It was 3am when I arrived in Galle, and it was the hottest that I’ve ever felt. Even at the late hour, the streets were still alive. Motorbikes were zipping along the streets and stray dogs were wandering around finding a cool place to sleep. The Projects Abroad driver was playing a Sri Lankan dance concert on the radio, and they had just started to play a cover of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ from Rocky. I don’t think any of my pre-trip preparations could have prepared me for what Sri Lanka would be like.
I had come to Galle to complete a four week physiotherapy placement for my final year of studies in Australia. I had a free subject to choose, and I was really eager to complete a placement overseas. I had actually picked Sri Lanka as a back-up to a placement in India, but I’m so glad that I picked it. On the whole, Sri Lanka is fascinating. I admit that prior to visiting Sri Lanka, I thought that it was just a little island but I was so wrong. The history and culture in Sri Lanka is something that has to be seen and experienced and it is amazing just how much can be fit into an island 100 times smaller than my native Australia!
Completing the placement was much more rewarding than I could have thought. I was working in an outpatient physiotherapy department in the local teaching hospital. I hadn’t realised that English is the main language used in healthcare in Sri Lanka, so communicating with my colleagues was much easier than expected. The staff were incredibly helpful and really wanted me to have the best experience possible.
I was able to practice all of the skills I had already learnt in my degree, and also learnt some new techniques from the staff there. The senior staff would quiz me every few days about a different technique or some anatomy practice which kept me on my toes. Most days I would see at least 8 patients with varying conditions. For future volunteers, I would certainly advise bringing some lightweight educational resources to help with your revision. I carried my physiotherapy pocket handbook and found it incredibly helpful.
Seeing patients was quite challenging. Although my colleagues spoke English fluently, most patients didn’t understand a word of English. The staff loved trying to teach me some Sinhala phrases, but Google Translate soon became my best friend. The app does fairly good translations, and it helped me get through most discussions with patients by asking them to read my phone screen. It becomes trickier when the patients can’t read however, but I was able to fumble my way through with a combination of pointing, gestures and facial expressions.
My host family certainly helped me settle in. My host mother and father (or ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’) treated me as if I was their one of their own. Auntie was so kind and was always concerned for when I would get home, whether I was eating enough and could always be counted on to offer me tea. My host sister could always be counted on to recommend a shop or a movie and my host brother behaved like any brother would. The house itself was clean and comfortable on a quiet street near the hospital.
Auntie is a wonderful cook, and every day we were treated to a culinary tour around Sri Lanka. The food was always delicious and would consist of a selection of curries, rice and noodles. I’d recommend getting used to spicy food prior to visiting Sri Lanka and being aware of the difference between ‘western spicy’ and ‘Sri Lankan spicy’.
When I told Auntie that I liked spicy food, I was in no way prepared for the chilli-explosion that occurred in my mouth! If you’re unsure about how much spice you can handle, I would definitely recommend a cautious approach.
Travel in Sri Lanka
The other volunteers in Sri Lanka were also a highlight. In Galle we had a tight-knit community of volunteers who spent a lot of time together. Most afternoons were spent catching up at our favourite sea-view café in the heart of the historic Galle Fort or at the local surfing beach. Everyone was there for each other, which definitely helped to stave off any homesickness people might have been feeling. It was a great way to debrief from your day at the hospital, and to wind-down from a busy day. I didn’t expect such a diverse group to bond so well. There were a range of ages, nationalities and backgrounds but everyone got along really well which made weekends away more fun.
As I mentioned before, Sri Lanka is a small country compared to what I’m used to. This was why I found it so amazing that there could be so many things to see and do. The diversity in scenery alone was astounding. I visited pristine beaches, tropical rainforests, rolling grasslands, steep mountains and cool highlands. In each place I was able to partake in some incredible experiences including seeing baby elephants on a safari, snorkelling with sea turtles over a coral reef, swimming under a waterfall after a trek through untouched rainforest and watching the clouds literally roll over me from the top of a mountain. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do one of these things, let alone do all four.
So far the placement experience in Sri Lanka has been quite helpful in the rest of my physiotherapy studies. I know that after working with patients who don’t speak English and still getting positive outcomes, working with patients in Australia will be a breeze. My treatment techniques have blossomed with the constant practice and feedback I received from my Sri Lankan colleagues. I have a greater appreciation for the healthcare system in Australia, and feel very lucky that I’ve been able to have such an incredible experience.
My advice for future volunteers comes from the great Shia LeBoeuf – ‘just do it’. I thought I would be prepared for what Sri Lanka would be like, but I was very wrong. Sometimes instead of thinking and worrying about something, you just have to do it. Just go surfing, just treat that patient who can’t speak English, just eat that curry that you can see a whole chilli in. The experiences you have, both the good and the bad, will be something that you will remember for the rest of your life.