This blog post is an extra special one for me because, although I had my first taste of adventure on my Outlook Expeditions trip (read my post about it here!), my six week trip to Sri Lanka in 2015 kickstarted my #gapyah! So without further ado…
It was a rainy day studying for my A Levels, and as I stared out the library window, feeling like I was drowning in revision, a thought occurred to me…. Just kidding, that sounds like a really dramatic epiphany moment. The reality is I knew as soon as I finished Sixth Form I didn’t want to go straight to university. I just didn’t feel ready for that kind of leap at all, and at the time I thought I wanted to be a teacher (lol no thank u) so the thought of leaving school, going to uni, then heading straight back to a job in a school was far too daunting for me. So I planned to take a gap year and balance my time between gaining work experience and travelling.
One day I got chatting with a friend in the library about my ideas and she showed me a website she had booked a trip through: the company was called Plan My Gap Year. She had booked to go with another friend for 3 weeks to Sri Lanka on an elephant conservation experience, and after scrolling through their website at home that evening, I knew I wanted to do something similar. Not wanting to do exactly the same as her, but having fallen in love with the idea of travelling to Sri Lanka, I decided very quickly that I would book onto the turtle conservation programme!
Skip forward a few months and my A Levels hadn’t exactly turned out as planned, I hadn’t got onto the university course I wanted for the following year, and instead I had spontaneously accepted another deferred entry course for Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, beginning in September 2016. Plenty of people thought I was mad to enrol on a course I knew nothing about, but I had a whole year to change my mind if I wanted and my priority was to travel and, yes super cheesy, ‘find myself’.
So September 4th 2015 arrived and I sat on a plane bound for Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I had met another girl in the airport who was also headed out to volunteer with PMGY so this put my nerves at rest a little bit, although she was on a different connecting flight so I was still due to arrive on my own. However, a few other guys had caught flights around the same time as me so after meeting my driver Manoj, I jumped on a minibus with them and had some company for the couple of hours it took to drive to where we were staying in our volunteer house in Ambalangoda.
The house was beautiful, our local coordinator Ashika was so welcoming and, as the last lot of volunteers to arrive, I got stuck into getting to know my fellow volunteers. There were 24 of us in total (if I remember correctly) and almost all of us were new, with just a few finishing up their last week or two from the summer, so it was nice to know we were all out of our comfort zones but still have some recommendations from those who had been there a while.
Our first week was mainly orientation, making new friends and being introduced to our projects; everyone lived in the same house but there were medics, turtle and elephant volunteers, orphanage and school volunteers, and construction workers. I quickly became part of a tight knit group who went and explored the nearby beaches and town together, and later went further afield and took long bus trips on our free weekends into the hills and along the coast.
It was exactly what I had hoped for and more.
Ashika and his team, through PMGY, also ran the occasional guided weekend trip, two of which I went on and saw a side to Sri Lanka which I wouldn’t have seen if I’d been travelling alone! The first was a weekend visiting tea plantations (sampling the many varieties of tea, of course), hiking past waterfalls up to World’s End, and taking a Jeep ride through Yala National Park where we encountered elephants, macaques, and other incredible wildlife. The park is famous for having the highest concentration of leopards in the world, but sadly we didn’t see any so one day I want to go back!
The second organised weekend away was to Kandy, the ‘Culture Capital’ of Sri Lanka. The city was crazy and beautiful and I learned so much about Sri Lankan history and culture, from the terrible wars with the Tamil Tigers to the religious significance of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to Kandy. What made this my favourite weekend away, however, was our climb up Sigiriya, also known as Lion’s Rock. Nicknamed the 8th Wonder of the World, and for good reason, this almighty rock fortress sticks out like a sore thumb and offers breath-taking views of the surrounding the forest landscape. To top it all off we completed the trip with a visit to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, which is home to the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. While this was so much fun and an amazing opportunity to get up close to the elephants, these gentle giants shouldn’t be held captive (though Pinnawala aims to nurture and carefully breed their animals) and research after my trip to Sri Lanka made me decide not to endorse these kinds of experiences without careful consideration.
The other weekends I had off volunteering during my stay were spent discovering paradise beaches, drinking far too much Arrack, eating my bodyweight in street side roti and gorgeous curries, and trekking up the beautiful Mini Adam’s Peak. The actual volunteering itself was also so much fun as we rescued a turtle caught in a net, nursed sick turtles back to health, buried eggs and watched them hatch! The best part of my project though was releasing the tiny baby turtles into the sea and re-releasing the adult turtles who had previously been rescued. While the survival rate is supposedly very low, I like to think we did a good job of helping such beautiful creatures while most importantly raising awareness amongst the locals in an attempt to end turtle poaching.
I also spent two weeks volunteering at a local girls orphanage in the afternoons after my mornings with the turtles. This was really heart-warming to interact with girls aged 3 to around 15. The younger ones we played with and taught basic things like numbers and colours, while the older girls we helped with their homework and taught English to. It was so incredible to see children, girls especially, from struggling backgrounds enjoying their opportunity to learn in and outside of the classroom.
If you’re still reading this, thank you for sticking with me for so long! I can’t apologise for the length of this post as my experience with PMGY in Sri Lanka was a huge turning point in my life. I genuinely grew so much in such a short time frame; my confidence peaked, I made wonderful friends, helped local people and wildlife, learned about a completely different culture and ultimately became less selfish and more aware.
If this sounds like something you’d like to do, whether it’s for 2 weeks or 6 months, Plan My Gap Year have a brilliant range of volunteer programmes in countries all over the world, suited to anyone and everyone! My only regret was not extending my stay or booking another project with them straight away. It looks like another trip may be on the cards sooner rather than later…
Many thanks to Ashika and his team, Philip (the founder of PMGY), Emma (for her online help), and all of the incredible people I met and ended up travelling with again after Sri Lanka!