Volunteering in Galle
30.06.2013 - 15.07.2013 28 °C
I consider myself a caring person, but to be honest, the only people I have ever done anything for are my family and friends.
When the opportunity to spend 2 weeks on my own presented itself, naturally, like any self-respecting JAP, my first thought was to check into a nice hotel and spend my time lounging around in between spa treatments and yoga classes. But having seen first-hand the aftermath of civil war and natural disaster in Sri Lanka, I decided to look into volunteering. Well what a surprise that was. Did you know that you actually have to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to volunteer? Not to mention that most projects on offer are geared towards 20-somethings. The hotel was looking better by the minute, but before giving up I added a key word to my search - "senior". Horrifying thought I know, but up came New Hope Volunteers. I still had to pay, but I'd be housed and fed 3 times a day for a more than reasonable fee. There were several projects to choose from: An orphanage - changing diapers? Not really my thing. A turtle hatchery requiring late night hours for releasing hatchlings? Nah, I need my beauty rest. An elephant orphanage? Pay to shovel elephant dung? Pass. So I settled on teaching English to Buddhist monks, no experience required.
I understood that I'd be living with a family where hopefully, I'd have my own room. I figured I'd be sharing a bathroom but I could survive anything for 2 weeks and if it was unbearable, I could always check into a hotel. It turned out that ALL the volunteers for the orphanage and the monastery were staying at the project coordinator's house. Including Michael's family we were about 11. Thoughts of comfort and privacy evaporated.
Michael Ferreira (3.5 from left) and his wonderful family:
My roommate Julia was from Russia,
and together we were 6 female volunteers sharing a bathroom. I was 30 years older than most of the group, but they all seemed to think I looked younger so we got along great! Julia and I would be teaching together at a monastery and while her English wasn't quite up to par, her enthusiasm was endearing and I was grateful not to be alone. On our first day we went to a different monastery to observe another volunteer's class. Liz from Australia is studying to be a teacher and she was well prepared. The kids were eager to learn and well-behaved. An older monk sat in to ensure that everything went smoothly and even brought us tea during the break. The bad news was that there was no curriculum to follow, just a few books and flash cards left behind by previous volunteers. It was up to the teacher to prepare the lesson.
We were in trouble.
Our monastery had a slightly different vibe. There was no one to greet us, but within a few minutes boys began to appear and we followed them to the classroom... which was locked. Eventually, a key appeared and we were in business. Well, almost. There was a board but it was white, chalk wasn't going to work. There were about 6 boys ages 8 - 15 and most of them were literally running around the room, jumping on the tables, flipping over the benches, screaming, and fighting; just what you'd expect in a monastery classroom. I had to quell an overwhelming desire to run.
We had some cards with simple words and they eventually settled down to playing word games.
They had notebooks and pens and most wanted to write. Class was 2 hours and we quickly realized that we could keep them relatively focused for an hour and a half before hell broke loose.
When we felt we were losing them, we'd switch to more physical games like hopscotch, ball games, balloons, bubbles, etc. Julia was an ace at inventing fun games.
Right before he lets go of the balloon...
Monks have a tough life. Their days consist of studying, meditating and chores.
They are not supposed to play, laugh or otherwise engage in un-monkly behavior. Our class was perhaps their only opportunity to let loose so we were proud of them when they behaved. While our teaching methods were somewhat unconventional, they were improving their spelling and vocabulary as well as their motor skills. Within a couple of days most of the boys were waiting for us at 8:30 when our tuk tuk pulled up, and when we'd offer a break, they wouldn't take it. "Teacher writing, teacher cards..."
By 11 we were back at the house. We were under no obligation, but Michael suggested that we go to the orphanage for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Listening to the other volunteers talk about the kids there, Julia and I decided to go. Afterall, we were here to help.
As I walked into the office to sign in a woman yelled at me, "Who are you and why didn't you come this morning?!" I explained that I was on a teaching project and politely reminded her that I was a volunteer. She looked me over, grunted the house rules, mainly no photos, and pointed me onward. By the second day she was much friendlier. It must be really hard running an orphanage.
I followed the other volunteers through a fenced playground with 2 swings, a rusty slide and a couple of seesaws amid a few patches of grass into a building where there were about 50 babies from about 6 months to 3 years. Another building housed about 15 4-5 year olds. The noise was deafening. As I walked around, kids stood up in their cribs reaching their arms into the air, some smiling, others crying, noses running, diapers full, some healthy, others not at all. Once again I had to surpress the urge to run. Suddenly a local woman barked at me, "You! Wash baby!" Sensing my panic, a more experienced volunteer swooped the baby up. A few minutes later she was putting on a diaper and I was fetching clothes from a huge pile. Girl? Boy? Doesn't matter just grab anything. As I turned, I saw a toddler climbing out of a gated area and rushed over to put him back in. Those little devils could climb out. With another volunteer we climbed into the play area and soon the babies were crawling all over us instead of trying to get out. This was much more fun than wash duty albeit a bit overwhelming. 2 hours later, exhausted and covered in all sorts of bodily fluids, our ride home came. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back, but Yvonne, who's Scottish accent I'll never comprehend, Sara (pronounced Seerah, from Northern Ireland, and Lisa, the first German with an Aussie accent that I've ever met, 3 20-somethings for whom I have immense respect, convinced me that it would get easier and it did.
Yvonne (left) and Sara
The girls had given the kids English names and with each visit I'd look forward to seeing, George, Fat Sam, Forest (Gump), Brenda, Amy, or just hearing about what had transpired that day. The kids were astonishing. They remembered me even though I wasn't there every day. They'd bring over a toy that we had played with, or walk me over to the swing I had pushed them on asking for more. It was simply heart-wrenching.
Time flew by and we said goodbye to our class with pinched hearts and many questions. I wondered, what had we really accomplished in just 2 weeks? How, if at all, did the boys perceive the separation? Wouldn't it be more efficient for this endless rotation of teachers to follow the same lesson plan picking up where the previous one had left off? In any case, we were relieved to hear that a new volunteer was arriving to take over. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
At the orphanage, the girls were saying their goodbyes and I'm certain it was harder for them than for the babies. Thankfully, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers ready to change diapers and dispense unconditional love.
Will I be going back like some of the girls who plan to return next year? Probably not, but I can safely say that I'm the one who learned the most from every one of these kids ages 6 months to 30 years old in the last 2 weeks. I will never forget them. Well, how could I, Yvonne put her picture on my phone...
With a couple of days to kill, I checked myself into a nice hotel on the beach. Check out the view from my balcony... I'd show you the bathroom, but I'm not sharing!