Paul’s Experience in Sri Lanka
It’s fair to say that I was a little apprehensive before volunteering in a post-Covid world. I’d volunteered in a number of countries in the past and had incredible experiences. On the one hand, I was unsure what to expect. I had many questions – What would the rules be like? How could my placement work? Would I be able to travel? Would there be other volunteers to share the experience with? Most importantly, would I be well-received travelling at this time? On the other hand, I was also concerned that I may compare this experience unfavourably with my previous times volunteering, times before masks, social distancing and hand sanitiser etc.
I thought it was important to be prepared, so a month before travelling I badgered the ever accommodating Green Lion Director, Dhammike, with plenty of questions over email. He assured me that I would be able to have a great experience and that I wouldn’t be alone (a key worry!). I knew the world wasn’t normal, and that it would be incorrect to compare to previous experiences before the pandemic, but reassured, I decided to go. I specifically told myself to simply have an open mind and heart and get stuck wherever I could (cliché I know!).
When I arrived, it quickly became aware to me that I needn’t have worried. After chatting through what the possibilities were with Dhammike in person, we agreed to start immediately the next day on a construction project with a lovely fellow volunteer from France. The project entailed renovating a house that had previously been used by home volunteers to turn it into a school for special needs children. I initially found it sobering to learn that due to the pandemic this was now surplus to requirements. Be in no doubt, Covid travel restrictions have impacted upon all areas of tourism, sadly even volunteering. The house reminded me of many places I’d stayed in the past and I kept thinking how it should have been full of life, full of young people sharing their experiences, all there doing something positive, all there helping. Yet, there was a definite feeling of positivity that it was being repurposed for such a wonderful cause. We worked tirelessly alongside The Green Lion staff to clean, decorate and landscape it so it could be in the best condition as it commences its new chapter as a school. It’s fair to say that we were all very proud of the transformation.
As a qualified EFL teacher, I was also keen to teach whilst in Sri Lanka. I understood that schools had only recently reopened with limited numbers, so the likelihood of being able to walk into a classroom was very low. Again, after chatting with Dhammike and him discovering my background in teaching young adults, it was arranged that a lovely young lady who is preparing to take her IELTS exam in advance of studying in Canada would come to the volunteer house for 1-1 tuition every afternoon. It’s fair to say that this was an absolute pleasure and highlight of the whole trip. I not only had the opportunity to teach, I also had the invaluable chance to learn so much about Sri Lankan culture from her – there were times when I’d forget who the teacher was!
As this was my first time in Sri Lanka, I was keen to travel and explore further afield during the weekends. Whilst ordinarily I’d be on a train or a bus and off on an adventure, I knew that it was important to take precautions, not only for my well-being but most importantly to protect the livelihoods of everyone at Green Lion. The last thing they needed after two years was to have Covid brought into the volunteer house through my recklessness or foolhardiness. We, therefore, travelled in a mini-bubble, with Green Lion’s driver, Roshan. I cannot speak highly enough of how lovely Roshan is, and on potentially dangerous roads, just how safe and competent a driver he was – wild elephant encounters included! During my stay, I and the other volunteers managed to explore Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Ella. All of which were incredible, and despite often being the only foreign faces we were received with total warmth and kindness.
In all, my experience wasn’t what I was expecting. It was far far better. In the past, I’ve volunteered, and oftentimes I’d felt like a commodity, one of a number of ever-rotating faces. In Sri Lanka, I truly felt that I was helping. I felt like I was making a difference through, not only two wonderfully rewarding projects but by simply being there and contributing to the livelihoods of such lovely people. People whose lives have been on hold for much of the past two years and who don’t have the luxury of furlough and government bailouts to fall back upon as much of us in the western world have had.
I was welcomed with open arms and made to feel like part of the family by the whole Green Lion team. Dhammike bent over backwards to meet my needs, I honestly have never encountered such a wonderfully giving person who works so tirelessly and has such a big heart. I’m truly grateful to have met him and believe the world would be a much better place with more people like him in it!
If you’re considering volunteering in Sri Lanka, don’t. Just go. If there’s ever a time for volunteering, it’s now. Go with an open mind and give what you can. You will surely have a richer experience than you can possibly imagine. And.. I’ll probably meet you there as I’ll surely be back soon!