programme which volunteers can get involved in is working with the local monks. Sri Lanka is a strong Buddhist country with 70% of the population and monks are very well respected in all parts of society. They even told us at our orientation that we should not sit on the seats immediately behind the driver on the bus as these are reserved for monks!

A lady painting a room

Alongside teaching and childcare, our volunteers are also involved in building restoration work too. Unfortunately the temples in the area are not well funded as many of the population cannot afford to donate and sadly these places of worship are falling into disrepair. Our programme helps these temples and the local community by buying the equipment necessary to restore the temples and our volunteers can get involved in painting and restoring them. The monks themselves are incredibly friendly and are so happy and eager to learn about our life outside Sri Lanka. Many volunteers also get involved in teaching maths and English to the monks who are the best students ever!

My time in Kandy quickly came to end and it was time to hop to our other Sri Lanka programme. Even though I loved every second on the Kandy community projects, I was excited to head down to the south Coast. I am definitely a beach person and combining a beach atmosphere and working with a turtle project sounded like paradise! I got up early so that I could take the 6 hour train from Kandy down to Ambalangoda in the South West. Now, I have been on many trains in Asia and none of them have been particularly fabulous, so I was a little apprehensive, however I didn’t need to be as I was booked on in a nice carriage with a comfy enough seat and a great view outside through the window.

In no time at all (or so it seemed as I fell asleep almost instantly, mouth open and drooling everywhere no doubt) I was at Amabalangoda, the heat compared to Kandy was immense. Ambalangoda is a big town but not a touristy one. After a short walk I was at the hotel used as accommodation and was introduced to the famous Captain who is the project manager. Bubbling with enthusiasm and eager to give me food and water after my long journey and show me around the project.

The turtle houses themselves are about a 1 minute walk from the accommodation, and right on the golden sandy beach. There are two turtle houses about 300m apart. Volunteers were bustling about looking after the turtles, cleaning the tanks, preparing turtle food and cleaning the shells.

A turtle poking it's head above water

Most of the turtles are visibly disabled with one or more fins missing. It was upsetting to think that fisherman would just cut off a turtle’s fin when the turtles get caught in them rather than cut the net itself.

I was surprised by the size of the turtles! Some were massive and needed 3 people to carry them to the beach area for cleaning! The babies were the cutest though and were smaller than my hands!

What struck me about the project is that it was very relaxed. The volunteers were eager to assist in the daily care of the turtles and relax on the beach. This programme is perfect for those who want a first hand experience of caring for disabled animals but also want some beach time. During the afternoons the volunteers mostly explored around the local area visiting waterfalls and temples – perfect bliss!

I can not recommend highly enough both projects, a perfect mix of community and wildlife or both! My week flew past and in no time at all I had to return back to the office, but I know I will be back!!

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