IVHQ volunteer, Natalie Ifill, takes us on a journey into the mind of a first-time volunteer traveller to Sri Lanka…
When you hear about people going travelling they’ll tell you they’re going for 3 months, 6 months, a year. Me? I could only stomach the thought of 3 weeks. To me, travelling was something I desperately wanted to do. Correction, still something I want to do. But the thought of going somewhere 5,408 miles to a place I’ve never been, know barely anything about and know no one there all by myself daunted me. Actually it terrified me. So why did I do it? Why did I go all the way to Sri Lanka for 3 weeks, all by myself? Well some people may just say it’s because I’m plain crazy but to me there were many reasons. The most important being that I felt like I needed to.
The most empowering thing you will feel once you get over your anxiety and nerves at the airport and step on that plane is simply knowing that you can do something, and you don’t need anyone else. I’m just an average person, I’m surrounded by people living their lives and felt like I was stuck in my own mundane bubble. Sri Lanka was the way out for me. And what better way to create an untouchable memory, one that you created all by yourself.
Somehow stepping on a plane and travelling for 10 and a half hours makes you feel invincible. I’m not saying it wasn’t scary, and I’m not going to pretend that it didn’t take me time to adjust, as it did. I had fears at the back of my mind, hence the reason I could only bring myself to booking 3 weeks, even if it was on a whim. What if I didn’t meet anyone? What if I’m all alone? What if everyone already has friends and I just don’t fit in? Safe to say, about an hour after stepping off that plane in Colombo airport and meeting several other volunteers who had just arrived in the country it was clear that my fears were nonsense. Everyone was in the same boat as me. First time in Sri Lanka, first time volunteering and all by themselves too.
Maybe I just hit the jackpot with the people I met but everyone was so lovely. Even from the very beginning we were all there, supporting each other. I say maybe I hit the jackpot, but I don’t really believe that was the case as throughout my whole 3 weeks away, with every single person I met (and I met quite a few) I did not met one who came across unfriendly, or hard to get on with. Everyone was nice. Everyone was friendly. Everyone was supportive. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the volunteer spark we all have inside us. A somewhat rarity in an average day and life, helping bring us all together and allowing us to get on.
With all this being said, in the end travelling ‘solo’ was not very hard. And I didn’t really travel ‘solo’ at all, as I was constantly surrounded by a new found friend or two. The only time I really travelled solo was on my way in and out of the country.
So why did I step on the plane and why on earth did I go solo? Because I needed to and that was it. I was terrified, but that somehow encouraged me even more. Why play it safe anymore? I felt like I had nothing to lose and a million things to gain. It was time to be fearless, something I had never done before. It was time to take a risk and do something memorable for once. It was time to be selfish, and do something for me which I didn’t do an awful lot. It was time to actually start living my life. And during those 3 weeks I lived every single day. Ever seen that question lingering around “When was the last time you tried something for the first time?” Well in Sri Lanka I was trying everything for the first time. Every. Single. Day. And it made me feel… amazing. For the first time in a long time I really felt alive. I lost nothing (except a few pounds, unfortunately not in weight…) and gained a million (unfortunately this time not in the money sense).
I saw Elephants, I helped feed disabled turtles who were blind or missing fins, I cleaned them and helped care for them, I released baby turtles into the ocean and I went to the beach and tanned. I took a dip into the ocean (not safe during monsoon season - avoid!!), I sat by a bonfire on the beach at night and heard the waves crash on the shore and I saw a cow being chased by a pack of dogs. I saw and met Monks, and I walked up Lion’s Rock and Big B on the hill (Bahiravokanda Vihara). I walked up a waterfall (involuntarily, didn’t know it was happening until it happened) and I haggled in markets. I ate curry (A LOT of curry), I met people from all over the world, I got my feet bitten by fish, I saw fire dancers, I became friends with the locals, I saw people walk on hot coals, I went in a tuk-tuk, I walked (unsuccessfully) on a tightrope, I hand washed my own clothes and I was constantly running away from mosquitos. I did all of this and so much more.
I have so many memories, which without a doubt are the best memories of my entire life. Nothing else compares. Never before have I felt so connected to a country, and connected to people even if they are completely different to who I am or where I come from. Never before have I been so pained to leave a country or leave people behind. There will always be a special place for Sri Lanka in my heart; it has literally changed a part of me. It may not be noticeable on the outside, but I feel it and it has completely changed me for the better. I’m like a new and improved version of myself. And none of this would have happened if I didn’t allow myself to take that risk.
Find details on how to become a volunteer in Sri Lanka.