Exploring Sri Lanka’s ancient history in Dambulla & Sigiriya

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Last weekend we had an opportunity: the next Tuesday was a Poya day (a monthly Buddhist holiday for the full moon), which meant we had the day off… So three of us, all WUSC Sri Lanka volunteers, took Monday off and decided to make ourselves a long weekend. After giving ourselves four full days of time to do something, the question was: What should we do with our time? Initially, we decided to take the famously beautiful train journey to visit Ella and hike in the hill country. But apparently everyone else also had these plans because we couldn’t book even a single train ticket in third class! With a smirk at our last minute planning, the ticket settler told me that every ticket had been sold out for days.

Instead of trekking in hill country for the weekend, we decided to visit an important part of Sri Lanka’s history and bus to Dambulla and Sigiriya for the weekend. Dambulla is about a five-hour bus journey from Colombo, depending on the bus of course. We were not-so-secretly hoping for an air conditioned luxury bus but the stars did not align to make this happen and instead we ended up on a hot and overcrowded private bus. It was uncomfortable but I settled in quickly by opening the window and listening to an audiobook on the phone (side-note: my Audible.com subscription has made traveling to various destinations around the island so much better!).

We arrived in Dambulla about midday on Saturday. Our AirBNB host had told me to call her when we reached the “bus station” near Food City, a grocery store chain here in Sri Lanka. The bus station was actually just a bus stop that I nearly missed but thankfully my travel companions were on the lookout for the Food City. We hopped off the bus, squeezing ourselves through the crush of people occupying not only the seats but also the bus aisles, and then got a chance to stretch our legs. Our AirBNB host arrived soon after to pick us up (awesome perk!) and drove us to our home for the next few nights.

After some lunch, it was time to get down to the business of sightseeing. We invested a few thousand rupees in a ‘tour package’ of the area from our AirBNB hosts so that we didn’t have to worry about finding tuk-tuks here and there. It was probably the pricier decision but it was also so much more comfortable so I think it was worth it. The first step of our tour of the region was the Golden Temple in Dambulla.

The Golden Temple is a famous Buddhist temple at the base of a large hill. The temple itself is lovely and there is also a museum but the main attraction is a massive Buddha statue painted gold. The statue looks out calmly beyond all the tourists snapping photos, as if to encourage everyone to look around at the region’s beautiful natural scenery as well. Beyond the typical tourist attractions, visitors to Dambulla are greeted with lush forests and layers of hills on the horizon. In every direction there is something to point out, something to photograph.

Just next to the stairs up to see the golden Buddha, we found a path leading up a large rock hill. We started to climb, curious but not knowing where it would lead. We were still barefoot from exploring the temple grounds (it is respectful to remove your shoes in Buddhist temples). As we climbed the steep hill, though, we noticed we were the only foreigners with bare feet. Only Sri Lankans were barefoot, too, we noticed after a large family pointed at our naked feet and laughed. We just smiled and shrugged at them and kept climbing. I said a quiet prayer that no one would steal my sandals from the temple entrance. (People wouldn’t steal from a temple, would they?)

We climbed and climbed and I realized some shoes would be helpful. We kept pushing forward, honestly wondering where we were going but eager to figure out what was at the top. Then, the hill evened out and a panoramic view of the surrounding forests and hills could be seen from every direction. There were also many monkeys hanging around and, just a bit in the distance, a temple entrance. That’s when I finally figured out where we were and what we had climbed to: we were at the entrance of Dambulla’s ancient cave temple! I knew they were in the area but I honestly didn’t know that they were connected to the Golden Temple.

The cave temples are ancient holy places for Buddhists, where the caves are filled with paintings on the walls and ceilings as well as Buddha statues in many poses. Walking into the first cave temple was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The lights were off, since they are on a cycle to preserve the space, so it was quiet and dark inside. The light from the door illuminated a large Buddha statue and I was almost emotional thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people who have worshipped here over the centuries and how lucky I was to be in this same space as all of them.

Then the lights slowly flickered back on and my fellow tourists flooded in. My little moment of emotion over, I took some photos then walked on to the next cave. There were several cave rooms filled with Buddhist art. It was breathtaking and a very special experience seeing all this beauty hidden inside a rock hill. The view was also outstanding. We spent quite a while just hanging out high up on the rock, taking in the hills and enjoying the serenity of being in a sacred space. The only disruption was the occasional cry from a tourist being accosted by the resident monkeys.

We climbed back down and headed back to our room for the night. We needed to rest up because the alarm clock was waking us up at four thirty the next morning. On Sunday morning, when the alarm went off, we hurried into our hiking clothes, rushed into the jeep, and drove to Pidurangala. We were off to hike this rock called Pidurangala early in the morning so that we could watch the sunrise from the top. The hike itself was short and mostly rocky stairs. It was challenging but only because I was rushing up as fast as possible, worried that I would miss the sunrise.

When I got to the top, I realized I would miss the sunrise anyways because of the clouds but watching the view lighten with daybreak was nonetheless incredibly beautiful. The most spectacular part of the view is Sigiriya, which means Lion Rock. It is another huge rock opposite Pidurangala and it is the more famous of the two because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Sri Lankans call it the eighth wonder of the world. After some celebratory “we made it to the top!” photos, we scrambled back down the rock and back to our room for some well-earned napping.

On our last full day of touring in the area, we climbed Sigiriya. At first, we were hesitant because, frankly, it’s pricey to get into but I decided that I would regret not going so I should just suck it up and shell out the cash. I’m very grateful I did because it was a very worthwhile experience! Before we climbed the rock, we explored the grounds, which are filled with water gardens and caves that used to be filled with paintings that have since eroded away. Our small group got separated in the excitement but we managed to find each other about halfway up the rock at the mirror wall. The mirror wall is named because it used to be so shiny you could see yourself in it but after centuries of tourists visiting Sigiriya, ancient graffiti now covers the wall. It is fascinating to think that Sigiriya has been a tourist destination for so many, many years.

Before making our final ascent at the Lion’s Paw statue near the top, we had to wait a while. Why? Because there are terrifying aggressive wasps that sometimes like to attack tourists so their activity is monitored by tourist police and if its decided they need to calm down a bit then the tourists wait to walk up the last few stairs to get to Sigiriya’s summit. I was honestly so scared of the seemingly-rickety-but-surely-safe staircase we were climbing to get to the top that I didn’t have enough space in my heart to also be scared of wasps. We were lucky enough to avoid any scary wasp attack or awful staircase collapse (a scenario I kept replaying in my head), making it to the top safe and sound!

Yet again we were surrounded by centuries of history and incredible views. Sigiriya was once a fortress that protected a king so there are ruins of the palace at the top and even the remnants of a throne you can perch on. The views of the hills and valleys and forests and rivers most caught my attention, though. Everything looked like the cover of a storybook, as if an artist had drawn the most beautiful landscape they could think of and I was lucky enough to be looking at it. I was so enthralled that I bounded around the top of the rock like an excitable toddler. Like at the top of the Dambulla cave temple and Pidurangala, we took our time to enjoy the view before finally deciding to head back down.

The next day was reserved for travel back to Colombo. Again, we were hoping to grab a seat on an air conditioned bus but we were told that one “might” be coming “sometime in the afternoon” and that wasn’t too hopeful so we crammed ourselves onto a private bus, standing for the first hour of our journey home. We were quite the spectacle, standing in the aisle squeezed together like sardines. We just laughed and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation and everyone around us just laughed too, which was for the best since I kept crashing into anyone and everyone around me anytime the bus lurched to and fro. Eventually, as the bus cleared out, we each got a seat, meaning I was finally able to tune out the traffic and chatter with an audiobook.

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The entrance of the Golden Temple

The giant Buddha statue at the Golden Temple in Dambulla

The giant Buddha statue at the Golden Temple in Dambulla

One of the many monkeys at the Golden Temple and cave temple. This one was eating the flower offerings!

One of the many monkeys at the Golden Temple and cave temple. This one was eating the flower offerings!

A painting inside the cave temple

A painting inside the cave temple

All of the cave temple paintings were intricate and complex

All of the cave temple paintings were intricate and complex

Some of the many Buddha statues in the cave temple

Some of the many Buddha statues in the cave temple

The lighting in the cave temple gave the caves a beautiful and sometimes eerie glow, filled with shadows and contrast

The lighting in the cave temple gave the caves a beautiful and sometimes eerie glow, filled with shadows and contrast

The view from the top of the Dambulla cave temple

The view from the top of the Dambulla cave temple

Sigiriya at daybreak from the top of Pidurangala

Sigiriya at daybreak from the top of Pidurangala

Another view of Sigiriya after the sun fully rose

Another view of Sigiriya after the sun fully rose

Our guide insisted we take this photo and I think the outcome is hilarious

Our guide insisted we take this photo and I think the outcome is hilarious

Some of the interesting contraptions used to get tourists up to the top of Sigiriya. It's safe but it looks and feels scary!

Some of the interesting contraptions used to get tourists up to the top of Sigiriya. It’s safe but it looks and feels scary!

The wasps are the real safety issue on Sigiriya so there are these funny-until-you-think-about-it signs all over the UNESCO World Heritage Site

The wasps are the real safety issue on Sigiriya so there are these funny-until-you-think-about-it signs all over the UNESCO World Heritage Site

View of Pidurangala from the top of Sigiriya

View of Pidurangala from the top of Sigiriya

Selfie at the top of Sigiriya - you can see some of the ruins behind me

Selfie at the top of Sigiriya – you can see some of the ruins behind me

On top of the rock at Sigiriya

On top of the rock at Sigiriya

This view from Sigiriya was really special!

My favourite view from the top of Sigiriya

If you would like to donate to my fundraising campaign for Uniterra (note this money supports local partners not my volunteer mandate), check out my Canada Helps page.

A beautiful overnight in beautiful Galle Fort

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While I was away at the youth programme in Naula, Sabrina messaged me asking if I wanted to go to Galle Fort for the weekend. Not one to ever turn down exploring a new place, I said “sure!” and pretty soon she had booked us an AirBNB and figured out how to get us there and back by bus and train, depending on which we preferred. I was only to spend one day – Canada Day, actually! – back in Colombo after the youth programme before jetting off again. My schedule’s been busy but it’s also been a lot of fun to discover new things all the time, so I’m definitely not complaining.

Part of the plan from the beginning was to take the train because it’s supposed to be very, very beautiful since it runs along the coast. We had originally planned to take the train there and the bus back but we had a later morning on Saturday than anticipated so we flipped that plan, taking the bus there instead of the train. We hailed one of the nicest tuk-tuk drivers in all of Colombo (I mean, I haven’t done studies, but he was VERY nice) to drive us to Maharagama Bus Stand, where we caught a luxury bus (with air con!) to Galle. I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Galle, if I’m honest…. because, as usual, I fell asleep on the bus, losing my spot in the audiobook I was listening to. Point is, the bus was quick and easy as every bus experience in Sri Lanka has been so far.

Once we arrived in Galle, we took a quick walk to the train station just to see about train timings for the next day as well as know how much it was going to cost and know exactly where we needed to go. Then we negotiated with a less-nice tuk-tuk driver to take us into the fort, where we spent the rest of our time in Galle. The Galle Fort was establish originally by the Portuguese but mostly built by the Dutch, who significantly expanded the square-footage. Because of the Dutch influence, the fort has a very unique feel to it. There’s Dutch arches and architecture everywhere and even the Buddhist temple and Muslim mosque had a distinctly European feel to them. Since the end of the civil war in 2009 and upon recovery from the tsunami in 2004, Galle Fort has transformed into a very popular tourist destination because of its unique look.

It is now filled with beautiful shops and boutiques for excellent shopping of souvenirs, clothes, and more. It also is home to some really beautiful small guest houses and hotels. Plus, there are some great restaurants! Definitely a perfect place for a weekend getaway from Colombo. We spent our first day just wandering around, trying to avoid the occasional downpour and stay cool during the hottest part of the day. The fort tends to get extremely hot because there isn’t much to ward off the heat; it’s mostly houses and cobblestone with few trees or gardens. We ate lunch at the delicious Indian Hut then wandered through shops like Barefoot, Exotic Roots, and the Stick No Bills art gallery. We picked up some strawberry gelato and sat along the sea wall of the fort, watching the sun set. For dinner, we ate at the Heritage Cafe, where I befriended (accidentally) a stray cat that really, really wanted to be my friend. After, we walked over to Taphouse in the Galle Dutch Hospital shopping arcade for a post-dinner glass of wine. We got home around 10PM and settled into our little room at the Galle Fort Guest House, feeling satisfied with how our first day went.

The next day, we both slept in until about 10AM, which meant we got a later start and were faced with the heat of mid-day faster than I would have liked. We didn’t let the heat stop us, though, searching out a walking tour of the fort to learn more history. We hired Fazal, who calls himself Galle Fort’s storyteller, to take us around and tell us about the history. We learned a lot over the course of the next hour or so, not only about the colonial history but also about how the community has evolved since tourism became a major force in the area. Galle Fort is considered a must-see in Sri Lanka now, which means foreign money is coming into the area (good for economic development). This change has affected the dynamics of the community, though, with fewer Sri Lankans living in the area, deciding instead to sell their family homes to foreigners or to be used as tourist shops or guest houses. I really appreciate Fazal’s honesty about his feelings about how his community has changed as it reminded me that my presence as a tourist has an impact on the places that I visit.

After our tour, we ate at Fazal’s restaurant – the famous Royal Dutch Cafe. Signs outside boasted the best tea and the best rice and curry in the city (or maybe the country?). I have to admit, I was doubtful about these statements until I drank my delicious, delicious tea and ate my delicious, delicious curries. If you are heading to Galle Fort, you have no choice: you MUST eat at the Royal Dutch Cafe. With sated appetites, we headed to the train station for our much-anticipated train journey. Notably, its recommended that you take second class to ensure good views of the sea from your window. First class has air con, yes, but the windows don’t open so apparently it’s not as easy to see the beauty of the ocean or take photos. So we scrambled into second class, obeying the directions of a very caring ticket taker at the train station (thanks, dude, for your help!), and prepared for our journey back to the city.

The train was indeed beautiful. It goes along the coast, especially in the last hour or so approaching Colombo. It was longer than the bus but worth every minute for the views. It was an excellent way to end a pretty successful weekend. We did little more than wander around and eat incredible food but sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

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The street of our guest house – Mango House on the lefthand side of the street is one of Galle Fort’s lovely boutique hotels

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The incredibly cool art in the Stick No Bills gallery

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Inside one of the busier souvenir shops in Galle Fort

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Post-rain sunshine

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I have so, so, so many photos of tuk-tuks… They’re so cute!

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We also visited the strange and busy and cluttered Mansion Museum inside the fort

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Collection of records inside the museum

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Collection of plates inside the museum

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Collection of currencies inside the museum

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Galle was quite affected by the 2004 tsunami. This small artifact in the museum quietly reminds visitors of this tragic history.

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Sabrina caught this photo of me while we explored the fort walls. Behind me, you can see part of city of Galle. (Also I’m repping WUSC Sri Lanka with my WUSC tote bag and Uniterra rainbow umbrella!)

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One of the piers just outside the fort

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This is apparently the oldest breadfruit tree in Sri Lanka, brought over by the Portuguese.

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We visited a church, too!

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Very interesting to see how the buildings are constructed. They didn’t have concrete so the buildings were made with all sorts of interesting things, including limestone and coral.

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Any time is tea time at the Royal Dutch Cafe

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Fazal showed us an album of photos he took in Galle after the tsunami in 2004. Heart-wrenching images.

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Bye for now, guest house! I’ll hope to come back soon!

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The train schedule board at the Galle train station

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Heading out on the train

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Beach views on our way home

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More beach views – Sri Lanka, you’re beautiful as always!

If you would like to donate to my fundraising campaign for Uniterra (note this money supports local partners not my volunteer mandate), check out my Canada Helps page.

Youth Programme in Naula

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For most of last week, I had the unique opportunity of observing a major programme run by the WUSC Sri Lanka staff. From Monday evening until Thursday morning, staff from the various WUSC offices around Sri Lanka ran a 2-day adventure-based leadership and diversity programme for young people ages 18 – 29 years. And they were kind enough to invite me along to watch!The 120 youth who attended the programme are participants in WUSC Sri Lanka’s ASSET program, which focuses on vocational training for youth and women in hospitality and tourism, construction, ICT, and vehicle mechanics. Last week’s leadership programme was specifically focused on giving these participants a chance to talk about what it’s like to live in a diverse country with various ethnic groups, religions, and language barriers. This programme is especially relevant to Sri Lanka, a country working on reconciling post-civil war, which officially ended in 2009. The programme also focused on leadership and personal development, touching on all these themes throughout.

The programme was hosted at the National Youth Corps Training Centre in Naula, which is about an hour north of Kandy (Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, after Colombo where I’m staying). The training centre is a large space in the forest, set against the background of beautiful hills. On the grounds, there is a outdoor but roofed meeting hall that can house at least 200 people as well as various administrative and dormitory buildings. The main attractions, though, are the rope activities used in adventure-based leadership training, which is called “outbound” here. The meeting hall was used on both days and the rope activities were the focus of the second full day of programming.

On Monday, I traveled from the WUSC office in Colombo to Naula, stopping only twice on the four-hour journey into the hills (we stopped the first time briefly to reorient ourselves because our driver apparently got a little lost and the second time for a roadside lunch of rice and curry). Once in Naula, we arrived at the training centre around the same time as about half of the programme participants. (The other half arrived later in the evening since they were traveling from further away.) I could tell by their excited chatter that the participants were eager to get started. They settled in the dormitories where they would stay for the duration of the programme and then there was a short welcome and introduction.

Once this was over, the WUSC crew headed over to our own accommodations, a hotel just up the road called Hotel Dino (sadly, not as in “dinosaur”). Although it was a rather steep, treacherous journey up to the hotel, it was well worth it because the staff was fantastic and the service was excellent throughout the three nights we stayed there. (They do not have a TripAdvisor yet since they are quite new but I’d definitely recommend Hotel Dino if you’re looking for accommodations in the area!) After a late dinner, it was time for bed since the next day was to start quite early.

The first full day of programming was Tuesday, when participants went through a series of icebreakers activities to get acquainted with each other, since they were from all over the country (from as far north as Jaffna and as far south as Matara!). The rest of the day was taken up by activities focused on introducing the ideas of diversity and inclusion to the participants. The message of the day was put quite well by one of the facilitators who said at once point, “We are different but equal”. Most of the programming was in Tamil and Sinhala, ensuring that everyone in the room understood. Tamil and Sinhala are the two major languages in Sri Lanka and also loosely represent different ethnic groups in the country. Because of this, few of the participants spoke both languages. Over the course of the programme (and I would argue as a result of the diversity-focused workshops), many of the participants tried to learn a few words of each others’ languages, which was heartening to see because key focuses of this programme were cross-cultural communication and reconciliation.

Each day was broken up by a morning and afternoon tea as well as a noontime lunch. The food was a mix of northern and southern food, allowing participants to share in each other’s cultures in even this small way. Furthermore, participants’ days started with fitness training run by the National Youth Corps, to reinforce the importance of physical activity as a routine. So while the programme was focused on diversity and inclusion as well as personal development there were many important lessons woven into the planning of the event.

The second day was adventure-based leadership and team-building activities that took place on the ropes. The students were introduced to the ropes activities by the National Youth Corps trainers. They demonstrated each activity and even once put on a little sketch to show that it’s okay to be fearful of flying through the air on a rope (even though it’s 100% safe because they were harnessed in!). There were five rope activities in total. The first was a Tarzan-swing where participants jumped from a platform, “swinging”from a rope, towards a rope wall, which they would then climb down. The second was a standing zipline (I did this one! It was so much fun, though sadly there is no photographic evidence!). The third was a race to the top of a spiderweb rope. The fourth was a race up a more horizontal rope net. And the last had participants walk across a ladder high between two trees, holding a sliding rope above their heads to keep steady. The activities were very safe because of the harnesses but they felt daring enough to elicit a fear response so participants had to build themselves and each other up to overcome their fear. The entire day was filled with cheering and gleeful screams. It was so much fun to watch and I know they had a lot of fun doing it as well.

During the afternoon on the second day, the WUSC crew took a break from the programme to visit a nearby spice garden while the National Youth Corps staff facilitated the rope activities. We climbed into the truck and drove a little down the road to one of the many historic spice gardens in the area. It was definitely a welcome break from all the excitement. We got to hang out and learn a bit about the medicinal properties of the various spices grown in the garden and around Sri Lanka. We also got free head massages, which was very relaxing until I noticed that it left my hair looking extra wonderful, if I do say so myself (note the sarcasm!). My rat-nest-like hair was perfect for the end-of-programme plans that were happening that evening – a goodbye “graduation” ceremony where each participant was presented with a certificate… which meant I was photographed approximately five billion times (give or take) in the span of an hour… with my wonderful-looking post-head-massage hair. Oops! Hopefully WUSC keeps those photos quiet but… I have a feeling that one day I’ll show up on a brochure somewhere looking like I’ve been through a hurricane!

After the certificate ceremony, the WUSC crew as well as the folks hired to photograph and video the programme all went back to Hotel Dino for a group dinner. We were all very tired but also strangely energized despite all the walking / shouting / talking / socializing / organizing and reorganizing. I felt dead and I had barely done anything so I was especially impressed that the rest of the WUSC staff had the energy to be upright and awake let alone chatting and laughing before dinner! This was actually a wonderful evening, despite the exhaustion, because I got to see everyone in an excellent mood, teasing each other and sharing stories over a meal. I felt comfortable, at ease, and welcomed (even if most of the time I had no idea what they were talking about because I still haven’t started my Sinhala lessons).

The next day, Thursday, I was blessedly told to sleep in and relax while the rest of the staff facilitated reflection activities for the participants before everyone went their separate ways before lunch. We drove back to Colombo that afternoon and I arrived back to Colombo in a bit of a daze but definitely grateful for the opportunity to observe such an interesting and productive few days at the youth programme!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next post about a weekend away at the Old Dutch Fort in Galle!

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Banner for the youth programme in Naula offered by WUSC Sri Lanka to ASSET program participants

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The signs welcoming participants to the National Youth Corps Training Centre

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Participants at work during one of the programme workshops

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Everything during the programme was translated into both Tamil and Sinhala, showing how to practice what you preached about diversity and inclusion (pictured here are notes about participants’ fears and expectations… note that one student said he had a “girl’s phobia”, haha!!!)

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One of the programme facilitators describing an activity to participants

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A tree filled with encouraging words in English, Tamil, and Sinhala at the National Youth Corps Training Centre in Naula, Sri Lanka

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Another one of the many inspirational saying posted around the grounds

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Morning activity on the second day – a relay race!

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One of the rope activities

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The end of the Tarzan swing!

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Spiderweb climb!

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We had good luck with the weather except for a couple of short downpours… and when it rains here, it REALLY rains.

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The hilly backdrop to the programme – simply beautiful there!

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These ladies (participants’ mothers) really wanted a photo with me with the mountain in the background so I asked if I could have one, too! They were awesome, keeping me company on the sidelines during the programme even though we didn’t share a language

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Some of the WUSC crew at the end of the first day

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Putting this photo in because the name for these sweet buns translates to “crocodile buns” which I think is hilarious!

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Stayed positive because the sign told me to 😉 (also – my hair’s so puffy in the humidity!)

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Outside the main hall, proudly wearing my WUSC Sri Lanka tee-shirt!

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At the end-of-programme graduation certificate ceremony

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End-of-programme group photo (shortly after this was taken, every single one of those balloons had been popped from waving them around!)

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… And that’s a wrap!

If you would like to donate to my fundraising campaign for Uniterra (note this money supports local partners not my volunteer mandate), check out my Canada Helps page.