Claire Elliman - Care & Community in Sri Lanka
In August 2014, I traveled to Sri Lanka with Projects Abroad on a High School Special program. I have always been interested in Sri Lanka and the culture, so I looked to Projects Abroad for an opportunity to do just that. My two older siblings had traveled with Projects Abroad, both as high school students and standard volunteers, and I had been eagerly awaiting my turn to also experience the adventure and enrichment such trips inspire. I had just turned 17 at the start of the trip and was traveling from New York where I live.
A few weeks before my departure, I received my accommodation details. I was to be based in Negombo, a fishing town on the beautiful Indian Ocean about twenty minutes from Colombo airport. Along with sixteen other volunteers, I stayed at Seetha’s hostel, a mere ten minute walk from the Bosco Pura where we volunteered at a Tsunami shelter camp.
From the start Seetha ensured that we felt comfortable and at home while in her care. She prepared all of our meals which included delicious watermelon juices and a great feast in the morning and a variety of different curries with rice for lunch and dinner.
Free time in Sri Lanka
We spent much of our free time with Seetha; relaxing or planning our activities for the next day. Some mornings, Seetha would offer to take us to the vibrant fish market of Negombo where we could observe the fishermen and passers-by bargaining for their meals.
On a few special occasions we ate at the restaurants surrounding our placement and got to experience a variety of Sri Lankan food, all of which was absolutely delicious. Initially, the seventeen volunteers who participated in the same project were hesitant to engage with each other, however, the pleasant environment Seetha provided, combined with the excitement of being in such a vibrant country, quickly brought us together.
Amongst the volunteer’s responsibilities working at Bosco Pura, we had to organize stimulating and imaginative activities for each age group of children living there. I can confidently say that the friendships I formed with the children of Bosco Pura were, without a doubt, the most incredible memories of my time in Sri Lanka.
My placement in Sri Lanka
Every morning at around 8:30 am, we arrived at the Tsunami shelter camp that consisted of a Montessori pre-school and a playing field surrounded by four-story apartment buildings. We would then split up and engage with the children (who were on summer vacation) in a plethora of outdoor activities, hand-games and singing.
Singing the Macarena was a big hit; girls and boys of all ages quickly learned the dance and performed it constantly. Later in the morning, we would divide the children by age group and do larger art projects such as collages and finger painting. These art projects were always a great success and children would compete for the most elaborate painting. A few of the volunteers, myself included, had brought some games from home, and we would incorporate those materials into our morning programs.
On our first day at Bosco Pura, we came across an injured kitten which we adopted and we cared for it during the next two weeks with the aid of the children at Bosco Pura. In the afternoon, after a two hour lunch, when we would eat a sumptuous meal and take naps or showers to cool down from the midday heat, we would make our way back to Bosco Pura.
Throughout the day, especially to and from Bosco Pura, we were accompanied by Janeka, a Projects Abroad employee who led us through the streets of Negombo and ensured our constant safety. The afternoon activities consisted of either teaching English to some of mothers of the children we played with in the morning or painting educational murals on the staircase of the pre-school.
I had the fortune to teach a woman English and through our conversations together we were able to learn much of each other’s culture and lives. We discovered we had much in common and both loved cooking. She even taught me how to braid my hair as beautifully as hers. We continued to send each other messages for several weeks after I left Sri Lanka.
At night after a long and eventful day of playing with the kids, and helping out about the school, we almost always returned happily exhausted to Seetha’s hostel. After yet another yummy dinner we usually sat outside, played music, chatted and prepared ourselves for another packed full day. Nothing could have been nicer.
Over the weekend of our two-week stay, we visited the beautiful city of Kandy. We were incredibly lucky as our trip coincided with the internationally famous Perahera Buddhist festival when the town flooded with crowds to watch the elaborate weeklong festival. The festival celebrates the coming of the rain as Buddha’s Sacred Tooth is paraded through the city during this yearly ritual.
After adventuring through the streets together to find the best seats possible to view the parade, we luckily found ourselves with prime view of the flamethrowers, dancers, and jeweled elephants that passed by. It truly was an incredible and surreal experience. The next morning we continued our exploration of the city and visited the sacred Temple of the Tooth before heading back home to Seetha’s.
My time in Sri Lanka was not just a passive viewing of the culture but I learned to engage with everyone I met, whether they were the hilarious boys at Bosco Pura, or my fellow volunteers. I feel so blessed that I shared this experience with such a diverse mix of people with girls from France, Holland Japan and so many more countries. Far from satiating my curiosity, my time with Projects Abroad only reinforced the importance of traveling and servicing the community. My two weeks in Sri Lanka were truly life altering, and I am so honored to have been able to experience something so wonderful.