Navi and I spent 2 weeks volunteering in Sri Lanka at a small village near Puttalam earlier this month. We organised the placement from the UK through the popular volunteering website workaway.info. The site puts volunteers in touch with willing hosts over email. Volunteers can browse opportunities by country and check availability with the handy host calendar. Volunteering placements vary throughout the world but generally, volunteers are asked to work for a maximum of 5 hours per day, 5 days per week. In exchange, the host will provide food and roof over your head. Usually, for as long as you wish to stay. The site costs $29 to join for two years. All volunteer opportunities are free.
We thought volunteering would be a great way to get off the beaten track, meet locals and have genuine experiences.
As long term travellers with a fixed daily budget, we also saw volunteering as a way to save a bit of money for a while, by not spending on food and accommodation.
Arriving in Sri Lanka
Our host TC picked us up from the airport and we drove for around 4 hours, stopping once for lunch before arriving at his estate late in the afternoon. The estate is vast. Coconut and cashew trees sway in every direction. On one side, the estate borders a beautiful ocean lagoon. On the other side, there are more cash crops, patches of jungle and a dusty, potholed road.
It was Saturday when we arrived so the handful of workers from neighbouring villages were at home.
The estate was quiet, except for the mewing of the peacocks and the soft rustling of coconut fronds overhead.
TC showed us around the scattering of buildings on the estate. There are some out houses storing tools and the like but most human activity is centred on and around TC’s wooden hut. It’s the only place with electricity and the hut doubles as water store, dining area and the communal get together place for volunteers, visitors and staff.
The volunteer accommodation is in a sunny glade, a 10 minute stroll south through the trees. All showers and toilets are outside. A carefully positioned reed partition and some dense jungle is just enough for a little naked privacy.
The Future of Lagoon Retreat
TC’s concept for the land is 100% sustainability. Work is currently underway on a number of simple, sustainable, lodge style dwellings which TC plans to rent out to paying guests. The first is opening next year. The homes are traditionally crafted using local labour and materials harvested from the estate.
The sustainability notion, whilst honourable in itself, was not for me the main draw. It’s the closeness to nature that really cuts to the core of what the place is all about.
There were no walls on the hut we stayed in. Only reed mats. Most of the time these are rolled up to catch the gentle breeze from the lagoon. Even if you could somehow close the hut, it’s made mostly of coconut fronds. There are holes everywhere. That’s one of the reasons why this material works so well. It isn’t tile and concrete. It needs to breathe to keep its occupants cool and dry.
Like it or not, it’s impossible to separate yourself from the rhythms and sounds of the jungle. It’s frightening at first, then it becomes beautiful and awe inspiring.
If you’ve never slept in the jungle under a mosquito net, I’d advise you to put it on your bucket list.
Around the Estate
Things to do on the estate were limited for Navi and I. We tried kayaking on the lagoon but were beaten back by the heat before 9am. I’m sure younger, fitter individuals could have made better of the calm waters. For us however, it was too strenuous to do more than about 45 minutes. Particularly before breakfast.
We also tried to get involved in tasks with the friendly estate workers. They were happy to demonstrate any skill we enquired about. Several times we dutifully followed, watched and tried to repeat things. We harvested cashew and wood apples. We assisted with the cooking. We cleared fallen coconut fronds form the path. Pretty soon each time though we got tired and embarrassed.
It was clear we weren’t helping. We were just providing an interesting diversion for 10 minutes.
Once more, we were only limited by the boundaries of our own comfort levels. Had we have mucked in and kept going our efforts would probably have been greeted with great enthusiasm. We were altering the status quo however. Changing the daily routines of the locals. Other volunteers may have seen it differently. For Navi and I though, it simply wasn’t something that we felt was the right thing to do.
Once we started acting like guests instead of weak, pathetic co-workers, everybody seemed to relax a bit more.
Most of our days in the first week were spent lazing around. The only real work we did was designing and building a website for the estate on our laptop. We dined 3 times a day at the communal area. Sometimes our host was there, sometime not. We also ventured off the estate a fair bit. We ate lunch with local fishermen and wandered the nearby villages. When our host was around we strategized about his future vision for the estate and talked endlessly about England, Sri Lanka and travel. Times were good.
I don’t remember what day the rains started. I only remember that they didn’t stop.
A few days before the rains, the monkeys had torn our place apart looking for fruit. In their frustration the buggers tore down our mosquito nets, then shat and peed on our stuff. We were so preoccupied with cleaning we failed to notice that they had critically damaged the roof.
When the rains came, the water just poured right through.
We shifted the beds and curled up together under a tiny blanket in a desperate midnight bid to escape the drips. Our ingenuity prevailed the first night. We avoided the worst of the damp and dried out our bedclothes and pillows in the morning sun.
Flushed with confidence we shrugged off any concerns when we heard the sound of distant thunder the following evening. When the rains came the second time though, they came hard. There was no escape.
Somehow we stayed dry enough to partially sleep but when we awoke it was immediately clear that evacuation was an urgent priority. A local estate worker inspected the roof and confirmed our fears. All our clothes and bags were sodden. Pillows and mattresses too. Ongoing rains precluded any attempts to dry out our things so there was nothing else for it.
Our host TC was away, so with his permission, we moved into his hut and dressed in his clothes for the next few days.
With the rain came the bugs. Perhaps they were there all along but sitting in the hut for long hours, cowering from the weather, we really started to notice them. During the day, armies of tiny fruit flies hovered millimetres from our faces. If you brushed them away or swatted a few, seconds later the ranks were replenished and they were back.
They loitered so close that they blurred our vision, like tiny rain drops on sunglasses.
At around 4pm, shift over, the daytime insects would give way to mosquitos. I don’t need to tell anyone how annoying mosquitos are. Everyone hates them. Never before though had I been a captive target.
There is nowhere to retreat to in the jungle. Once they’ve zeroed your position you’ve had it.
Repellent was effective to a point, but DEET does not react well with sweaty hot skin. Pretty soon I couldn’t use it. The mosquitos bit us through our clothes anyway. We lit coils religiously and started climbing under our nets at sunset, but more bites just kept appearing.
The mosquitos left about an hour after dark but the insect onslaught didn’t end. In total darkness, even the dim light from an iPhone screen would bring clouds of fluttering moths and buzzing beetles smacking into my face relentlessly. When a small bat started circling my head picking off anything illuminated by my phone, I knew it was time to give up. No lights after sunset from then on.
The Dry Season
I should point out here that for 10 months per year the estate does not see a drop of rain or a mosquito. This is the first year the estate has been open to volunteers and TC agrees, definitely the last time the estate will be open during the rains of October and November.
The rain didn’t just wreak havoc on the estate. The nearby Wilpattu National Park, probably the area’s biggest attraction was also washed out. During the dry months large animals like leopard and elephant are driven to find water and can be easily spotted out in the open.
When the rains start and water is abundant, animals retreat into the jungle away from human sounds and activity.
Contrary to the advice of our host we booked a 4×4 and entered the park anyway. We were rewarded for our boldness by some very close encounters with elephant, dear, mongooses and crocodiles. Our jubilation was short lived however when 5 kilometres from home our path was blocked by a river. It had risen several feet in a matter of hours and flooded the previously exposed causeway which had served as our early morning gateway to the reserve.
We’d already spent 7 hours in an open top jeep, off-roading at this point and were looking forward to a shower and some rest.
Urgent conversations ensued with our driver and the navy officials manning the reserve’s entrance. I could tell from our driver’s body language as he strolled back over to the vehicle that I wasn’t going like what he had to say. Moments later the jeep swung around and we headed back the way we came on a 6 hour detour that was to be the worst journey I’d ever taken (and I’ve taken a few bad ones).
In a desperate bid to shave off some time, the driver opted for a track which the navy had told us was impassable just hours before. Several days earlier a vehicle had become entrenched in the mud somewhere along that path and it has been pronounced closed by the officials until the rains had ceased.
Nevertheless there we were thundering through the mud swamp sideways, engine screaming, wheels spinning and clutch smoking.
Pretty soon I had no concept of where we were or which way was back. I kept thinking about those survival shows where people make small dumb decisions that little by little turn into life threatening situations. I could hear Bear Grylls’ voice in my head calmly narrating our list of silly mistakes over some danger music and a montage of thrashing crocodiles.
Suddenly we slid to a stop and I snapped back to attention. A passing elephant had felled a huge tree and completely blocked our way. We tried to move it, but it was too heavy and covered in red biting ants. The driver reluctantly agreed to turn around and use the longer but less white knuckle route.
We were an hour into our detour at this point. My bum felt numb on the hard seat. I had blisters on my hands from gripping the cold metal cage that enclosed us. Black rain clouds were forming just above the trees and now we had to go back to the river and start again. I cried inside.
Back at the Estate
Many long hours later we arrived home. It was dark and it was raining. We’d spent 4 days living with our host and dressing in his clothes. We’d been eaten alive by bugs and experienced the longest and most uncomfortable half day jeep safari imaginable. When Navi jumped a foot in the air and screamed I shone the flashlight down with a growing sense of resignation.
TC quickly dispatched the scorpion with the butt of a torch but I knew at that point our time on the estate was up.
The following morning Navi’s foot was better and our host drove us to Colombo. We checked into a nice hotel and tried to put the last few days of our volunteering experience behind us.
Lessons from Volunteering in Sri Lanka
My time at the coconut estate was certainly not misspent. It was an amazing experience. The estate, in the dry, is such a serene place to be. Plus I learned a very valuable lesson. A lesson the jungle needed to teach me.
I learned that I can’t live like that. At least, not for long periods of time.
The romantic Robinson Crusoe image of the movies is a myth. It doesn’t exist. At least not for someone born and raised in the developed world.
Life is hard without modern technology. Really hard.
Sure, there are beautiful moments, but they are short lived in the face of the adversities.
I have the means not to have to live that way. Not to have to struggle. Doing so, seemed less like being in touch with nature and more like a penance with each day that passed.
For years I had watched all the bush craft shows and thought “That could be me, I could do that.” Now I realise. I can’t. When it comes to living off-grid, I’m the kind of tourist that likes to have a canned version of the experience for a few days. Then retreat back to the comfort of my air conditioned hotel to recharge my iPhone.
Volunteering in Sri Lanka wasn’t what we thought it would be. The jungle is beautiful but there is a reason we don’t live there anymore and I for one am pleased.