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Volunteering in Ja-Ela: The Real Sri Lanka
A Personal Account by Letitia Hardy

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List of ALL PROJECTS in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is a paradise island, awash with coconut cocktails, served in fresh pineapples by stunning Indian ladies with huge white smiles and red flowers in their hair. The tear drop of India with its extreme vegetation, Sri Lanka retains its own unique style. It boasts of elephants, rainforests and beaches. Look closer and you discover Sri Lanka is also home to overcrowded cities, deeply spiritual pilgrimages, cool olive tea plantations, eccentric people, a passion for politics, peaceful hill countries, a stray dog problem, dangerous driving, ancient cities and many a golden Buddha mounted temple.

The real Sri Lanka, however, lays quietly dormant in the many communities and villages tucked away from the tourist spectacle.

To truly experience a culture, observe and absorb the life of the locals. Volunteering in a third world country is perhaps the best way to integrate into a real community.

Ja-Ela is a small village situated on the northern outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s chaotic capital city. It takes one hour to get to the city and 45 minutes in the opposite direction takes you to the beach resort of Negombo, near the island’s international airport. Negombo is a lively destination for short term visitors to Sri Lanka. The better beaches in Sri Lanka can be reached within 3-5 hours of Ja-Ela, by heading south and under, travelling down the east coast.

Ja-Ela comprises mainly a busy road intersection leading away from the Capital towards Bandaranaike International Airport. Shops and stalls litter the roadside selling vegetables, clothes, plastic buckets, sarongs. The National Bank of Ceylon, an unexpected KFC and a humble, run-down post office have also sprung up in recent years. There are two competing internet shops with IDD (international phones) and a shoe shop authentically providing leather, shelled or beaded sandals and heels. A huge gold painted Buddha in a glass display is set high above the central junction, scattered with fawn petals and the remains of incense offerings.

Other than the intersection Ja-Ela is a complex maze of narrow roads and pathways hidden back and behind the main road. This is where the people of Ja-Ela live. Sheltered from the traffic horns and the aroma of steaming roadside delicacies. The lucky families live here in large, sometimes deteriorating, colonial style houses.

Ja-Ela is a dusty orange town animate with tuc-tucs and lively discussion. Ripples of energy pulse out of the island’s Capital. This is the outskirts of city life. This is where the real Sri Lanka takes place. Ja-Ela is not a place that tourists would stop at as they pass from the airport to their hotel. This is a pity, because Ja-Ela epitomises Sri Lanka. Bartering in good spirits on a street stall for a pineapple with a man whose children you taught volleyball that morning is an experience the Sheraton doesn’t offer.

Ja-Ela residents are busy people with jobs and chores and studies to complete each day. Ja-Ela is densely populated, although far less so than those roadside towns progressively further into Colombo. Everything is on the move and the chaos and routine of Ja-Ela is embraced early each morning with the walks to school, buses hurtling people to their work destinations and street sellers calling out a reminder of the day’s lottery. The locals are poised people who will often dissolve into delightful laughter at the efforts of a confused Westerner stumbling across their path. They know one another and in the constant mill of daily activity they swap anecdotes and laugh, they discuss politics and shout, they trade with one another and they enquire about family, scandal or local cause for concern. It is clear that the inhabitants of Ja-Ela know the importance of their local network in an island competing for limited space in their economy. Contacts are important. The people they know can dictate how easy their life will be.

Hierarchy is clearly established here. It is evident even from a passing glance through a three-wheeler’s open door. The poor men with intensive labour jobs wear bright blue chequered sarongs, in large square print. They may of may not wear a white vest too. These men are lean and strong, they work hard to survive and stand proud with a focused stare and solemn conduct. The men with jobs walk quickly about town in brown or black suit trousers, a shirt in beige or white and they carry a suitcase, they are less lean, less strong. They would never wear a sarong.

The rich men with their own business or contacts with police or politicians saunter. They look different to the other men in the street around them. They always drive and rarely walk far, they never cycle, travel by tuc-tuc, or get the overcrowded bus or train to their destination. They have drivers and they know everyone who owns anything in Ja-Ela and, more sporadically, in all the larger towns within a 5 hour radius of Ja-Ela. They wear jeans which they bought in Europe or Singapore and racing green polo neck t-shirts emblazoned with a subtle logo. They don’t carry anything. Their ‘gold leaf’ cigarettes and some rupees are kept in their back pocket and they are talking animatedly on their mobile phones, to a business college or friend. They have a bit of a tummy and a wife and children. They work hard and continuously and they receive respect if they are decent community giving people. They are the subject of private gossip in late night, kerosene-lit bars, if they are not.

Segregation is apparent with the women too. The ladies with good jobs, who also have husbands with good jobs, command instant respect in their walk and their exquisite sari’s in deep purple satin or turquoise with gold trimmings.  Their black hair is groomed and shining and their makeup, perfect. Whatever label you are wearing as a tourist to the country, you cannot compete in elegance or grace with these ladies. With the rest of the local women it is harder to see division except by perhaps the quality of the clothes. Ladies are ladies in Sri Lanka, whatever social stratus they happen to live in.

There are four schools in Ja-Ela.

  • St Mary Immaculates is a girl’s school producing equally immaculate girls in white school tunics with blue ribbons securing their twin plaited hair. St Mary’s is run under the thoughtful watch of its 74 year old head nun.

  • There is St Josephs, a mixed school for primary and middle school pupils. The proud new owners of a dirt floor volleyball court preening by the school gates under the luminous white sign for Travellers. The court is inevitably used mostly for havisack, the ancient game of keeping a sand filled bag jumping from kick to kick between a group of players in a circle.

  • Then there is Holy Rosary, a primary school with a grand entrance, a field of grass and an impending rail separating the high building from the roadside. This school is only open until 1pm.

  • And last but certainly not least is Ekala, a mixed school of middle and senior students with a reputation for its lively students! 

This is Ja-Ela and these are the schools where Travellers volunteers become a local face in the world of Ja-Ela.

List of ALL PROJECTS in Sri Lanka

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Umbrella's provide shade for the ladies of Sri Lanka

Local Children in Ja-Ela, where you can volunteer with Travellers

The vibrant markets of Sri Lanka are fascinating to shop at

Many local men wear sarongs and bicycle everywhere in Sri Lanka

Ball Games at School - always popular lessons in Sri Lanka