Thursday, January 22

Iris Visser shared her experience in "E Guru Gedara" project

Iris Visser

Sri Lanka. My destination which I had chosen quite randomly. One of my first ‘motivation e-mails’ went to his project called ‘E guru gedara’. Oshada, the guy who later appeared to be my housemate, interviewed me. Or I can better say, I interviewed him with all those question I had to ask because my mother wanted to know things like if the traffic would be really that dangerous (or maybe she didn’t really wanted to know, since I would decide to go to Asia anyway). Despite of the bad connection – so Oshada and me had to combine chatting and talking – I had a good feeling about choosing Sri Lanka and this project, so I just decided to go for it.

I hardly did know anything about Sri Lanka. Furthermore there was not much time to gather information since I had to finish my bachelor thesis before my internship and also there was a study trip to Budapest & Belgrado on the planning in April. Two weeks before this study trip I booked my flight (to leave my country at the 28th of April), called the doctor for some vaccinations and did only the most necessary preparations. Somehow I finished my bachelor thesis in time, so I could leave without any study obligations.

And there, on April 28, I was sitting at the window side of this huge plane of Etihad Airlines. No way back. An adventure of me, myself and I. About 24 hours later I arrived at the airport of Colombo. Sehan, a really nice (and unexpectedly tall) guy picked me up and brought me to my accommodation, called ‘the lc-house’ (lc = local committee, referring to the local committee of AIESEC). Because of his accent it was really hard to understand him, so had to ask ‘what?’ and ‘can you please repeat that?’ all the time. Luckily I got used to this accent quite soon.

In the lc-house I was warmly welcomed by Oshada and Elena. Elena is a German girl who had just finished her project. I was happy she was there to tell me about her experiences and that she could give me some banana’s because I was a little hungry arriving late in the evening…

The next morning I found this note, lying at my feet when I woke up: ‘GOT EXAMS, WILL BE BACK IN THE EVENING, take Elena to get some food, - Oshada’. I remember, the moment reading this note, as the day like yesterday, while it is already more than three months ago and so much happened. Anyway, my first day I went with Elena to Bentota and Casgoda to spot some sea turtles. Unless my mum’s talk about suicidal bus drivers, we went by bus. Bus 02, to be specific. During our bus ride we had to listen to a really terrible Sinhalese version of Enrique Iglesias while watching some flickering lights around little Buddha statues above the front window of the bus.

Buses were one of the first eye-openers of a different culture. You don’t only have a bus driver, but also a ‘bus worker’ (as I call it) who gathers the money from all the passengers (some of them try to receive more money of foreigners so you have to be careful by giving to fast your money, always ask ‘how much?’ before giving some random amount of rupees). Some of this bus workers also scream quite a lot, most of the time they only use two words: ‘HARRY HARRY HARRY HARRY’ and then, as far as I know, let the bus driver know it’s time to move on, and: ‘BAYLA BAYLA BAYLA BAYLA’ when the bus driver might start driving too fast while still some passengers have to get off.

Writing this experience story, I am thinking about what kind of ‘culture shock’ I have experienced, about which the AIESEC-organization was previously warning me about. To be for the first time in Asia, for the first time leaving ‘comfortable’ Europe. I guess calling it a ‘shock’ is a little effusive. I saw some poverty this first taxi ride from the airport… riding close to really small houses and seeing the people living there staring at our car… But that was only for a few minutes, the rest of Colombo seemed – through my eyes – quite developed (I drove about one hour from the airport to the lc-house in Moratuwa). And of course it was really hot, but I already could expect th
at. The first cold shower is definitely part of my ‘warm welcome’.

Elena told me about all the people who would stare at me. Lots of Sri Lankan people hardly see white people (or some even never have seen before) and might think you are ‘too’ beautiful (or extraordinary and in that way special? I should have asked this people why they were staring). She said it would not really mind if you’re wearing shorts or not, people would stare anyway (for the information: it’s normal to cover at least your knees and shoulders in Sri Lanka). Elena was right, the first days I really felt all those eyes looking at me. Later I got used to it.

Perhaps it’s because I am an open-minded and flexible person, but I never had a moment I felt this ‘culture shock’. One reason for that might the fact that I never have felt alone during my two month stay in Sri Lanka. There were always so many nice people around me, during my travelling but also during my internship I made friends with the trainee teachers of my age… Also I was not expecting any luxury. I was fine with the ants walking in colonies through our house, having no fridge (why do you need one when the take-away food is just so delicious? Especially the egg kohttu!). I had the basic things: a bed, a ventilator and a cold shower. An additional important aspect is that I felt safe at my ‘home’.

I spend my second day by reading my travel guide and planning where to go, feeling confident enough to just leave the next morning, together with my backpack, to start a little journey through Sri Lanka, alone. I didn’t like to leave Elena behind but also I really felt I wanted to discover the country and use my time as efficient as possible.

So I left the comfortable lc-house, took a 100 or a 101 bus to the railway station in Moratuwa, paid too much but didn’t want to start a discussion, went from the Moratuwa railway station to Colombo Fort and from there to Kandy (from there to Sigirya, Dambulla and Matale), Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Embilipitiya (from there to the Udawalawa National Park) and a week later, after meeting a lot of nice people (except for one tuk-tuk driver which tried to kiss me), seeing beautiful places, I arrived back at the lc-house.

Elena had left but Nora was back in her place, another German girl who was luckily really nice too (I knew I would live with her at the lc-house for a longer time). She already started the project (btw, didn’t tell yet: teaching English at the Girls High School in Mount Lavinia) a few days earlier so I decided to go along with her the next day, just ignoring the tiredness of my first incredible journey I just had.

It was quite easy taking a bus to Mount Lavinia, you only have to know where to get off since there is no one who will mention any name of a bus stop. From the right bus stop it was only a five minute walk to our school. 2000 girls from all ages were just walking around in and between all the buildings when we arrived. We walked into the staff room and then some kind of traditional Sinhalese song started and everyone stood up. I think this song takes too long, even if you understand what it’s about. Somehow we found a teacher who was apparently responsible for the timetables. Too bad there would not be any periods on my first two days at the school due to the preparation of ‘the exhibition’ and the exhibition itself.

Even though there was not much to do for Nora and me, we wanted to look around the classes at what the students were making (funny thing: some ware making a landscape of the winter, without they had ever seen it with their own eyes). Some students were really busy, using their creativity. Most of the students had no any clue about what to do and for most of the teachers this also seemed the case. I can describe my first impression in one word: chaos. At the same time I need to say that all the teachers and students were really friendly to me. Some students are really excited about seeing this two white girls walking around their school, yelling ‘HII! HOW ARE YOU?’, others are really shy. One moment Nora and I decided to sit down for a while (it was hot anyway). However, we ended in the middle of a big crowd of big brown eyes students asking for our signatures and drawings (their favorite: the peacock).

Sometimes you don’t know whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage to be white.

After the weekend a fresh new week started. After some time and discussions I got my own fixed class: grade 8A. Unfortunately, I could only teach them English one period a day (of the nine periods a day). Every teacher has to be present from 7.30am till 1.30pm, so what to do with the rest of the time? I helped with the drama of a grade 7, who had a really nice teacher who brought many times banana’s from her garden (‘’without chemicals! Good for you’’), preparing the classes a little and sometimes I played piano to support the singing of the primary school students of some other English teachers.

So Nora and I tried to take initiative to make our days worth it, but some days were just boring and too hot to do active stuff. Several teachers were also quite unmotivated, but I can imagine that when the weather is hot and your salary is low, plus no one who is really controlling your work (I am wondering about the last one). Also the trainee teachers, with whom Nora and I talked a lot in the breaks or when we had no periods, were not that satisfied with the organization of this school. Still I won’t call my experiences bad at all. The students were although this conditions motivated to learn. Well at least I assume my students were, since they listened so well to me. Some of them didn’t make their exercises but I don’t think that’s because of a lack of motivation but rather about having no clue what to do or just feeling insecure about writing English.

I liked to teach. More than I expected. You might think 45 students of 13-14 year old would be a quite hard job, but I enjoyed to spend time with my grade 8A. Teaching them different things, sometimes serious grammar exercises, sometimes games like the hangman, making word clouds or a word snake. Also the students must have liked me. Every ending of a period they told me: ‘Please, come again!’. Besides teaching English I also taught them some Dutch and French words. I also would have like to do some research, interview teachers and give them advice about how the school could be improved. But, I wonder if that would have made a lot of sense. You have to respect the culture and I was already happy that they trusted me to do the things I did. The positive part of the culture is that people are really hospitable. One teacher asked Nora and me to have dinner at her place… Such things would never happen here in the Netherlands.

Before you know the six weeks of teaching already passed. The last day was the ‘English Drama day’. Some English teachers, Nora and me went to another school to see the drama’s of our school and two other schools. Our drama appeared to be the best and we won. It was nice to see that our students were so happy and so thankful that we helped them with the drama. Perhaps a good moment to finish our internship but it was also really hard to leave… some students even began to cry.

The combination of teaching English, being there on this Girls High School, travelling around before, after and in the weekends during the internship, was perfect. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Sri Lanka (more than the moderate Sri Lankan person), met a lot of people (locals as well as other travelling people and interns) and learned a lot about the Sri Lankan culture. For example: I can eat with my hands and I know the taste of arrack, coconut and all kind of strange fruits.

I can write a lot more about of my experiences but I think I just wrote down the most important things. I can recommend everyone to visit Sri Lanka. It’s a nice country to travel around but it’s also really nice to do an internship to just understand the culture better and talking with the local people. If you have the chance, take it!

Climbing Adam’s peak and realize it’s too misty…

The lovely trainee teachers… eating with their hands

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