Friday, March 14, 2014

Thoughts on my Volunteering Experience!

This month in Sri Lanka has given me a lot of food for thought. Has it been a good experience? Would I do it again? The short answer is I don't know.

It brings me back to why did I decide to volunteer?  I wanted to travel, it was my first major venture travelling on my own. I thought it would give me a chance to get to know the local people by daily interaction with the staff as well as the pupils.

Did it meet those criteria? Yes, I have travelled. I came through Sharjah, managed the visa, spent 15 hours there sightseeing on my own and I arrived in Sri Lanka with no printed visa, it never arrived, and got myself to the hotel with little or no fuss. The first box ticked and confidence gained.

Getting to know local people and a little of their lives? Yes and no.  When I booked this holiday, I did so knowing I would be staying in a 5* all inclusive hotel. My friend told me that was cheating and I agreed but it suited my needs as I was newly retired and wanted a holiday as much as anything else.  I really did not have altruistic motivation.

But she was right! We were like aliens, jetting in from another world. The principal and the secretary called to the hotel one evening. They wanted a photo I had taken for a document they were producing. They were still talking about my hotel room a week later. They probably think I stay in 5* all inclusive hotels all the time. While I like my lifestyle and by their standards it is great, it is not an "ooohhh I think I will spend a month in a five star hotel" lifestyle. This was a one off for me, or I will be saving for a year or two before I could do this again.  This made getting to know people harder. Couple this with a serious language barrier with almost everyone in the school. Plus people will let you see what they wish you to see.

Did I think I could make a difference in a month? Definitely not, teaching is a long slow business. But did I foresee the level of frustration? Certainly not. I didn't think it would be a cakewalk but I imagined some sort of organisation to the day.

Was having fellow volunteers in the school with me a good thing? Again, yes and no. I like my own company and by the nature of the project we are thrown together constantly. I found it hard to always have to think of the other two and reach agreement on what we were doing. I missed my own space. I I found it hard initially to "fight my corner" when it came to deciding what to do. But I am learned!

I retired early because I didn't want the frustrations of teaching. I enjoy being and interacting with children. But now I want the fun stuff without the paperwork and accountability. In this project I was doing a lot of practical things with the children but it didn't give me much time to get to know them. My fellow volunteers though oral English was limited, got to know the children better.

I remember last year being sick and thinking, when I am retired I won't have to think about getting myself to school when I don't feel up to it. I will have permission to feel unwell and stay in bed and rest. Monday, I got a mild dose of Delhi Belly and I felt obliged to get up on Tuesday to go to school. Ten minutes in the heat and I knew I would not manage a day in school. I went back to bed, but awas feeling guilty. I didn't take early retirement for this.

I really appreciated my free time again. I looked forward to the weekends and the odd bonus day ofd we got, when I could relax and do nothing if I wish.  But is working necessary to feel this? Prior to volunteering I still looked forward to everyday. I am not bored.  I belong to a singalong group, a bookclub and a knitting circle. I love to read, to take photos and to watch tv in the evenings. Do I need the stress of a working week, even one with no responsibilty to enjoy my free time? No.

Others volunteer for different reasons, to escape the dark winters of home but in the company of others, to make a difference in peoples lives, to fulfill the need to work with children.

I am not sure I would do this again. I certainly would not do it staying in an all inclusive hotel, if I see another evening buffet I will go on a starvation diet, yet I am not sure I could homestay for a month or more. I certainly would have a lot more questions of any organisation before I joined a programme, e.g. is it an established programme, where does the money go, what is the level of english, what is the support on the ground and also for contact with past volunteers if possible to gain an insight as to the actual realities in situ.

My main motivation was to launch myself safely as a solo traveller. There are two more stages to my journey. The first is in India, where I have booked a car and a driver for the duration of my trip. The second is in Nepal, where I have booked my accommodation for most of the journey but will wing it a little more. I am looking forward to seeing how I cope  with the different types of holiday. It is a wonderful journey and I don't mean the physical one.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Not impressed Saga!

I do not feel very charitable when it comes to Saga and in particular the operations manager  (Himself) of Saga Volunteer Travel. All our dealings about the project were done through Himself.  These sentiments have also been expressed by my fellow volunteers and also some of the volunteers in the other school above Colombo.

Being Irish, the words piss up and brewery come to mind as in not able to organise a.......

After my initial enquiries about the Volunteer programme and sending in the required documents, Himself invariably did not answer emails. I had sent emails enquiring if they had received my completed application, as there had been no acknowledgement of same.  I also asked what the post application process was i.e. "What happens next? When  will I hear if I have been accepted?  Guess what, no replies! I was a teacher and as such possess a reasonable amount of patience.  However, it would have been nice to know that they had received my official application and following process. After waiting a couple of weeks I eventually rang Saga and got the information, not from Himself, I may add. He was visiting a project in St. Lucia. But he was only there for a week,not for the length of time it took to ignore my emails.   Have Saga never heard of the automated email reply "I am out of the office until...."

My next batch of emails came  two months later, post acceptance.  I wanted to fly from Istanbul and when I emailed Himself  to see if this was possible! I got a reply, yes no problem he would get the Bespoke Travel Team to get in touch.  I waited one week ...two weeks...sent an reply ...emailed again as flight prices were rising and I wanted to make onward plans. 

Eventually, I sent another email to Himself, this time quite annoyed, of course he didn't reply but the travel team did get in touch. the first thing they told me was "Sorry you are not a British citizen, we cannot book your flights!"  I had no problem with this, I am well used to booking my own. But I had wasted a month.

I had also been told in October that there  was another volunteer going to the same school  and I would be given her contact details as soon as they had my Garda Clearance Certificate. This was so that we could get to know each other prior to going. Eh! they had received  my certificate in August. That was three months ago.  So I emailed again as Himself had said CRB and Maybe my Garda Clearance Cert was not sufficient.  I did get a reply this time, my Garda cert was fine but two months later I still had no contact details. By this time, I was beginning to feel like a nuisance caller, constantly emailing when not getting replies. I was highly disillusioned with Saga's organisation  but at this stage I was committed to going. 

 I was promised information about the school and what would be expected of me six weeks prior to travelling. Four weeks to go and nothing. I was in Ireland for Christmas and wanted to call into my  school and gather some resources so I emailed again. Waited, nothing, so I telephoned Himself. I was lucky, they had just arrived on his desk. He would post them out. As I was travelling back to Turkey, I asked for them to be emailed. Wonder of wonders, I got them that evening! Follow this up with the accommodation fiasco and the lack of support on the ground during the project.

Seriously not impressed Saga!

The weeks roll on.

My complacency was soon to come to an end. I arrived in school on a Monday morning, planning to continue with the blog and to perhaps start showing the older ones how to use Powerpoint.

I was given my timetable. i had Grade 3 for two periods of PE, outside in the 30+C and no class teacher present. Anyone who knows me knows that PE is not my favourite subject. Add to that the fact they only begin to learn English in Grade 3. 

Mr. Perara, when asked how I was supposed to manage said he would come with me. He wanted to bring them straight outside but i made him bring them back.  We had an English/maths lesson so that we could play "What's the time Mr. Wolf?" Mr. Perera also translated some of the rules. This done he had to leave and of course chaos ruled. After playing the game for 15 minutes, the children had enough and when  they couldn't understand me thought it would be much more fun to throw stones at each other. Luckily, I was literally saved by the bell.

The week followed with me being sent large numbers of children from the Junior classes and also children from two special classes, who have difficulty with Sinhalese, not to mention English. So ŵe used a tying tutor and Paint. Paint was useful as it allowed some English chat when giving instructions on what to "paint"

 We were all struggling. We were given our timetables daily, but this did not allow us to plan activitiesv. I guess this is whynwe were told we would need to be flexible as volunteers!!

I would be in the middle of a a typing class with a group of children and suddenly find myself surrounded by five or six more. The singing teacher came in on Mondays and Tuesdays and she would need the computer to teach a song. I would be left twiddling my thumbs.

I spoke to Mr. Perara about timetabling. We were being assigned the classes of absent teachers. The absentee rate seemed to be high. So there was no continuity in lessons. 

They had discovered three volunteers was one too many for them and they didn't know what to do with us. Sue was working with the English teacher, I was doing computers, but as IT is not timetabled they could only give me the classes with free periods. I suggested giving me half a class during a subject class e.g. Geography on a Monday and the other half the next time the class had geography. This way all the pupils would receive the same instruction. It was not possible I was told. 

Maggie and I sometimes split classes. She would take one half for English and I the other half for IT. We would then swap groups half way through. We got a list of the children's names to help us keep track as we often attracted wanderers. We found the same children timetabled to come to us a couple of times as they came with their class group and again with their special group. We tried to organise things to avoid them being bored, doing the same thing over and over again.

Finally, I emailed Hansika on everyone's behalf with some interim feedback. We told her we knew we were the first volunteers to the school and in that sense we were guinea pigs. We felt that the school was not getting maximum benefit from the programme due to the timetabling problem. We were being scheduled to teach classes where the teacher was absent. it aeemed to us the children were not being supervised until we would arrive and we didn't have the language to communicate effectively with them.

We didn't have a problem with being the guinea pigs but were looking for direction in how to improve the situation. If we could resolve the timetabling issue before the next volunteers arrive  next May then we would have achieved something. 

There are  Saga volunteers in another school above Colombo. The volunteer programme has been running there for a few years. This other school has the same antiquated  state English curriculum and we imagined similiar problems. We wanted to know had they learned anything from that school that could be applied to ours? We stressed the fact that the email was not a complaint. The staff in the school could not be nicer, warmer or  more welcoming. While they genuinely want to improve spoken English they are proscribed by their situation. We too were newbies and slightly at sea.

 We received a reply, thanking us for our useful feedback and she would get back to us on it. Hah! We are leaving next Tuesday and we have heard nothing yet. Typical Saga!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The first week.

We arrived in school on Monday morning full of enthusiasm and ready to go. We were planning to wing it  little the first day as we had no timetables but were reassured they would be ready for us on Monday morning. They were....but for that day only!

I said I needed a little time to familiarize myself with the computers. I needed to see what operating system was in place, what programmes were installed etc.  It turned out that only two of the computers were in working order plus my laptop.

The school did not have a website so we decided to make a school blog. I set up the basics and I was ready for my first pupils. It was soon evident that the low standard of English meant almost no spoken English.
However with IT it is not hugely necessary as it is possible to demonstrate what I want them to do  In the first week we created the blog.

I had an old camera, so I showed them how to take photographs. I had downloaded Picasa so they could use basic photo editing tools and then showed them how to write a simple blog post adding the photos.

They  chose and edited the page background and were delighted to see their work online.

As we began, we had a visit from Chris. He came out from England to visit the two schools that had volunteers and also to bring donated microscopes to another school supported by the Charitable Trust. He arrived in our hotel in the early afternoon with another girl from his office. He made no effort to look us up that evening or the next morning at breakfast.  We met him for the first time in school, where he actually told us he told his colleague he had spotted us at breakfast. We were ready for school so we were wearing our name badges. He breezed in and out of the school, spending almost no time talking to us. He took some photos for the Saga Volunteer Facebook page, thought the blog was a great idea and he was gone!

I had small classes the first week and my days flew by, we got a few blog posts done and it felt like we were achieving something. It was tangible. The children learned to take photos, edit them and write simple blog posts. That was the surprising thing. Even though they had trouble speaking, they were able to write and spell simple sentences. Composing the sentences was the problem.

Learning to type

My laptop came in handy and the beaver attracted lots of attention

Editing pictures and creating a blog post.
In comparison, my fellow volunteers were quite frustrated. Timetabling seemed haphazard, we only got each days timetable in the morning when we arrived. Spoken English was very little even among the teachers. Speaking with Mr. Perera, our liaison person  was also difficult sometimes as it was with the English teachers. A lot seemed to be lost in translation.

While the school wanted us to improve the standard of spoken English they were circumscribed by a very old fashioned curriculum. The English teacher wanted to stick to the curriculum. How does one work with poems by Rudyard Kipling and Walter de la Mare using old fashioned out dated language that even an English speaking child would have difficulty understanding.

"In winter I get up at night........"

Grade 6

And so the first week while quite frustrating for the others went very well for me.

Orientation session

On the day after our arrival Hansika, the project co-ordinator arrived at our hotel for an orientation session and to bring us to the school to meet everyone.  She had arrived from Colombo with a car and driver.

We were given some background information on the school and what would be expected of us. We were warned that the standard of English was not high. Apparently, this is the case once you leave the capital Colombo. But we were reassured that the ex-principal Mr. Perera would be the local co-ordinator and would be on hand to help us all the time. Again, the need for volunteers to be flexible was mentioned.

Next came a little aside. Chris the overall project director for Saga, asked Hansika to tell us that contrary to the written confirmations we had from Saga, that we were booked into the Cinnamon Bey Hotel for 28 nights, there was a slight problem. Two of the four weekends we would be staying there, the hotel was fully booked out and we would have to leave. Their solution was that they would send us to Kandy on the first weekend, provide a car and driver and a hotel. The second weekend they had booked us into another hotel locally.

This suited me. I had planned to visit Kandy while I was here, so this would be a "most" expenses paid trip. The second weekend, I suggested that I would like to go to Galle so if they could book a hotel for me there, it would suit me better than another local hotel.

Sue was not happy as she had booked a tour of Sri Lanka  to begin immediately after our four week volunteering stint. Maggie agreed but she had already been to Kandy and Galle. However she also wanted to Galle again. Sue agreed to come as she did not want to stay in another hotel by herself.

The part that we did not like was that two weekends in a row, we would have to pack our belongings and vacate our rooms. It did not warrant well for Saga's organisation skills. They had known from early last summer that they had volunteers coming but they could not manage to book our accommodation properly.

We were then brought by car to the school to meet the Principal, Mr. Perara and the staff.  The staff were warm and welcoming. I wondered how the Principal felt, as the school was referred to as Mr. Perara's school, and he seemed to be the person of import on the day.  

We discussed what the school required and how we might best be deployed  in the coming weeks. It was decided that I would be best working with the senior grades 9, 10 and 11. These children would then be able to teach the younger ones. In addition to our classes with the children, the staff expressed a wish that we stay an hour after school each day to practise speaking English with them. This might be even more beneficial than working with the children.

We had a quick tour of the school and it was back to the hotel.  Orientation was over and we were free for a long weekend. Friday was a Poya day, a full moon day. Every Poya Day is an official holiday.

Moragalla Junior School.

 Moragalla Junior School is located in Beruwela, south of Colombo.

 It is a mixed rural school with 199 pupils. The pupils are aged between 5 and 16, in classes from Grade 1 to Grade 11. The pupils in the primary classes Grade 1-5 are located in a separate premises close to the Junior school.

Grades 1-5
Grades 1-5

The senior school

The school records date back to 1954, though it was probably built in the 1930's.  Prior to the tsunami in 2004 school numbers were declining, parents were sending their children to other schools in the locality. The government decided to close the school. However a number of locals got together to keep the school running. As a result of this, Mr. Peter Perera was appointed as the school principal. He did great work in keeping the school running.

One of his main achievements was contacting a local agency, the equivalent of our credit union and getting their sponsorship of the school. As a result of this, the credit union provided the necessary requirements of each new school entrant, bags, pens, water bottles, lunch boxes etc. School numbers have been gradually increasing.

He and the present Principal Madam Kumarasiri have also been successful in securing funding from schools in England, local hotels and the Saga Chartable Trust. The school is dependent on this funding.
Mr. Perera and Madam Kumarasiri

In 2004 the tsunami which devastated Indonesia completely destroyed part of the primary school building. The main building was flooded and almost all the books and equipment were destroyed beyond repair.

The Government provides free education in Sri Lanka, books and one uniform a year. But it is not enough to keep schools running.

A new school building is required and it is being funded by the Eden Hotel. Saga Charitable Trust are responsible for supplying electricity, computers, the photocopier, iron mesh on the windows among other things. They also established the volunteer programme of which we are the first guinea pigs!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Why Volunteering?

The reason I came to Sri Lanka was to work as a volunteer in a primary school. It has been a very interesting experience. A worthwhile one? That is a question I will address in a later post.

Why did I decide to volunteer? An interesting question considering I have looked forward to my early retirement for a very long time. When asked I also said i would not consider doing sub work itpf it were an option. Yet I am now back working in  a school in less than a year.

My reasons for coming were not altruistic. I love to travel and though I have been to Turkey many times on my own I have never really "travelled" alone. While I am quite an independent person I am also a bit of a worrier.

One of my plans after retirement was to travel to further afield than before. When looking at options for solo travel I came across the Saga Volunteer Programme. It seemed to fit my needs. I would be able to combine my desire to travel with the opportunity to meet people both local and fellow volunteers. I would have the opportunity to work with children without the responsibilities of a teacher, the planning, the paperwork and the accountability. I would be working with the teacher, be the assistant, the role seemed perfect to me. 

I had spent a week in a Turkish school working with the English teacher last year. This was part of an ongoing two year co-operation programme between five European schools. I loved it. I enjoyed interacting with the children in class and the other teachers in the staff room. It was interesting and informative to compare and contrast different teaching methods, curricula and working conditions. I spent the week in the home of the English teacher and was made so welcome by him, his lovely wife and his extended family. It was a wonderful experience. Yet I knew that I would not want to spend four weeks living in someone else's home. I like my alone time too much.

I chose Moragalla Primary School  because it is a small country school. Four weeks before coming, I received a letter for the Sri Lankan Project Co-ordinator. It gave me the background to the school and also how the school wished to use my skills. I thought I would be helping with English. I had been collecting resources with this in mind. However the school had something else in mind.

They were the proud possessors of 5 computers but had no IT teacher. My role would be to teach basic IT skills. I can do basic IT but I had one major question. The keyboards, would they  be in English or in Sinhala. I might have a few difficulties with that one!

 I emailed the co-ordinator with a few questions so I could come prepared. Luckily for me, they were English qwerty keyboards but not all of of the computers were in working order. I decided to bring my laptop with me as we could also use that.

Among the other information given was that volunteers needed to be flexible and not be surprised that the standard of English is lower than that of the state schools in the capital Colombo. Thinking I had a good idea of what was in front of me, after all, I had worked in the Turkish school. I was ready!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

.........and Gardens. A Visit to Lunuganga.

After spending Saturday at the temple we booked our tuk tuk to take us to Lunaganga Garden. Our original plan had been to visit Brief Garden but Adrian told us that Lunuganga was even better.

Adrian giving good advice

So Brief Garden was shelved and at nine o'clock on Sunday morning the three of us squeezed into the tuk tuk. Our driver had been arranged by the school so that we would pay local prices not the tourist one. The deal was 1700 LKR about €10. For this the driver would bring us to the garden, wait while we did the tour and then take us home again.

We had a brief stop on the way at this river. We were told there are crocodiles in it but thankfully all that was to be seen this morning were a couple of boats and this man selling his catch.

River looks very peaceful.

When we arrived at the gardens there was little sign of life. This was the country house of Geoffrey Bawa. He started his career as a lawyer but went on to become a very famous Sri Lankan architect.  The gardens were his first love and he experimented here with different types of plants. The gardens were begun in 1947, and Geoffry continued to work on them until his final illness in 1998. After he died in 2003, the property was left to the Lunuganga Trust, who opened the gardens to the public and the house is now a boutique hotel.

The Bell

When we arrived the gates were shut and though there was little sign of life there was another tuk tuk and a car parked outside. Our driver got out and rang the bell perched high over the gate. This was the first of many bells dotted about the property.

 A young man arrived to let us in. He told us we could not see the "house" as the hotel was full but he would give us a guided tour of the garden.

Waiting patiently

Our guide

It was a wonderful tour, we saw many types to trees, lots of water lilies, they are the national flower of Sri Lanka in addition to some of the local wildlife.

The waterlily,  the national flower of Sri Lanka

We also crossed paths with an Australian couple who exchanged words with Sue about the cricket. Australia has obviously beaten England recently.
In addition to this, they gave us the contact gap details of a wonderful lady who organises walking tours in Galle. We plan to go there the weekend after next.

The photos will do the rest of my talking.

Outside the Garden Room

The Glass Room
This used to be a barn and the small building in front was a hen house

Another of the guest rooms.

This room is on three levels!

How many English women does it take to ring a bell?

Jack Fruit. Years ago a hotel we stayed in in Bangkok had notices in the lift forbidding bringing these fruits into the hotel. evidently they smell very bad even though they taste good.

The Water Garden...more seats and bells. 

One of two water monitors that dropped in for a swim.

Back on dry land

The dog cools off. He sat down in the water for several minutes.



Lots of shady walks

Spider webs dotted the grass.

The fruit of the Balsa tree. Evidently, one side is poisonous and the other side edible for the birds!

A frog pops up to say hello

Spot the iguana

Found him

A kingfisher sits in a tree.

Red rice

Old Rubber trees

A horned Pan

Pretty Ferns

The cannonball flower. It smells even better than it looks.

I never saw cotton grow in a pod before!

Ringing the bell again. Where is that cup of tea?

Sue when asked to strike a pose. The hakka maybe?

Leaf of the Breadfruit tree, it made a great fan.
Or used to guide the plane into land.


Older Mangrove

The door to the Cinnamon House
This iguana not to happy with being disturbed.

So he decides to go home.



Almost gone.

Every cow we see here seems to have its own private egret to keep the bugs off.

The main house.

The house faces this view one way

Frangapani tree

This is the view on the opposite side.

Paintings on the outbuildings

This path was made and planted to reduce the road noise

Interesting toilet
I love old pots.

 This is the base of a huge mahogany tree.  Time to leave now.