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Volunteers Abroad

Life Lessons from Living in Sri Lanka

Three weeks have now passed and I am halfway through my exchange with AIESEC where the experiences from the start just started to pile up. Both in terms of challenges and interesting new insights as well as journeys. Sri Lanka is far from the picture-perfect Instagram photo. It is also burning of trash, street dogs where ever you go, pollution, constant amounts of traffic jams and unreliable water supply. I am gaining the experience of how it is to live in the small Enderamulla north of the capital Colombo in a developing country as Sri Lanka. As many challenges, there are as many small moments of enlightenment or joy.

The trash collection is not as developed here as is in Denmark
One of many street dogs in Sri Lanka

Frustrations such as transport hours ranging from 3 to 6 hours a day are possibly one of the most tiresome experiences in Sri Lanka. Even before stepping onto the bus you will hear the voice of the money collector hanging half way out of the door of the bus yelling the route. During the trip, he keeps an admirable eagle eye of the passengers coming getting on and manages to come through the bus and collect the bus fare fee no matter how crowded it is. At the same time, he yells bahinna bahinna through the bus for people to know the next bus stop is coming up and you should get ready to walk down to the steps. The crazy traffic and jams, where the bus driver’s favorite solution is the horn. But then there are the sweet moments particularly special to Sri Lanka. For example, when a mom puts her 10 years old daughter on her lap in the over crowded bus for you to have the seat, or when a woman sitting at a seat offer to sit with your heavy backpack on her lap so you don’t have to both stand up and carry all your stuff. Special to Sri Lanka is also the decorations of the buses inside that ranges from fake fur at the dash board of the bus driver, to flowers, various religious posters, curtains, and incense. This is the scenery of both the Sri Lankan people and these weeks also our way of transportation. It makes you appreciate the Danish infrastructure and understand how infrastructure development is a crucial part of developing a country. The time saved from better roads to transport both people to and from work in a less tiresome way but also considering transportation of food throughout the country.

The bus in Sri Lanka

Coming to Sri Lanka I thought they would be used to tourists since both one of my coworkers and one of my friends have been here, and when I told people where I was going more than one told they had a friend who had been or was going to Sri Lanka. Coming here was a whole different story. Maybe it is because of the communities and non-touristy places we work and live in that it took about a week before I spotted another foreigner. It means we get a lot of hellos, where are you from. As a Dane, a number of small conversations from strangers is not something you are used to and most have never learned to appreciate it when they then go abroad and get all that amount of attention. I thought learned an important lesson from Faazil, one of the guys we have been working with. He told me: “It is like when you see a foreigner, you build up the courage. Maybe only to say hi and then you get stuck, but you build up courage”. So now I have come to see every hi and where are you from as not annoying but signs of courage and interest. Now I remember to yell Hi back every time I hear a kid’s voice yell Hi passing me even from a bus, because as one of the other guys Bihan, we work with told me: “They don’t yell hi to me, they yell hi to you”. I now remember to smile and wave back to every child that wave as I pass because it can even mean that another child gets the courage to run after you and say hi. And maybe that saves their day, but it definitely also saves mine and put a constant smile on my face. Learning to be even more outgoing and forthcoming than I was before arriving makes me realize I learn and take note a little bit of the Sri Lankan culture for every day.

‍Bihan and Pabasara who are my work colleagues

The challenges we have faced from living as locals in Sri Lanka have made me realize how privileged I am to come from a country such as Denmark. I consider water a basic necessity for life and find it frustrating on the occasions we in my apartment have been without. But here I have now tried to live with daily water scarcity coming home from work without water to shower, cook or even flush the toilet. Water is something everyone should have access to, but a fact is that not all Sri Lankan do have access to water in their daily lives. It means you must dig your own well to have access to reliable water. When our street was without water for more than 24 hours, we got to borrow water from some of our neighbors well so we could walk down the end of the street and take a bucket of water to pour on ourselves to wash after a sweaty long day in 31 degrees and 85% humidity. We even got to borrow the bathroom of another neighbor with their own well. We only try this situation for 6 weeks while it is these peoples’ everyday situation. And yet they show that amazing level of hospitality to a bunch of foreigners they will never see again after the weeks of our AIESEC exchange has passed. Sri Lankan people amaze me and inspire me.

After water at the neighbors’ well to have a much-needed shower
Written by
Elisabeth Dencker Løwe Jacobsen
Elisabeth will start her MSc studies in International Business and Politics at Copenhagen Business School after the summer. But first, she has chosen to go abroad with AIESEC to Colombo north in Sri Lanka to understand how to empower women and support the fifth UN development goal.