As part of the orientation program for new Uniterra volunteers, WUSC Sri Lanka sends each volunteer to an overnight homestay in a village called Wilpotha, which is about an hour north of Negombo (depending on the traffic, of course). During this homestay, the volunteers stay with a family who lives around or below the poverty line and who do not speak very much English, if any at all. This experience is designed to help volunteers understand rural living in Sri Lanka and also as an exercise in humility because the volunteers are thrown into a very unknown situation, by themselves, and need to act with as much as grace and respect as possible throughout.
Last Friday it was my turn to participate in this final step of orientation. Generally, the homestay should happen sometime in the first week of arriving in Sri Lanka but we got busy getting down to business so it got put off – oh well! One thing we emphasize to new volunteers during orientation that I have found a helpful reminder myself when things don’t go as planned is: “Go with the flow”. Anyways, we left for Wilpotha on Friday morning. Instead of driving straight there, though, we stopped in Negombo to check up on a couple of hotels we are thinking of using for the second half of the upcoming Uniterra program Asia regional meeting, which WUSC Sri Lanka’s Uniterra team is hosting in August. (We’ll be bringing together the teams from Uniterra’s four Asian countries: Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Nepal! I’m very excited to meet everyone and participate in my small way in these meetings.) We checked out a couple of lovely hotels, got some follow-up contact info, and then were off on our way again to our final destination at Wilpotha.
When we approached Wilpotha, I noticed immediately how green and lush everything is. Sri Lanka is lush in general but here it seemed more noticeable. The palms seemed greener, the sky a clearer blue, and the soil a deeper red. I also noticed that it reminded me a lot of Bibiani, Ghana, where I stayed for three months in 2014 on another Uniterra mandate. (Several things about Sri Lanka – especially the climate and weather – remind me of Ghana regularly but this was the most obvious comparison so far.) Before arriving at my homestay, my supervisor brought me and the other volunteer Sabrina to a women’s centre, where women from the area come together to produce quality craft products like handmade paper and bags made from coconut fibres with the purpose of economic empowerment. We arrived at the centre quite late for lunch so, after a brief tour, we tucked in to the incredible meal they had prepared for us. It was delicious! Afterwards, they showed us how they roast and hull cashews by hand. Cashews have always been my favourite nuts and will definitely stay my favourite after I had them freshly roasted for the first time. They were like warm nut butter packets and probably my favourite thing I’ve had since I arrived (although I just recently ate my first rambutan, which are also amazing).
Since we were a little late to arrive due to visiting hotels in Negombo, we didn’t hang out long after eating lunch at the women’s centre so that Sabrina and I could have some daylight hours to get to know our homestay families. To get to our homestays, we drove down some quite perilous village roads (lots of potholes but some beautiful views of rice patties and palm forests). First stop was the home where I’d be staying the night. I was greeted by a large, smiling family of strangers who were generously opening their home to me (a stranger to them) for the next 24 hours. I was a little overwhelmed with all the excitement and activity happening around me in Sinhala, a language I do not yet speak (I’m scheduling language lessons soon!) but I nonetheless felt very welcomed. They laughed when I threw my hands up in the air enthusiastically when it was announced their family is vegetarian, which made everyone laugh so I guess that was a decent first impression.
The WUSC staff soon left to drop Sabrina off at her homestay (another family down the road) and I was struck with the classic “What now?” feeling of arriving in a new place. Thankfully, my homestay family had a plan… They were taking me to the water tank, said the daughter who spoke a few words of English. I thought (internally) that the water tank didn’t seem like that exciting a place to visit, because I thought the water tank was like the water tower in Canada, but I didn’t know what else I was going to do while I was there so I followed their lead. We actually did pass a kind of water tower as we walked but I soon learned that the water tank is not a water tower but is, in fact, what people here call a water reservoir, which looks just like a lake. It was beautiful there, the water all filled with floating, blooming flowers. As we walked along the concrete edge of the lake / reservoir, the family chatted in Sinhala around me and the teenaged daughter pointed out various trees that bear fruit that people here eat.
They were very protective of me as we walked, making sure I was walking in the centre of the family so I wouldn’t get struck by an errant tuk-tuk or run into a cow or trip and fall on bramble. They continued this trend as I sweat through my shirt. I got many questions (“Too hot?!”) about this but I reassured them I was fine… I generally sweat a loooot here in Sri Lanka and it’s just my body doing its thing to keep me alive in the thick humidity. I was also at the time still struggling with a minor cold so everyone in the family fretted every time I coughed. They fretted not in a way that suggested they were concerned about getting sick themselves but in a way that they wanted to make sure I was okay. An uncle who spoke English fairly well came over later to interpret and told me definitively that I have tonsilitis and that I should go to a doctor soon to get antibiotics. (Note: I’m pretty sure I don’t have tonsilitis, but their care for me was very sweet.)
When we got back from the lake / reservoir, I was fed various fruits from the trees on their property and some fresh bread with mango jam. Then, I was given a bicycling lesson from the older daughter who spoke a few words of English. I say I was given a lesson 1) because I’m not that great on a bike… Just ask the scars on my knees from an unfortunate biking accident in South Africa… and 2) because I’ve never biked on anything other than a paved road before but here I was suddenly biking on the tiny dirt footpath between a shallow ditch and a barbed wire fence. I shouted, “I’m going to die!” before embarking on the short journey down the path to the main road, which made everyone in the family laugh (I wasn’t really joking…). They might not have understood the English words but they certainly understood the meaning of the English words thanks to my surely panicked tone of voice. Spoiler alert: I did not die! But I did not win a vote of confidence for my biking skills because I was encouraged to stay off the main road on the bicycle (the one with the aforementioned tuk-tuks and cows, so it was probably for the best).
As the evening winded down and the sun began to set, my energy levels dipped as well. It’s honestly exhausting attempting to communicate with brand new people, let alone people with whom you share no language, culture, or even life experience, really. (For the record, it’s all these differences that make this experience worthwhile!) So I prepared myself for bed by brushing my teeth with well-water scooped up by my homestay mum. Everyone seemed confused that I was brushing my teeth… And I soon learned this is because we hadn’t eaten dinner. I had mistakenly assumed that all the fruit and bread and jam I had eaten just an hour or so before had been dinner but I was wrong! A short time later, I was presented a heaping plate of vegetarian rice and curry. This meal had been prepared for me on a wood fire and as the guest I was eating first so I tucked in despite not being that hungry. Despite the fact that I was so worried that it would look like I didn’t enjoy the food (which was delicious, of course!), I was unable to finish even half the meal. I had had a late lunch at the women’s centre and all that food in between and I was feeling tired, all of which resulted in a diminished appetite… which, of course, was impossible to explain across the language barrier. So I smiled and said “Thank you!” a million times and prayed my message got across and that no one’s feelings got hurt.
Then, I brushed my teeth again and climbed into the bed they had provided for me for the night. It was a double bed without a mattress but with a mosquito net so it was really all I needed after all the excitement during the day. I did have some trouble falling asleep with Sinhalese-dubbed Indian sitcoms playing loudly from the television, but I reminded myself to “go with the flow” and eventually found sleep. I was awoken at exactly 3:35AM when the rooster decided it was morning but was thankfully able to find sleep again. Then I was awoken around 5AM when a cellphone rang with the loudest ringtone I have ever experienced blasted from the house’s main room, where most of the family was sleeping on bed mats. That phone call (perhaps, alarm?) must have signalled the beginning of the day because after that the whole family was up and began their day. Blessedly, they left me undisturbed so I was able to get even more rest. When I finally rose around 7:30AM, I was presented with a chorus of “Hello’s”, a cup of hot sweetened black tea, and a plate piled high with string hoppers for breakfast.
We spent the morning chatting about the differences between life in Canada and Sri Lanka, using the English-speaking uncle as our translator. It was such a unique experience being able to ask them questions about their lives in Sri Lanka and them ask me questions in return about life in Canada. It felt like an exchange and I was very grateful for the translator’s ability to break the awkwardness that exists between people who do not have a common language. We chatted, drank coconuts, and they laughed as I excitedly videoed the baby goats and then suddenly it was time to leave. I’d been there for just over 24 hours and I had gotten so much from the experience in such a short time. I learned the value of “smile and nod” and other body language to communicate and I learned that just being open to new experiences can take you places you would have never expected. That said, I was exhausted from the effort and looking forward to taking a break from all the learning just for a bit.
Sabrina and I spent the next night in Kalpitiya, a beautiful series of lagoons north of Wilpotha. Kalpitiya is famous worldwide as a destination for kitesurfing and we were hoping to have a lesson while we were there. We planned to stay just for an overnight, though, and the wind didn’t pick up until Sunday afternoon so we weren’t able to have a lesson. Honestly, it was probably for the best because a day or so (an afternoon and a morning) on the beach, reading in a hammock, was exactly what I needed to recharge. It wasn’t just the homestay in Wilpotha that I needed a break from but really the entire experience of being a new expat; while it’s incredibly rewarding being in a new place and constantly experiencing new things / people / places / etc., it is also tiring. I was reminded by this time on the beach that it’s important to focus always on self-care, not just when it’s convenient. After resting for some time in those hammocks, reading, and enjoying the heat, I felt ready again to learn and grow, which is what I’m here for in the first place.
Spotted on the drive: a gigantic monitor lizard holding up traffic
Also spotted: transporting an elephant for festivals
Elephant again, but from the front
Women’s centre where we had lunch
Beautiful lunch spread! (Before the flies arrived…)
Lunch on a leaf (no, you don’t eat the leaf)
Hulling fresh roasted cashews
Cashews drying in the sun
View at the women’s centre
Just hangin’ out at the women’s centre
Homestay’s back room
Homestay’s main room
Homestay’s front yard
One of the bikes at my homestay in Wilpotha (not the bike I thought I was going to die on, though)
One of the paths I rode on with the bike
Me with two of the daughters (this photo was taken as I was trying to explain how to take the photo with my phone but I still think it’s excellent because the two girls look utterly bored)
Some of the many fruits I tried
Sri Lanka Kite, the camp we stayed at in Kalpitiya
The lagoon at Sri Lanka Kite
Our little bungalow at Dolphin Eco Lodge / Sri Lanka Kite
Selfie to capture the hammock moment(s)… I was in there for hours!
I finished the first of the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson so I thought I’d change things up with Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist
Finally the wind picked up and out came the kitesurfers
Good vibes before heading back to Colombo
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.