What comes to mind when I say "Sri Lanka"? A famous tea producer? Beautiful beaches? For me, it's the tragic 2004 tsunami.
This was why I travelled to Sri Lanka with 42 other students from City University last December.
Our main task was to organise activities for a group of children who lost their parents in the massive tidal wave that engulfed the island's southern and eastern shores.
I had participated in a number of volunteering activities before this trip, but none of them can compare to my Sri Lanka experience. It was life-changing.
I was a little bit nervous as I prepared for the visit. I wondered what the children would be like.
Would they be upset if I failed to grab their interest?
Would our planned activities be hindered by the language barrier?
Firstly, it was pretty hard for the first few days. It was extremely hot (around 40 degrees Celsius), but we had to wear long trousers to respect local culture. We could only avoid dehydration by drinking lots of water.
Secondly, hygiene was poor, as expected. This was very hard for us to get used to in such a short period of time. We kept cleaning our cutlery and utensils before using them, even though many of the locals found that a bit odd.
Lastly, the orphans could barely understand English.
As time passed by, I slowly adapted to the local culture with the help of the local volunteers. (And we stopped cleaning our tableware out of respect to their culture.)
Even though we did not share a common language, we shared our happiness with the orphans. I will never forget their excited faces when they saw the clothes (collected from CityU) that we gave them. They treasure everything they own, and they share everything. They might be poor, but they are happy.
Hongkongers might be rich, but many people here are unsatisfied. I realised there is no direct relationship between income and happiness; it depends on your attitude. You have to live anyway, so why lead a miserable life?
Sri Lankans greet and talk to strangers on the street. They spend most of their time with their friends and families, unlike Hongkongers, who only study, work, or play with our smartphones. Many of us are missing out on an important part of our lives. And my suggestion is: don't wait until it's too late.
I have visited quite a few countries, but never one like Sri Lanka. It was inspirational. I hope all of you get a chance to go somewhere and do something meaningful during a vacation. To combine a holiday with volunteering is well worth it. Give it a try. You won't regret it.