Hello, my name is Jamie Snedden and I’m 18 years old. This time last year I was sitting in my school theatre, sweating my way through a particularly awful physics exam. Following some serious packing, I boarded a plane to Sri Lanka for 12 months of volunteering with the year-out provider Project Trust. Little did I know, the sweating hadnt even begun
Firstly let me explain a little about where I was. Lying off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is an island roughly of sizes with Ireland, but with 100% less sheep. Unfortunately, in its relatively recent history this strategically positioned nation developed an aptitude for being colonized. After being ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, Sri Lanka finally gained independence in 1948. Sadly though, the Brits in hats were barely on the boat home when new troubles were born, this time from within the islands own ranks. The 30 years of brutal civil war that followed, coupled with the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami left the country on its knees.
Despite this, there is a lot for which the Sri Lankan people are proud. Pristine beaches and misty tea estates have helped Sri Lanka become one of the worlds top tourist destinations. The island has a rich, fascinating history of classical civilisations. The inhabitants speak a language found nowhere else on Earth. Sri Lanka even has its own version of Gangnam Style. Its called Lankan Style.’ Its absolutely appalling.
For me as a volunteer teacher, aside from beach-hopping and temple-touring, I actually had a job to do. Consequently, I often found myself experiencing an unusual perspective; one where I work, eat and live with local people, but travel and explore as any other backpacker might. This is a constantly interesting perch to occupy, as the unusual half-in half-out position often gives me the best of these two contrasting worlds.
Sri Lanka is a sunny place. However, sitting firmly in the tropics, Sri Lanka also receives vast amounts of rain. Being so close to the equator, the four distinct seasons experienced in the UK do not exist. Instead here, there is only a dry one and a wet one. For six months it rains, and for six months it doesnt. Now, it took barely days of living there before I noticed something about Sri Lankan people: they dont like rain. Shops close; buses stop running; everybody literally goes home. I had a class of 3 kids one day. Why? It was mildly drizzling. At first this absolutely baffled me. It wasnt like it was unexpected. Every year the monsoon comes. Every year this happens. Youd have thought by now they could deal with it!
However, when I think here back to Scotland I realise that this inability to cope with the climate highlights a big similarity between home, and here. What happens every October when we get the first frost of the year? Highland Council has a heart attack. Frost! Panic. Quickly gritters are scrambled, everyones top speed becomes 10mph, and Jackie Bird comes on T.V. looking gravely concerned. We cant handle it. In the months that had past since last time round, the country has completely forgotten that winter ever happened. It seems that wherever we are, we are always one step behind the weather.
My job was to teach spoken English to primary school children. As you might imagine, there were scores of differences between the schools there and those back here in the land of Tesco. For example, instead of capping classes at 20 or 30 kids, over there they regularly exceeded 40 or even 50. Even harder though; school begun not at 9, but at a brutal 7.30 am.
Whilst Sri Lanka may not enjoy a lot of lie-ins, there is one thing that the country had in real abundance. Public holidays. The reason for this is that whilst being predominantly Buddhist, Sri Lanka also has large populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The serious subject of not going to work is one that everybody seems to agree on. When it comes to having the day off; anything goes. The result is a hot-pot of holidays, celebrating every Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivity going, as well as every full moon. This last ritual is Buddhist, by the way.
The most pleasing thing about my year in Sri Lanka was experiencing the evolution of everyday life. Its been satisfying to watch life change from being a challenge, to simply being life. Ive had the privilege of watching a completely alien environment become more and more familiar until, one day, I woke up and realised that I had become an alien myself.
There now seems to be some real negativity towards volunteering overseas. In this respect, living in Sri Lanka brought me to a strong conclusion. I have come to recognise that time spent abroad is time spent learning. Not textbooks and essays, but real life experiences. Thats learning; and I now believe that the more people with any form of knowledge on another way of life, the better. In fact, in trying to turn the tide against the sea of general ignorance, I think it may be vital. Therefore, in response to critics, I disagree. Go. Get out there, work hard, and learn.