Thoughts on heading home
Sri Lanka — Uniterra
I’m ending my mandate the same way I started it: in orientation. One year ago during my first week in Sri Lanka, I was an orientation participant and this week, I am an orientation organizer. Over the past months, I’ve organized orientations for over thirty volunteers as Volunteer Support Officer for the Uniterra program in Sri Lanka. Even though I’ve seen them many times before, I often sit in on orientation sessions with new volunteers because I enjoy watching their reactions as they learn about the country where they will live and work during their mandates (also, someone needs to keep them awake in the late afternoon when jetlag kicks in!).
While sitting in on an orientation session today, I remarked, “Wow that’s so cool – I didn’t know that!” and one of the volunteers laughed, teasing me that I’m still learning in my last few days on the job. This comment stuck with me because it rings so true of my experience in Sri Lanka: everyday I’m learning something new, figuring something out, asking questions to uncover why something is done the way it is done, etc. My curiosity about Sri Lanka is endless and I often find myself reading through a textbook I’ve bought about the conflict or Googling information about this and that (just in the past few days, I’ve looked up information about the internally displaced population in the country and the statistics of recorded mental health issues in young people post-war).
In Elephant Complex, travel writer John Gimlette ends the book’s introduction with a quotation from Gordon Weiss, an Australian UN advisor, who said, “I was warned before going to Sri Lanka that when I left, I would know the country less well than when I arrived”. Weiss found this was accurate for his experience and so Gimlette took it as a challenge for his exploration of Sri Lanka. For my part, as with many subjects, I find that the classic saying, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” rings true for my time in Sri Lanka. Similarly to Weiss, then, I find myself leaving with more questions than answers. I remain unsatisfied, wishing I had the ability to acquire omniscience if only to understand a small part the incredibly long history of this island, but I find solace in the knowledge that I couldn’t have formulated many of my questions without first spending time in this beautiful, complex, and (admittedly) sometimes frustrating country.
For my last orientation program for our new student volunteers, my goal is to remain wholly present so I can soak in as much as I can before I leave. Canada is calling me and I can’t wait to be home… but it is also challenging to leave a place I feel I only barely understand, where my business of learning will never be complete.