So, you know all those silly adverts that scroll along the side of Facebook? I clicked on one. And one year later I was in Sri Lanka doing a physiotherapy placement with Work the World. So, I guess those ads aren’t all too silly!
I had set my sights on Sri Lanka almost a year before I would be due to head over, so I had plenty of time to prepare and plenty of time for plans to change—both on my side and on Work the World’s side. But no matter the changes, I was determined to make it to the island formerly known as Serendib, and more recently Ceylon.
Immediately on arrival I was intrigued by a kind of language I hadn’t just spent months trying to learn from a CD-ROM. You know how, in Hawaii, one simple word can mean Hello or Goodbye? Same goes for French. Aloha! Salut! I wasn’t sure if there was a word in Sri Lanka that works the same way, but I did notice that the Toot, Toot of the horn speaks about as often and effectively as the people there. From what I can gather, not only does it mean Hello and Goodbye, but it works to say Yes, No, Watch Out, Go ahead, You’re being slow, You’re in my way, and I can only imagine countless more things that I just hadn’t been exposed to yet. When I woke up on my first morning, I wouldn’t have been surprised to be in New York City, but I was in Negombo and about to embark on six weeks of learning and adventure.
Hitting the road is a bit more complicated in Sri Lanka than it is in other countries. According to one of the guidebooks, Sri Lankans drive on the left, but that’s about the only rule. What I learned that first day is that driving on the left is more like a guideline than a rule. To an outsider it is chaotic and terrifying, especially when you’re about three inches from a neighbouring tuk-tuk, straddling the centre line, with a bus driving directly at you on hairpin turns up a giant hill. I’d love to say I got used to it, but anyone who ever sat next to me in a moving vehicle had the evidence of one of my handprints gripping their arm in terror as proof that I hadn’t. I think some of the others fared much better than I did in that respect.
The house on Hanthana Mountain was beautiful and had such an amazing view from the rooftop, that when I heard there were plans to move house near the end of my stay I was baffled. The first morning I opened my eyes to a beautiful view of the morning fog over Kandy from the rooftop and monkeys staring at me from outside the window. Little did I know that, at the new house, monkeys would become an even more regular occurrence. In fact, Champika, the Housekeeper, warned me within minutes of arriving at the new house by Kandy Lake, “Beware the monkeys. Close your windows when you leave the room.” Nevertheless, the new house is beautiful and in such a great spot in relation to town. I look forward to hearing stories about the adventures in the new house.
Kandy Hospital is a short tuk-tuk ride away from the house and the city centre is only a short ride further. When I first arrived in Kandy, I was the only physiotherapy student in the house, so I didn’t really have anyone to gently usher me into the flow of traffic in the physiotherapy clinic. I just started off going a mile a minute. The outpatient clinic is crazier than I could have ever imagined. Although patients are given appointment days, they are not given times, so walking into the department every morning is like trying to push through a crowd of festival-goers who didn’t understand my “excuse me” sentiments. Still, there’s not a single mean bone in the Sri Lankan people that I could find, so it was all a matter of taking it in stride and figuring out the appropriate gestures to communicate my intentions when there wasn’t a translator available.
During the week, when I wasn’t at the hospital, I spent a fair amount of time wandering through Kandy city centre and around the lake. I’ll admit, some of us girls got to become regulars at one of the small jewellery shops in KCC (the mall). Those were some of the most entertaining Kandy afternoons when, inevitably, one of us girls went inside to pick something up and another one of us decided to place an order. Of course there are other places to shop besides the jewellery store and KCC, and they’re all just a short walk from the mall.
On the weekends, I played tourist with the others in the house and visited Galle & Unawatuna, Nuwara Eliya & Horton Plains, Colombo, Trincomalee, and Passekudah. Traveling around Sri Lanka is an adventure in itself. Although the island is relatively small, it’s not particularly quick to get anywhere. Intercity public transportation isn’t the most reliable, but it does make for some of the best stories. At one point a group of us were trying to get from Colombo to Trincomalee on the overnight train, but on the morning of our departure we discovered the rail workers had just gone on strike. We tried to find a bus with air con to get us across the island, but the locals seemed pretty convinced those didn’t actually exist, despite the fact that they’re recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook. A few tuk-tuk rides back and forth later, we managed to find a “private” overnight bus with air con to take us to our final destination. Even that was an experience in itself, but arriving in Tricomalee at 5:30 am, looking out to the beach and seeing the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen completely made up for all the rigmarole.
Toward the end of my six weeks in Sri Lanka, I headed to Habarana for the Ayurvedic Medicine experience with Mewan, the Ayurvedic Guide, and two other students. Normally, Habarana is one of the driest towns in the country. That particular week however, it was one of the wettest, so it made things interesting schedule-wise. However, we managed to squeeze almost everything on the itinerary in and had a lot of fun running in the rain in the process. Only a week ago I noticed there was still some Sri Lankan dirt hanging on to my sandals (four months later). We also managed to scrounge up an invitation to the regular Habarana WTW tuk-tuk driver’s wedding. Although we most definitely didn’t fit in, everyone was so welcoming and eager to teach us how to dance to the Sri Lankan music.
As an avid traveller, I usually hate to make generalisations about a population, but I have to say that in all the traveling I’ve done, there is no nicer or more welcoming group of people than Sri Lankans. I remember my dad being nervous about my traveling to a country that only recently emerged from a civil war, but now I even have him itching to go for a visit.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with beautiful people and so much to teach any student who is willing to learn.