I’ll be honest – my first few days in Sri Lanka were not my best days.
I remember landing at Colombo Airport, feeling completely drained. The flight was really long and I arrived Sri Lanka feeling quite disorientated. I was then taken on a long taxi ride to the homestay and for the whole journey it rained. A lot. Once I arrived at the homestay, the family welcomed me in with big beaming smiles, but alas, I found it really, really difficult to understand them. In addition to this I was faced with eight dogs who were barking furiously at the new intruder!
I remember feeling real pangs of homesickness and thoughts of whether I had made the right decision in coming to a place for so long and so very far away from my home. Exhausted, sad, cold and tired, I quickly unpacked, ate a small meal and fell asleep.
The next day I spent the morning exploring my home stay which was a lovely, lovely place, but I felt unsure of where I was able to sit and whether I’d be allowed to make myself a much needed cup of tea. Later, the other January volunteers arrived and I panicked – new lip patterns to get accustomed to and having to inform others about deaf awareness made me feel slightly anxious.
A few days later I went to visit the deaf school I was going to be working at. The pupils were lovely with big welcoming smiles but I found it really difficult to communicate, all the Sinhalese Sign Language I had been practising felt awkward and wrong. In addition to this, it wasn’t quite clear what I would be doing at the school and I left feeling unsure and anxious about the next few months ahead.
Then suddenly my first week was over. It had been an alienating few days, but by now I had begun to settle in and I made choices of what I wanted out of this experience. Given this, I made changes. Before we left for Jungle Weekend, I gave a presentation to the other volunteers about the Deaf School Project and what I would be doing there, about Deaf Awareness and taught them the entire alphabet in Sign Language.
Later on, in the Jungle, we all did lots of activities and spent lots of time together which marked the beginning of some amazing friendships. Later that week I went to the Deaf School and after chatting with the teachers, made a plan to observe the first few weeks then make concrete decisions of what to teach after then.
The first few days at the Deaf School I was with the older classes together who taught me more Sinhalese Sign Language through hilarious techniques. Eventually I became quite fleunt in SSL and after my first two weeks at the Deaf School, I was able to identify how I could be useful to the school.
I noticed that whilst the students had an excellent grasp of concepts via sign language, they were unable to recognise the same concept in English language, and I decided that I would teach them written English. In the next few weeks I spent my Mondays devising different lesson plans of a series of concepts and a rough structure of how I could teach these concepts. I also devised Individual Class Records and Evaluation Sheets to keep record of their progress and my teaching.
Slowly and surely I began to fall into an enjoyable routine.
Mondays would be my paperwork day, where I would devise and edit lesson plans for the Deaf Project Portfolio for future volunteers and check the Individual Class Records and Evaluation Forms for important information. From Tuesdays – Fridays I’d work full days teaching at the Deaf School, often taking some hearing SL Volunteers with me to help out. And then at the weekends, we’d go off in different groups to explore the different parts of Sri Lanka. And explore we did.
I was lucky enough to visit so many parts of Sri Lanka – turtle sanctuaries in the South, lagoons in the East, the beautiful Hill Country, whale watching, the ancient cities, laughing at monkeys, a weekend in the thriving capital, lakes, climbing Adam’s Peak, spotting wild elephants and endless sandy beaches. We had so much fun on our weekends away and so many epic memories.
Sometimes, of course with any experience, I had some down moments. There were a few days at the Deaf School when I couldn’t teach as the schedule was full, which left me feeling frustrated. There were times when I couldn’t access what everyone was telling me and struggled to understand everything.
There were times when I longed for home, to be with my lovely family, wonderful friends and with all the little things that make home, home. And there were sometimes when I longed for pasta – I really craved it out there – so much that I actually dreamt about it a few times! And so sometimes these low moments would come. But as they came, they would go again; for in such a beautiful country with such wonderful people, you really cannot be sad for too long. There’s far too much going on to make you smile.
And then, before I knew it – it was my last week.
My last day in the Deaf School was so surreal. Lots of the students wrote me messages in my leaving book, we had photos taken together and the small little ones kept signing ‘Aliya – plane’ countless times. It was a bittersweet day. The next day, I had to leave the home stay, I gave each member of my family a huge hug, for sometimes when you want to say thank you, the words are never enough, and I left.
I was lucky enough to have two weeks holiday before flying back to England and so I spent those days beach hopping the East and South Coast with some amazing volunteers, who I now consider amongst my closest friends. We went to so many beautiful places, Aragam Bay, Kallkudah, Tricomalee, Mirissa, Nilaveli and of course, lovely Unawatuna. It was amazing.
And then I flew home. It’s been over a month since I’ve left Sri Lanka and now, looking back, I have some truly amazing memories and have met so many beautiful people. As I said, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. But I had a choice. And I knew what I wanted out of this experience. I wanted my time in Sri Lanka to be truly memorable, I wanted to create amazing friendships, visit beautiful places, make a difference at the Deaf School and try out as many new experiences as I could. And I made that choice. And it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life.
Now I hear that quite a few deaf and hearing people are interested in volunteering in Sri Lanka and I’m delighted to hear this. Working in Sri Lanka is a mutually benefitting experience. The people of Sri Lanka benefit from your work, time and efforts, and you, yourself? Well, you live out a truly, truly amazing experience.
Aliya volunteered in Sri Lanka with SL Volunteers. Find out more about them here: http://slvolunteers.com/
Aliya Gulamani graduated last summer, went off to find herself in Sri Lanka and is now back in the good old UK. She is looking for a job in the arts/education sector and will be starting an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths in September this year. She likes world cinema, psychology, politics, literature, theatre, running and writing.
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