Uniterra Road Trip – Students Without Borders version!

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A major part of my job here in Sri Lanka is welcoming and orienting new volunteers to the UniterraĀ program. In early September, we received nine Students Without Borders volunteers. They are each here as part of their undergraduate degrees, completing mandates relating to tourism, gender, handicrafts, and more. They come from three universities in Ontario (the UniversitiesĀ of Ottawa, Toronto, and Waterloo) and are each here from three to ten months. When they first arrived in the country, on the fifth of September, we gave them a couple of nights in Colombo to rest and get used to the heat and the time change (9.5 hours from Ontario!). During the day, we completed orientation sessions on topicsĀ such as culture, reporting, culture shock, language, and so much more!

Then, for their first weekend, they each completed a twenty-four hour village homestay in Wilpotha (remember I did that, too!), after which they returned to Colombo for a city tour and one last day in the city before moving on to their mandate locations around the country. This schedule wasĀ a whirlwind of a first week in the country and with such a big group, it was a lot of work to organize and execute. Though there were some hiccups here and there, I’m really proud of how orientation for this crew went. (The Uniterra team here at WUSC Sri Lanka is strong and experienced and I’m lucky to work with such awesome people on projects like this big orientation.) The volunteers are an eager and brilliant group so they were easy to handle and I’m excited to see the work they’ll do at their partner organizations while they are here.

After the business of orientation in Colombo and Wilpotha, we set off in a bus filled to the brim with volunteers, Uniterra staff, and so, so, SO much luggage. Where were we going? All over the country to drop everyone off at their mandate locations! We spent four nights on the road. In this time, we visited seven towns and cities and sevenĀ partner organizations. We completed eightĀ mandate meetings and organized accommodations for all our students (we try to find a place for them to stay that suits their needs but they sometimes move if they find something that they prefer and is still within our budget). It was so busy but I had a really amazing time. I feel a special connection to the Students Without Borders Uniterra volunteers because that’s how I started in the Uniterra program, too. I went to Ghana and Botswana on Uniterra mandates as a student a couple of years ago. Now, in Sri Lanka, I’m a long-term volunteer and I’m in theĀ position of supporting other volunteers as they embark on their Uniterra journeys and throughout their mandates in the country. Most of the students are doing this for the first time so their mix of excitement, nerves, and fear keepsĀ meĀ motivated to support them well in their first weeks in the country.

We started our road trip to drop everyone off last Monday afternoon. First stop: MataraĀ to visit INDECOS, Uniterra’s long-time partner NGO that hosts an excellent program for women entrepreneurs. We dropped two volunteers there, had some tea, took some photos, ate some cake, and then quickly said goodbye to get on to our next destination of the day, which was Tangalle. Further down the southern coast are the beautiful beaches of Tangalle and the surrounding area. In Tangalle, we dropped another volunteer (who gets to live in a lovely hotel across the street from a beautifulĀ beach and the hotelĀ has a pool!) who will be working with the local tourism association. After another goodbye, we all crammed back into the bus again to head to the last destination of the day: Hambantota.

In Hambantota, we stayed at the beautifulĀ Peacock Beach Hotel, which is along the beach and also has an amazing swimming pool. Honestly, though, I was too tired to swim after almost six hours of travel so I quickly went to bed after dinner. (Self-care is important, especially on the road!) The next day we visited the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce, where another one of our volunteers will be completing research about women’s participation in the tourism industry. We even got a chance to celebrate her birthday with a cake, a song, and some impromptu presents before heading off the next destination: Arugambay.

We arrived in Arugambay with enough daylight left for me to take a solitary walk along the main drag and then back along the beach. It was a perfect way to stretch my legsĀ after another long drive. I loved walking alone through a sea of tourists, surfers, fishermen, and merchants. Arugambay has its own unique flair of tourist kitsch that makes it very different from many other parts of the country so it’s fun to explore. That night in Arugambay, we stayed at the Bay Vista hotelĀ and slept soundly to another night of waves just outside our window. The next morning we found our volunteer staying there a place to liveĀ before dropping her off and heading out on the road again, this time up the eastern coast to Passikudah.

Passikudah is another beautiful beach town, but one that is much quieter than Arugambay. It’s less surfer and more resort and we were lucky enough to stay at one of these beautiful resorts on Wednesday night, called The Calm. We even got some free time to play in the warm and lazy waves and walk along the beach (a new favourite hobby of mine, a perk to living on an island). There was alsoĀ a pool there and I made sure to swim in it as well as the sea. It was refreshing to get some time to relax and get to know the volunteers still with us a little more. That is always my favourite part of the Uniterra road trips; getting to know our volunteers better along the way. Building these budding friendships helps me better support them through the ups and downs of their mandates because we’ve at least got some foundation of trust. They’re also always just really cool and interesting people. We had some fascinating conversations about love, politics, development theory, family, life choices, and religion on the bus and beach throughout the road trip. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to meet such dynamic people!

On Thursday, we dropped another volunteer in Passikudah, who will be working with the local tourism association just like our volunteers in Arugambay and Tangalle. Then, we said goodbye to the coast. That day, we traveled into the central region of Sri Lanka, through the Knuckles mountain range (small mountains but still amazing views!) to the heart of the country and formerly the heart of an empire. Kandy is easily one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka. I love being in a city with history so obviously surrounding you. The history is found in the temples and the lake and the building and even the layout roads. It’s hilly and lush and incredibly colourful and busy. I love it there and always feel refreshed when I spend time in the cooler air. In Kandy, we had our last meetings between volunteers and partner organization (this time, the Women’s Development Centre!), making the end of ourĀ road trip. We stayed overnight at the incredible Thilanka hotel, which sits atop a hill with views of Kandy town and the lake from each room’s balcony window. I slept so well that night, hoping that each of our new volunteers were also well and settling in happily to their new homes, towns, and partner organizations.

I woke up on Friday morning early, giving me some time before breakfast to catch up with a couple of friends in Canada while sitting on the balcony with the amazing view of Kandy sprawled out below me. Listening to the Buddhist chants coming from the famous tooth temple, I felt peaceful and comfortable and thankful for the opportunities I have so see and experience Sri Lanka through my job of supporting volunteers placed all around the island. I love the work of volunteer management and I love especially working with the students, whose hopes and fears remind me of myself just two years ago (and, now, too, if I’m honest!).

We traveled back to Colombo on Friday morning. The bus was now fairly empty, with justĀ the Uniterra staff (me, Sanduni, and Harshani) and one last volunteer. This last volunteer is now settling into her new home in Colombo, where she’ll also be working for a tourism association and likely will be regularly traveling east for work (lucky girl!). After arriving back in Colombo, I was tired of course but also interested in exploring just a little bit more. So, we visited the Colombo International Book Fair in the afternoon – fighting the huge crowds of people eager to buy books! (who knew?) – before retiring to our homes to catch up on the latest season of Suits, given to us by another of the volunteers (thank you!).

I originally was going to travel this weekend but instead I’m taking time to enjoy my wonderful home in Colombo. I cleaned and reorganized my apartment (hopefully my roommate doesn’t mind when she gets back from her own work travel on Tuesday…). I also invested in a proper pop-up mosquito net (finally!) and an incense burner to bring the calming smells of temples and shrines that I’ve grown accustomed to here into my home. This morning, I visited the Saturday “good market” and plan to cook properly for the first time in this apartment because it’s time to officially stop eating so much delicious take-away. (I can’t help it… the food options in the city are so diverse!) I’m writing this now still sweaty from at-home yoga practice, sipping Ceylon tea, at my newly rediscovered kitchen table. I’m tired from travel, yes, but feeling good and positive and, as always, grateful to call this place home.

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Hambantota beach in front of the Peacock Beach Hotel (these waves may look calm in the photo but I assure you, they are not calm!)

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Sunrise from my Peacock Beach Hotel balcony in Hambantota

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Birthday celebrations in Hambantota for Uniterra volunteer Jessica (right)

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The salt pans just outside of Hambantota

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Beach views in front of Bay Vista hotel in Arugambay

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You know in a tourist-y place when you can get nutella rotti!

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Beautiful Bay Vista hotel in Arugambay

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Morning views in Passikudah

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We saw an elephant in the distance (top right!) in Minneriya National Park along the way from Passikudah to Kandy

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Views from my balcony at Thilank hotel in Kandy

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Proof I saw this view in person šŸ˜‰

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The tooth temple in Kandy is so majestic at night!

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.