Sri Lanka and I recently celebrated our three month anniversary. While that might sound silly – because obviously I’m not actually in a relationship with this beautiful island – the word “anniversary” is the best way I can describe how I’m celebrating the past three months I’ve spent in the country. I feel like I’m in a comfortable friendship with Sri Lanka. Eventually, we’ll become old friends, reminiscing about all the good memories and embarrassing stories we’ve shared. Like that time I got stuck in a hug with an over-eager AirBNB host. Or that time I climbed a beautiful mountain at sunrise only to have the view blocked by clouds. Or even that time I stood on a public bus for an hour, falling into the crowds of people as we swerved in and out of traffic, making everyone laugh at my truly terrible balance.
Awkward moments aside, I’ve settled so well into life in Sri Lanka. Colombo, the capital, is an easy city to live in. It’s easily traveled (despite the world’s longest rush hour) and it has pockets of interesting restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops to explore. I spend most of my weekends traveling and that, too, hasn’t been hard. Sri Lankans have lived up to their reputation as a welcoming and hospitable culture. People around the country have helped me find my way around and discover the amazing sites (and sights!) this country has to offer. Everyone I met seems invested in my experience, as if they want to show off the beauty of this magical place. (For example, folks in my office are always asking after my travel plans and, if I spend a weekend in Colombo, I am reminded that Sri Lanka has many amazing places to visit and that I should travel as much as I can!)
I still don’t have much of a traditional routine. Travel for work plus travel on the weekends means I am out of the apartment I share with another volunteer as much as I am in it. (My roommate travels even more than I do for work so surely our landlord thinks we’re easy renters because we’re barely home!) Despite the lack of a consistent schedule, I have fallen into a kind of routine. I have my regular haunts, like the rice and curry place by my house that I travel to for lunch as often as I can because it’s amazing and the e-cafe that’s right down the street from me (and literally called “e-cafe”).
I have also figured out how to keep myself healthy, mentally and physically. I definitely eat too much pasta (one of the best Italian restaurants in Colombo is just across the street from me… so I can’t help it!) but, other than that, I’ve worked to find places to work out or, at the very least, get my body moving. Yoga classes are only a fifteen minute walk away and the instructors recognize me now. (I also no longer get nervous setting up my mat and have slowly moved my way forward in the classes, towards the mirror and instructor. Baby steps!) And I’ve recently started running at Independence Square, a public space used by everyone – no matter their age, gender, or religion – to keep fit. There’s a short running circle of just over one kilometre that I’ll run a few times after work. I just plug into a podcast and dodge my way through the scores of people walking, running, and chatting. Though I generally know nobody there, it feels like a community.
Work itself is the most comfortable office I’ve worked in. Like any good millennial, I fear the “nine-to-five grind” but because I’m really enjoying the work that I do (a post about my job is coming soon, I promise!) and I really love the people I’m working with, it’s not so much of a grind and more of a thing to look forward to – really! As a Volunteer Support Officer, I have the privilege of interacting with such interesting people who have chosen to volunteer and who are working around the country. I get to walk them through their personal and professional struggles, goals, and growth. (Most of the time, I just listen. It’s something all of us need.) This mandate is a rewarding position that aligns with my values. As a recent grad, this is more than I could have imagined in my first year out of uni!
Of course there are struggles. Of course there’s been some culture shock. Of course I’ve had my moments of homesickness (like when my family gathered for a reunion recently and I only Skyped in, feeling so very far away). But all in all, the good strongly outweighs the bad. I’m doing well. And I’m really happy. And I’m so proud of myself for being able to say this! I’ve struggled through international mandates in the past for a variety of reasons, both internal and external, so I’m incredibly grateful for the positive experience of these past twelve weeks. And I’m confident that the positivity is only going to continue. I’ve learned from the hard times I experienced in other places. I’ve become a stronger person and also (I hope!) a better volunteer. I care deeply about the NGO I work for so I’m motivated to work really hard.
As time goes on in Sri Lanka, I think I’ll continue to celebrate my weekly anniversaries here. I arrived in the country on a Sunday so every Sunday here I have a little moment of gratitude. I just look around at wherever I am – usually someplace awesome like a random island north of Jaffna or inside an incredible Buddhist cave temple – and take a deep breath, reminding myself that while my life here has started to feel normal, I should never take it for granted because it’s a rare and special opportunity. I’m still working on developing a more stable routine here but at least I have my little weekly ritual. Sri Lanka and I have have developed a solid relationship and I’m confident it’ll only get stronger as the weeks and months pass. As volunteers in the program I’m working on come and go, I’m grateful to have a year here. Although sometimes that doesn’t seem like long enough.
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.