The sun is rising, its golden rays just beginning to peep through beneath the canopy. As the light brings me to my senses, my ears are filled with the sounds of chirping birds, creaking grasshoppers, singing monkeys and the cries of peacocks. I pull myself out from beneath the protection of my mosquito net and make my way into the kitchen to make a cup of tea amongst the hustle and bustle of my housemates, wishing them good morning as I go. I sit and enjoy a British ‘cuppa’ in front of one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever laid eyes on: a verdant paradise of endless mountains encompassed by thick jungle. There’s just one thing that goes through my mind as my world and this seemingly parallel universe collide – I wish I could wake up to this every morning…
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s start at the very beginning. Prior to landing my role at The Great Projects, I wasn’t too familiar with the concept of volunteering with animals, and during my time at the company so far, the travel bug has slowly but surely been growing. Therefore, I was ecstatic to find out I was being given the once in a lifetime opportunity to head out to The Great Elephant Project in Sri Lanka. Before this trip, I had never seen a wild elephant before, and the excitement was almost too much to bear!
This was my first time travelling alone, but I think my parents were more nervous than I was, giving me all the sound advice parents seem to have imprinted on their brains! I will never admit it, but some of what they were saying made sense, the most important being to make sure I absorbed every moment.
I found out I was to be travelling to Sri Lanka 6 days before my departure date, and as a type 1 diabetic with an insulin pump, various other autoimmune disorders and someone in need of every single vaccination required for the trip, you could say I was stressed at first. However, there was absolutely no time to dawdle, and so I booked emergency vaccinations immediately and got them the next day.
Luckily, I have an utterly fantastic diabetic care team, and I spoke with them on the phone about all the possible complications which could occur and what to do in the event they happen. I brought around a month’s worth of medication with me for a week’s trip, and a letter from the hospital explaining which medications I would be carrying and why – something which would prove to be my best friend at airport security!
After a manic few days of preparation, I packed up my equipment and shoved some last-minute items into my (already strained) backpack, and hopped into my dad’s car to drive to the airport.
It was an odd feeling waving my dad farewell at airport security, and for a moment, the world seemed so much bigger and I much smaller. I was mad, surely? Travelling alone to an entirely different continent, away from anything and everything I know. ‘I’m afraid so’, I said to myself thinking of the ages-old Alice In Wonderland quote: ‘completely bonkers, but all the best people are’. I was going to make a difference to humans and animals alike who had no proper means of defence themselves. My worries about Wi-Fi, social media and hot water propelled into oblivion and I was excited about what was to come.
I flew through the night, sleeping on and off, grateful to the selection of movies available on board and surprised at how much I enjoyed the airline food! Finally, we touched down in Sri Lanka and, enjoying the embrace of the heat, I followed my fellow travellers to collect my luggage. Immigration was simple, the people were very friendly and helpful, and from there I headed through Duty-Free to arrange myself a taxi and a local sim card. The great thing about Bandaranaike International Airport is that all you need is right there in the arrivals lounge. Sri Lanka has a closed currency, which means you can only exchange money in-country, but there were multiple currency exchange services, mobile network providers, and plenty of people willing to offer transport.
A man approached me wearing a suit offering his driving services, he helped with my bags and we chatted about the purpose of my trip. One thing became evident immediately as we began to drive through the city of Colombo: the locals were passionate about their wildlife.
‘They build land,’ he cried, ‘and leave nowhere for the wildlife to go! Where are they supposed to go? They were here first!’
I knew then that there was hope for this country and its wildlife. That this project was part of something much greater than what I first thought. Sri Lanka’s wildlife and limitless landscapes are its legacies, and it was refreshing to know that people still cared about that. As I visited the country during monsoon season the weather was stormy, but seeing the tropical trees bend with the wind beneath the dark rain clouds and lightning strikes in the distance was magical and set the scene of my impending adventure just perfectly.
I travelled through Colombo to get to the Hotel Shalimar where I was to be met at 6am the next morning by the project staff. The local people of Sri Lanka are all so welcoming and hospitable, and it was easy for me to say that, even feeling a little intimidated to be alone in this whole new world, I still felt safer there than I did walking the streets of London.
The drive from the airport is your first taste of Sri Lankan culture: tuk-tuks whizz past everywhere you go, and within the midst of the trees that border the city, you see young children playing, women carrying water and rice, and men working in the forest. Traditional Sri Lankan music filters into your ears along with welcome smells of local cuisine as you descend further into the city.
Fighting the urge to pinch myself to know that this was really happening, and the rest of my family, friends and colleagues really were thousands of miles away on an entirely different continent, I heard my dad’s voice telling me to just make sure I took everything in. So, that I did.
After roughly a 45-minute drive we arrived at the Hotel Shalimar, and I bid my taxi driver a fond farewell after thanking him for the interesting conversation – and the air conditioning! Once in my room, I confirmed my pick-up time in the morning with project facilitator Chinthaka, then had my first authentic Sri Lankan meal of fried rice, chicken and grilled vegetables. I was never a fan of spicy food, and the spice at first was somewhat difficult, but the delicious exotic tastes trumped the heat - in fact, it complimented it. I then crawled into a comfortable king-sized bed, where I finally allowed myself to succumb to the pull of the jet lag which had been tugging on my every move since landing.
I headed down to the foyer at around 5.50am to wait to be picked up by project staff where I met a fellow volunteer, Erwan. I was relieved to find another volunteer who was starting on the same day as me, as I was worried I would have to travel to Kandy alone. What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Erwan and I would be joined by a further 2 volunteers when we picked up a mother and daughter from another hotel.
Driving to the train station, we were 4 people from 3 different countries - France, England and China - yet we had all united for once cause. Very quickly I realised just how special that was!
The project staff helped us to lug our bags out of the car and told us to wait where we were while they went to arrange the train tickets. They waited with us amongst the locals travelling with their families, or businessmen on their way to work, to ensure we boarded the right train. When it arrived, delayed a little by the rainy weather, it seemed to be everything I expected it to be. A rickety old train that did what it needed to do. It was impossible not to compare this public transport with the kind we have back home. The difference was, there wasn’t litter all over these trains, no one was judging anyone else, there were no issues whatsoever. Everyone just got on the train and prepared to depart on our journey. And what a journey it was…
Thus far, I had witnessed a little of rural Sri Lanka that laid on the outskirts of the city, but the train journey from Colombo to Kandy was utterly beautiful. The surrounding jungle was brilliant green from the blooms of the rainy season, and you could see sparkling waterfalls trickling down the mountains in the distance. There were winding roads that just seemed to go on and on forever, and every so often you would see a family of 3 or 4 riding one motorbike!
We began to pass through a valley, and you could see the mist and the clouds that encompassed the mountains on the distant horizon. It made me wonder what mysteries lay within and the locals called us over to see the view from the open doors. Some locals were even hanging onto the side of the train!
The rest of my trip was honestly one of the best experiences that I have ever had. The moment you witness an elephant in the wild is one of the most breath-taking experiences that words simply cannot do justice. While it may have taken me a day or two to adjust to an entirely new culture, the transition was smooth and easy. You realise on arrival that everyone is in the same boat and that everyone is just there to do the same thing. You very quickly become family, and I can honestly say that I now have a new collection of friends for life.
This trip was a total and utter whirlwind. I was fortunate that my illnesses did not play up during my time in Sri Lanka, and I honestly think that that is because I have never felt such tranquillity or more at peace in my whole 22 years. If a volunteering trip is something that you are on the fence about, the only thing I would advise is that you go for it. Go and grab the world by the horns with both hands – I can promise you will not regret it!
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