Helen Poole - General Teaching Projects in Sri Lanka
Travelling to an exotic country and experiencing a completely different culture and way of life is something that I have always wanted to do, so after leaving university I thought 'well it's now or never', but I was apprehensive about travelling completely alone. Therefore, for me, Projects Abroad was the ideal solution and I joined one of their overseas voluntary work placements. I had so many expectations for my trip that I didn't think the reality would actually fulfil my dreams, but the people I met, the places I saw, the fascinating culture and, of course, volunteering abroad by teaching the children made the trip the most amazing experience of my life. Completing a volunteer project abroad really is an opportunity of a lifetime not to be missed.
I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in Sri Lanka, but I was made to feel at ease straight away by the fact that I was greeted at the airport by Jo (who works for Projects Abroad in Sri Lanka and was so helpful throughout my stay) along with another volunteer, who had also just arrived. We went for something to eat at a British style pub and Jo answered any questions and told us a bit about life in Sri Lanka. I also had my first experience of a tuk tuk ride and the crazy Sri Lankan traffic.
During my stay in Sri Lanka I taught at the Tissa Central College, this was hard at times, with a few boisterous characters and also the heat, but it was so rewarding. The children were so excited each time they saw me and they were always ready for a chat. Little things meant so much to them like looking at photos of my family, receiving stickers for good work, having a dance, or singing a song at the end of a lesson.
They also loved to teach me a bit of the Sinhalese language, so now I can count to ten in Sinhalese! The staff really made me feel part of the school and I had the privilege of being invited to a welcome ceremony for the grade one children who were just starting school. During the ceremony children from the school performed traditional Sri Lankan songs and dances in beautiful costumes and it was clear to see the amount of effort that had gone into the ceremony by both the children and the staff.
I also worked at the tsunami camps some afternoons, which highlighted how prevalent the effects of the tsunami still are. I found the journey to camp to be a bit bizarre too, as before camp myself and the other volunteers spent time at a 5 star hotel, which was luxurious, then only a few minutes walk away we'd see people really badly affected by poverty. At camp it was amazing to see how happy the children were, but it was still sad to think of the conditions that they lived in.
One afternoon instead of going to camp we went to see where some of the families had been re-housed. The houses were still very basic, more money was needed for furniture, but again the families were so pleased with their new homes and there was also a playground, which the children loved.
During my first month in Sri Lanka I lived in an apartment with other volunteers, which was good fun, but I felt I was missing out when other people told me about life with their host families. Projects Abroad were great and arranged for me to live with a host family in a little village called Molligoda with two other volunteers, during my second month. This really made my trip to Sri Lanka complete and I really was treated as part of the family.
Our host mother looked after us like we were her daughters; she even brought us 'bed tea' each morning and was always there for a chat, but gave us our own space where we could relax. Grandma (Archie), could not speak English, but was always smiling and ready with a cup of Sri Lankan tea and biscuits after my day at school and our host father was so friendly too. They had two daughters Vidushi, 8 and Tharushi, 5 and I loved spending time with them reading and playing games. Vidushi was so inquisitive and Tharushi such a fun, with a cheeky personality that made us all laugh, it was just like having two little sisters.
On the weekend before I went home our host mother invited us to a family wedding. It was lovely to meet other members of the family and to see a traditional Sri Lankan wedding with the beautiful clothing and spicy food. Our journey home was also quite an experience, as we managed to squeeze nine of us into a tuk tuk, which was pretty hot and uncomfortable as you can imagine!
I also helped out at 'Garden School', which my host mother set up for people of all ages in the village, who wanted to improve their English. It was quite informal; sometimes we would just chat about life in England or Sri Lanka. Before I left two of the girls bought me a little farewell gift, which I found very touching.
Aside from the teaching in Sri Lanka, the weekends meeting up with other volunteers were fantastic. The beach weekends at Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna were so chilled out - paradise. I loved having breakfast on the beach then having a swim in the beautiful blue sea and at night we'd go to little bars over looking the beach, there was even an open air dance club. One of my favourite times was sitting on the beach at night chatting and listening to the music.
Projects Abroad was great at organising trips to different places at weekends too. There was never a dull moment - one weekend we went white water rafting in Kitulgala, something I would never have thought of doing at home, but it was really good fun. I had a fantastic time each weekend, but the one that stood out most was the weekend we went to Kandy. The surroundings - the dense forest and lake were breathtaking. We visited the Temple of the Tooth Relic and went to a Kandian dance show to experience some true Sri Lankan culture, but the best moment of the trip was having an elephant ride, which was so exciting as its something I've always wanted to do. We also visited the Elephant Orphanage on the way home, which was a lovely end to the trip.
One thing I loved about my project in Sri Lanka was its diversity, teaching, life in the village where I lived, the culture and scenery of Kandy, the beautiful beaches, the built up city of Colombo, meant there was always something new to experience and I never knew what was round the corner. Even small things such as managing to get a space on the steps during the rickety train journeys and watching the world go by, or seeing a cow just wandering along the road on its own all add up to make it a trip of a lifetime. I will definitely go back to Sri Lanka for so many reasons - it was so sad leaving my host family I would love to see them all again, the children I taught, the Projects Abroad staff and there are still so many places that I've yet to explore. Anyway there is still so much I could say about my experience and my words just can't express how amazing it was. My memories will stay with me forever - it was the best experience of my life!