Volunteer in Sri Lanka - Working in a Rural Monastery
With 7 months to travel, 4 countries to cross and 1 backpack to carry, IVHQ volunteer Megan Glavin shares Part 3 of her 4-Part volunteering journey. Read about Megan’s experience as a volunteer in Sri Lanka, and we’ll keep you posted with her upcoming trip to Thailand over the coming months, or read back over her time as a volunteer teacher in Argentina and when she lived in the Peruvian Amazon!
Sri Lanka is waking up at 5am to Buddhist chants being broadcasted across the city; it is crossing the street and realizing the truck honking at you contains an enormous elephant. Driving around the country feels like riding on a stomach-dropping roller coaster without any safety precautions, but the roads swerve into the emerald jungles and cloud-tipped mountains and golden beaches that make up this beautiful country. It is a tiny island fallen off the southern tip of India, but within it thrives a strong culture, marked by sari-draped smiles and intensely spicy curries, and the ability to explore it all.
I came to Sri Lanka to teach English, with little knowledge of how much I would be taught. The majority of my time was spent in a monastery in Aluwathagoda, with a group of monks aged 7-19 and an even larger range of ability. With the littlest monks, we drew alphabet letters and colored pictures until their pleas for “Duck Duck Goose! Duck Duck Goose!” overwhelmed our ability to keep them focused. The older ones had a slightly greater attention span, and we kept them focused on parts of speech and verb tenses until class ended mid-morning for tea time. I think I walked into this classroom with a lot of preconceptions about what monks were like, but they were almost all misconceptions; monks are just like any other boys, and they play with you, joke with you, and have almost nonexistent attention spans just the same. I looked forward to days with these monks more than anything else, and I owe so much of my joy during those two months in Sri Lanka to them.
I had two homestays while in Sri Lanka, and for the first, I went to live at a rural monastery/meditation center in the middle of the jungle to study Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in my free time from teaching. My students here were four monks between 13 and 15 years old, and I was the student of two older monks, who taught me how to be with myself and accept the universe. Every afternoon, for a couple hours, I walked into the classroom to goofy greetings, before the monks settled down to learn. These monks had been studying English for awhile, and it was a challenge each day to come up with a lesson plan that in turn, challenged them. Each lesson ended with Mad Libs, Hangman, or a combination of the two, and though I was only there for a week, it didn’t take long for the monks to open up to me. When I wasn’t teaching, I was talking with the head monks about Buddhism or winding my way through the jungle to the meditation room, passing my time in stillness and serenity. I learned a lot about myself in that week, mostly that sitting still for extended periods of time is not one of my strengths, but it was an amazing experience, and one that I am incredibly grateful for.
Another week, I lived in a tribal village in the jungles outside Mahiyungana, with a family of three generations inside a two-room brick house. I was there with two other volunteers, teaching preschool to village children and integrating ourselves into the lives of the villagers. Our family spoke almost no English, so communication was tricky, but that didn’t stop the children from pulling us outside to play and dance around on the hard-packed mud, because music and laughter are universal. Sometimes we would follow the women into the fields to pick crops, and other times we worked with the entire village to sort through truckloads of corn, but most of our time was spent with the kids, trading English words for Sinhalese and letting ourselves become exhausted by their tireless energy. Evenings, everyone came together inside the brick house, sitting cross-legged on the hard cement in front of bowls of rice and curry while the adults chewed betel and the youngest of the children fought their falling eyelids. Eventually, we all gave into sleep, letting our eyes close to the rhythm of the rain on the leaky room and the calls of wild animals outside the house. In the mornings, we hopped on a bus to the preschool and spent a couple hours with the excited shouting and homesick crying of about fifteen children, tracing out alphabet letters for them to color in with oil pastels. To say they mastered the alphabet would be a major overstatement, but at least they’ll have lots of colorful letters to take home at the end of the term, and I’ll get to take home all the unforgettable memories.
Weekends brought even more memories, as I found myself on cross-country trains and buses to palm-spotted beaches and underwater havens; to pilgrimages up peaks breaking through clouds, and to the rolling hills patterned by lines and lines of tea plantations; to historical royal monuments, and to wildlife-populated national parks. And, of course, the myriad of memories created with the people with whom I shared these experiences. Sri Lanka is easily the most beautiful country I have ever found myself in, and I will miss almost everything about it: my crazy monks in Aluwathagoda, the rural jungle monastery/meditation center, my family in the tribal village, and the experiences of a lifetime.
Interested in becoming a volunteer in Sri Lanka? Check out the Sri Lanka webpage for more details…