All I knew was, I wanted to go somewhere new, completely different and exciting. I thought about Thailand, about the European trend to go there and party on Phuket, to see the Thai lady boys, to go to the place that seems to be in everyone’s Facebook cover photo. But then I heard that this person was going this year too.. And this person, and this person, so I had another think. No. I want to get away, I want to go somewhere completely and utterly challenging, and I want to go alone. Someone mentioned Sri Lanka to me, mumbled about elephants and turtles and the beautiful beaches and friendly people- so I checked it out. A few months later I was on a flight to the other side of the world, completely alone, completely terrified and completely exhilarated.
I was off to volunteer for The Green Lion Project and my first stop was Kandy.
My very first impression however, was the journey from Colombo to Kandy. I was mortified at the Sri Lankan driving! There seemed to be no rules and no hanging around. After 20 hours of traveling and plane food, the last thing I needed was this winding and wobbling journey in a jeep for 4 hours. I couldn’t help but enjoy the scenery out the car window though. I was overwhelmed with how green this country was. Scotland has a pretty raw landscape itself but this island seemed to be so untouched compared to much of the western world.
I spent my first week in Kandy, the Holy City and quickly realized that my dress I would deem appropriate for 100 degree heat, is not deemed appropriate in Kandy. It was time for the shorts to be tucked at the back of my suitcase and to go and purchase some long skirts and shawls. I was staying at the volunteer house just outside of Kandy with about 50 other people, from all over the world. Some hadn’t been home in months, even years, and Sri Lanka was just another stop along their travels, some were like me and has just arrived open-eyed and apprehensive. I soon made some fantastic friends to explore the country with, but we couldn’t have possibly known at that point just how incredible and learning an experience Sri Lanka turned out to be for us.
To me, having to extensively cover up for a religion or culture is a completely foreign and abhorrent concept. In my western mind I have been brought up to be able to wear what I like, when I like it. But then I thought, well is me taking a hat off to sit down for dinner, or dressing up in a nice bright colored dress for church any different than the people of Kandy wearing white or light colors and dressing extremely modestly to honor the holiness of the Temple of Buddha’s tooth really that different? My mind was stretching open, and I began to see on my travels, that really I have more in common with these people, than I don’t have in common.
The architecture of Kandy blew me away. In our daily tuk-tuk journeys I saw what I thought was poverty, purely because the houses along the railway and the beach were ramshackle huts with washing hanging on the line and children running around with no shoes on. It appeared to me as that far away stereotype of a developing country. I am aware that Sri Lanka is still a developing country but I’ve come to learn that many Sri Lankans in these beachside houses with little material possessions are not all impoverished, though my Western mind pigeon holed them as that. Many are self-sufficient and happy people living life for the things that really matter, like their family and their faith, and their community. It still however made the city of Kandy doubly impressive to me. Here is this incredible intricately designed city next to rough little communities. But that is the beauty of Sri Lanka, the people all seem to be connected by a bigger purpose. The predominant religion of Buddhism struck me like a breath of fresh air. People’s mentality of peace was so alive and inspiring to me.
Having only spent a month or so there, I am no expert, but I certainly treasure the impact it made on me. I spent most of my time at turtle conservation in Ambalangoda, right on the beach, in a swimsuit 27/4, with a great group of volunteers- it was heaven. I am a huge animal lover and taking care of the disabled turtles at this sanctuary was very special and rewarding. We even got to release new baby turtles to the ocean which was an experience I will never forget. The Sri Lankan man that was in charge of the volunteer house in Ambalangoda was quite a character. He was always laughing, always making sure we had enough to eat and always telling us to ‘stay away from beach boys! Beach boys bad!’
Before I left for home, some other volunteers and I packed in some more traveling around the island. We ended up in Arugum Bay, which was just as beautiful and idyllic as we had been told. The water was clear, the sand was pure and the atmosphere was lively and exciting. Finally we saw other tourists and met some Sri Lankans who liked to party just as much as us. I spent my last days in hammocks and on a surfboard by elephant rock. It was perfect. Almost.
On my penultimate night in Sri Lanka, my friends and I went to a beach party and I was exposed to the darker side of society. I was carrying a backpack with my iPhone, money and go pro in it, and at some point ended up alone and unfortunately a target for a group of Sri Lankan men to steal from. I have almost blocked the incident from my mind, but in the end I was very fortunate to not get harmed and to have friends who quickly found me and comforted me. I was devastated. Material things can be replaced, but the photos and videos I had taken of my entire experience were not to be. However this can happen in any country, in any place in the world. In the end I learnt not to put myself in such vulnerable position and not to trust the Sri Lankan police! I saw the beauty of the country and the kindness of its people, but also the corruptness it still sadly lives under. I hope one day that this can change and a police can represent the good people of Sri Lanka and a government that coincides with its moral and peaceful people.
Thank you Sri Lanka, I’ll be back!