Life as a Volunteer in Rural Sri Lanka
At the age of 25 I have been to over 40 countries and across all 6 inhabited continents. Many people who don’t travel or volunteer are blissfully unaware of what volunteers do, how they do it and the underlying philosophy behind why they chose to do it.
Let me start by introducing myself. I am not a tourist, nor am I a commercial holidaymaker. I am a backpacker, a traveller, a volunteer, a free spirit, someone who simply follows the signs, strays off the track and goes with the flow. I don’t go to a country and tour the sights. Instead I live with the locals, eat and sleep wherever needs be, get my hands dirty and try to see a culture through locals’ eyes. I do not have a normal 9-5 job or a house I regularly live in. I spend my life travelling the world, working on specific volunteer projects for either individuals or organisations who seek help, both in developed and developing nations.
For these reasons, I live simply and don’t own a car. I believe that having less is being more and being more is having less. I would rather spend time sitting on a rock overlooking a canyon than watching a movie. I probably spend less in a month than someone at home spends in a week. I speak two languages, yet I am constantly faced with a language barrier anywhere and everywhere I go, not only the language itself but people’s life philosophy, perspective of the world and frame of mind.
Welcome to the life of a volunteer
Recent countries that I have volunteered in include Gambia, Colombia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. All volunteer projects have been hidden far away from the bustling society or commercialisation of any city, and have given me unimaginable insight to a range of personal qualities and a swathe of alternative education. Sri Lanka is the destination that has inspired me the most and opened my eyes to the incredible things of which this world and its people are really capable.
Volunteering in Sri Lanka
Deep in the rural area of Northern Sri Lanka – an area that only a few years ago was completely out of bounds to foreign people due to the civil war – I spent time volunteering on an almost 100% self-sustainable farm.
The most incredible project I have been on yet, the philosophy of this eco community is to live in complete harmony with nature. By building their own mud houses, living in them, cultivating and harvesting their own crops, using recycled water and taking care of their ever-demanding animals, they leave a carbon footprint of almost zero. All the while, their personal and alternative qualities, as individuals and as a collective, mixed with the sheer effort they put in to everyday living, blew my mind and exposed a new outlook on life. They further aim to build a school, a bakery, and more mud houses and to expand their crops.
The eco community is still in its very initial stage of development and with high ambitions there was a lot of work to do. The main activities consisted of gardening and cultivating crops, mud house building, fitting palm leaf roofing, and animal husbandry. A normal day would be to rise at 6am, start working at 7am until 4 or 5pm with various breaks in between for food and rest. Each day in itself was different and required a new set of skills that I usually didn’t have, but as a volunteer this is a reality you face every day.
There are days that a volunteer will never forget and days that they will only try to forget. One of the most significant days that I will never forget is when I lost the entire herd of goats, twice. This is a great example of when a volunteer will get a large responsibility and little instruction and therefore when quick thinking can turn the other way. Standing in the middle of a field, given a stick and told that 25 goats can’t go ‘there, there and there’ while the farmer points out a vague circular motion all around, was a typical day for my volunteer life in Sri Lanka. As was trying to navigate my way back to the community in the pitch black while trying not to run into wild elephants and trying to have an understandable conversation about one topic that lasted under half an hour, because of the intense language barrier.
Why we volunteer
Being left with little instruction and large responsibilities and working for hours and hours for no pay is the life of a volunteer. Nevertheless, volunteers continue to help because they're left awestruck by unbelievable people and places. The expense of little money, the rewarding feeling of a successful contribution to the world, the unconventional and unpredictable travel path and a continuously and ever expanding outlook onto the world and friendship circle is the life of a volunteer. But most of all the life of a volunteer offers you an unforgettable, unimaginable, unique, inspiring milestone in life and an experience that a person who only backpacks will never experience. For this reason, volunteers continue to give back to the world they travel.
Next time you think about volunteering, do it. Learn about other cultures and ways of life, immerse yourself into a new world, and help those who need it most. All you need is 20 seconds of courage to book your place on a project and I promise you something great will come of it.