Community Centre Extension AidCamp

Sri Lanka - July 2011

The following write-up is a personal account, in the volunteer's own words, of this project in Sri Lanka which commenced on 23 July 2011. 

"In July 2011 I took part, along with 14 other volunteers, in an AidCamps project in Sri Lanka. We were building an extension to a centre for deprived children to come and learn or play. My initial reason for signing up was that I wanted to travel before uni and work as a volunteer, and since I'd never been out of Europe alone I didn't feel ready to go completely by myself; I was also wary of signing up for an expensive project which wasn't all it seemed. AidCamps, being a trustworthy charity which lets you know exactly where your money goes, seemed the perfect balance. Over the three week project, however, I began to realise I was getting a lot more out of it than just an introduction to the country.

In the months running up to the project I was juggling college work with fundraising and vaccinations, but Steve and our project leader Kevin were so helpful, sending extensive kit lists and information packs as well as getting all the volunteers in touch with each other. Lisa made a Facebook group and soon we were all discussing flights and packing. Then suddenly it was time to go!

We spent the first day by the beach near the airport so we could catch our breath before we started. This was a good opportunity to meet each other as well. There was an atmosphere of excitement about the coming first day of building work. We weren't quite sure what to expect!

We were staying in a schoolhouse in the busy town of Moratuwa. The rooms were sparse but it didn't seem to matter. On arrival we were given huge thambili, bright orange king coconuts, to drink after our long journey. We were glad there were real showers.

On the first day, we were up early, ate our breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast and drove to the site. Along the way we could see devastation caused by the tsunami and shanty towns with houses made of corrugated iron. It was good to think we were doing something to help the people who lived there, rather than just observing their poverty as tourists.

Previous AidCamps had built the centre we saw, brightly coloured with children streaming in and out. Where we were going to be working there was nothing - just bare earth! We spent the first day sifting sand, moving earth, and digging holes. Kevin made sure we only did what we could and nobody was to push themselves, so we managed to avoid too many injuries. We worked alongside Sri Lankan builders who seemed to know what they were doing more than we did. It was so exciting to see the site slowly develop over the weeks.

That first week was the hardest as we were all still adjusting to the heat and unfamiliar food, but I always enjoyed being on site: everyone worked together and made a good team. My favourite part was digging nine foot holes for drainage. Hannah worked out a system for removing sand from the bottom, where we took turns climbing down a ladder and filling a bucket with sand which was then hoisted up by people on the surface. We looked forward to our break with ginger tea brewed up by the schoolteachers. As time went by the work we were doing changed from digging to cementing and plastering until finally me and Sally were painting murals to go on the walls.

As the weather was so hot and humid we only worked mornings, but we still felt exhausted by the end. We were mostly covered head to toe in red earth and grit. Lunchtime was always welcome and we ran to get showers before Indrani, our wonderful cook, served up lunch. Her curries were probably the highlight of the trip! Lunch is the main meal in Sri Lanka and consists of rice with several different dishes, such as spicy okra, coconut and chilli sambal, lentil dhal, creamy chicken curry, crispy fried fish and so many more. We'd finish with some of the tiny sweet Sri Lankan bananas.

In the afternoons we sometimes went on visits to places nearby like previous AidCamps projects or the local Hindu temple. At other times we had talks about the partner charity, Serve, and the work it does in Sri Lanka. But sometimes we just stayed at the schoolhouse and played with the children who came there every day. When it got dark in the evenings and the children went home, we played cards and games. Holly had brought a good selection and taught us all Triominoes and Horse Trader which we were soon addicted to. Things got pretty competitive especially when we played Spoons with Kevin and Mike!

As much as we enjoyed working on the site and being at home it was exciting to get out at the weekends for the trips that had been organised for us. On the first weekend we went to Uda Walawe wildlife park. It was fascinating to see the landscape change from the coastal palms to a dry savannah-like plain. Rwanta drove the van and kept us entertained with his choice of music - mostly Backstreet Boys. We stayed in a lovely safari lodge and spent a day in the park in open - topped jeeps. I'd hoped to see at least one elephant, but we must have seen dozens, some right up close. The park was filled with exotic birds too. We also climbed Sigiriya, a huge rock emerging out of the forest which was once a king's palace and still has ancient murals on its walls. It was a precarious climb up rickety steps but worth it for the view of almost uninterrupted forest all around to the horizon.

Another visit was to the holy town of Kandy, right up in the Hill Country. Luckily we were there in time for the first day of the Esala Perahera. This is the most important of many Sri Lankan festivals and consists of a procession of around fifty elephants through the town, one of which carries the Sacred Tooth Relic. We watched from a balcony and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Every elephant was decorated with embroidered coats and bright lights. There were Kandyan dancers spinning fire and banging drums. You could smell the burning coconut shells carried in baskets like torches. We came back by train from Kandy and I sat in the doorway the whole way, watching villages and jungle speed past. Sometimes the land just dropped away and we were riding over a huge valley of bright green tea plantations. Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places I have been to, and wherever we went we felt welcomed.

We had a lovely end to the project. There was an opening ceremony for the centre with traditional rituals and performances from the children. We had to perform too; we were definitely less elegant than the dancing children but I'm sure it was entertaining! It was great to see the children who would be using the centre we had built. In the evening Serve organised a meal for us all. It was sad to think we were leaving and may never come back.

My experience with AidCamps was wonderful. It was the first time I'd flown alone and I was nervous about being the youngest, but told myself I was here to see the country and work on the project, nothing else. How wrong I was! Age differences didn't seem to matter and I met people I will never forget. I was also given a perfect introduction to a beautiful country which made me feel confident when I travelled around the country afterwards. I recommend AidCamps to anyone, any age, who is interested in volunteering in a way that makes you feel involved with the people you are helping, as well as meeting people and travelling".


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