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A Volunteer Placement in Sri Lanka Changed My Life

It's hard to believe that the start of my volunteering experience was so long ago in 2002 after I'd just graduated from University. Six years on and it's just incredible to see how Travellers' changed my life.

An introduction to the elephantsSri Lanka captured my imagination and had everything I was looking for - a drastically different culture, idyllic scenery and picture postcard beaches.  I had always been fascinated with Elephants and concerned for their dwindling numbers in the wild, so the chance to play a direct part in their daily care at a sanctuary like Pinnawala was an experience that I couldn't put a price on.  The concept of 'paying to volunteer' concerned me a little, but I decided it was worth it to have such a unique experience that would be organised professionally.  This was to be my first solo adventure, not to mention my first outing away from Europe.  I was terrified and excited: at that stage in my life I didn't have the confidence to travel alone and so I really appreciated the safety net of Travellers, who helped me through the process both before and during the trip.

As I attempted to carry my heaving rucksack for the first time I really had no idea what to expect.  I met a fellow volunteer at London Heathrow, where we said goodbye to our families and began to get to know each other and enjoy the start of our huge adventure.  Nothing could have prepared me for arriving into the early morning heat of a new day in Sri Lanka!  Without any clouds in the sky, the sun was blazing and I was glued to the car window, fascinated by everything I saw.  Cow's wandered freely amongst bikes, tuk tuks, brightly dressed women trying to find shade under dainty umbrellas and a strangely large number of stray dogs.  The colours, smells, sights and sounds were so alien and new.  It was exotic and chaotic and I loved it!  After being introduced to many other volunteers on different projects, we Bathing time!were taken up to Pinnawala to meet the rest of our group and learn the ropes of helping the Elephant Mahouts.  My first encounter with the Elephants was magical and I was amazed that we were allowed so much access, particularly with the babies who needed our attention the most!  My daily routine was soon established and I became adept at bottle feeding, bathing time in the river, rubbing coconut husks on their skin, and of course, aliya betty (elephant poo) shovelling!

As I adjusted to Sri Lanka time I found that my western vanity went out the window and I learnt to embrace a new way of life and all that it entailed.  At weekends we'd get together in groups to see other parts of the country, from the southern beaches to the waterfalls, tea plantations and hill country.  It was non-stop fun but with a twist - we weren't ordinary tourists because the locals started to get to know us... 'ahh, you are the volunteers' they'd say as they welcomed us into their lives.  Along with my new found tolerance for chilli I also gained an understanding of the cultural differences from friends I'd made locally.  Sri Lanka began to feel like a second home.

I was certainly more culturally aware and independent on my return.  I had the confidence to try anything and a severe case of the travel bug.  When a position at Travellers UK office became available, I knew it was perfect for me and so within weeks of arriving back I'd gone through the upheaval of moving to a new city to start a new career.  I feel lucky to have been able to help others live their dreams and gain the confidence to travel, and being part of a small family run company has given me the opportunity to learn many new skills and adapt to a huge number of roles.  The rucksack that accompanied me on my first adventure has since become a trusted companion and each new experience I've had has led to a craving for the next one.  My advice to anyone that's not sure about taking the plunge is to choose something that they are passionate about and then..... go for it!!

Vicky Boughton's placement in Sri Lanka in 2002 was arranged with Travellers.  She now works for the company!