Humanities Programme Trip: Sri Lanka, the Resplendent Island

by Vanessa Chia (16A13A) and Nicole Tan (16A13A)

From our very brief knowledge about Sri Lanka, the country was initially to many of us merely a nation plagued with civil strife for 26 years of its history—a worryingly belligerent and divided one. Perhaps the streets had been left in ramshackle war-like conditions. Perhaps the locals, having already been through a turmoil, would be guarded, even hostile, towards foreigners. These were thoughts that ran through the minds of the 59 Humanities students, completely unsure of exactly what to expect from a nation with such a complex history, as we boarded the three-hour flight with much anticipation and apprehension to find out whether such presumptions would ring true. Despite this, however, the seemingly trifling island off the coast of south-east India, in fact boasted more than the unsuspecting visitor could comprehend, and we would soon find that we were fortunate enough to have experienced this first-hand.

One of the highlights of the trip was our visits to several Sri Lankan schools. Our very first exposure to the Sri Lankan education system was the visit to Royal College Colombo, the country’s leading and oldest public boys’ school with selective entry. Stepping through the towering school gates, we were greeted by a majestic brick building– once used as an infirmary during the civil war, it now had an enrolment of 8000 students. “Disce aut Discede”, the school’s motto, was inscribed upon a brass tablet mounted at the college’s entrance; Latin for “Learn or Depart”. It succinctly encompassed what this institution stood for in the purpose of education, both academically and holistically. It said much about the attitude instilled in the students, a creed of hard work, effort, and perseverance. Back home, this creed stands firm; yet, with deadlines to meet and exams to conquer, sometimes the unhappiness all too easily smothers our eagerness to learn. The school visits reminded us, however, that we could not lose sight of the major purpose of going to school, such as our active decisions to learn, grow and become better versions of ourselves in the process. Royal College Colombo’s motto was a wake-up call of sorts: giving up is easy. It is staying on to strive and do better that is the struggle we must overcome.

Pupils from a village school nestled in Watawala

In stark contrast to Royal College, our next few exposures to Sri Lanka’s education system came from small village schools. One was nestled in the mist-covered greenery of Watawala, another in Kandy, and the last was a boy’s orphanage. Our first steps into these schools were immediately met with the distinct chatter of children and bright-eyed faces peering back at us. The contrast between their learning environments and that of Royal College was clear– dim lighting, pieces of old wooden stools passing off as furnishing — setting them vastly apart from the sprawling Royal College campus. It was shocking and hard to grow accustomed to this. Not just the environment, but the understanding that these were the conditions in which these eager students learnt and played in zealous energy. The students, with their cautious excitement, however, seemed almost oblivious to the substandard conditions of the school. What stood out to us was was the realization that this oblivion could only stem from their lack of exposure to any environment better than those they had. But what humbled us most of all was that this handicap was not at all evident from the children’s attitudes — their eagerness and enthusiasm for their school shone in the course of our very candid conversations. The environment we have back in Singapore should call for much greater appreciation, and not be so easily taken granted of the way we always do, and it took us a real experience in a disadvantaged school for this to become eminent to us.

As the children continued to titter with delight around us, it was clear to us that visiting these schools was really more so for our own benefit—hardly for that of the children. The principal of the Kandy school did, in fact, request for us to return and help the school out when we acquire the time and resources to. Definitely, the brief half an hour of interaction and performances that we carried out could do little more than bring a brief smile to the children’s faces. In the long term, we can only hope to be remembered as one of the many groups who have dropped by, but it’s a start—much of service is the learning involved in it. Yet perhaps the short time we were there was more than sufficient with the purpose of bringing them some joy, or even better, if the knowledge and experiences gained potentially lay the foundation for planning and making long term, sustainable change in the future.

Locals we met on a Watawala farm visit

Sri Lanka, merely from the school visits, already proved to be a really humbling place for us. Much of this was likely rooted in its status as a less developed country, but we think the more intimate connection the country made with us would come from the humble hospitality and kindness willingly extended to us continually during our stay. Sri Lankans are immensely warm people, receiving and welcoming us tourists with bright smiles and friendly waves. Honestly, much of our travel time on the coaches were spent sticking our heads out of the windows excitedly waving to the locals just for the purest joy of seeing their amused smiles and reciprocatory waves and hellos. This scene, this image, stuck with many of us– in Watawala, we visited a local farm, where we were fortunate to get in touch with the way Sri Lankans lived. Despite their back-breaking work hand-picking tea leaves daily, they were ever so friendly and receptive to our curious gazes and greetings. The locals of these highly agrarian communities lived such peaceful and humble lives; simple, yet content with their lot.

We contrasted these sights with our bustling city life here — abundant with immense opportunities and many platforms for new experiences, and yet, perhaps also abundant with a great deal more troubles, discord, and discontent. These all left us feeling occasionally envious of the locals, and also guilty for taking our many luxuries and comforts for granted.

Knuckles mountain range

In this vein, instead of the skyscrapers we had here, we got our fair share of a different type of towering magnificence– this time, one that was natural and breathtaking all the same. A 2 hour long trek through the Knuckles Mountain Range bestowed upon us beautiful sights as we (almost sufferingly) walked into nature’s embrace. If the hike didn’t leave us breathless, the scenery did. A route that was hard for us to maneuver was one that many native Sri Lankans had to take in their everyday course of travel– as we warily tiptoed across the seemingly precarious rocky edges, a local school boy coming in the opposite direction deftly hopped around us and ran on his way. Once again, we were humbled beyond measure, counting all our blessings for what we have in Singapore: simple things such as pavements! At the end, we were left breathless and fatigued, but with the knowledge that we had merely walked a fraction of the footsteps of the mountain’s inhabitants.

Having lived in a country beset with long drawn out and bloody civil strife, many Sri Lankans have had normal life continually and suddenly interrupted and interspersed with lockdowns, displacement and curfews. But since the country’s liberation from full-scale war in 2009, these locals have been striving to pick up the pieces again, with help from organizations both international and local, including The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children. These organizations, established during the war, have since been making their impact in fields like poverty reduction, environmental protection, youth and innovation and conflict resolution. What inspired us most was the exuberance and insights of the young local interns present at the sharings. These interns, some as young as 21-year-old law undergraduates, undertake tasks such policy research and lead youth innovation teams for their country, all this time attending make-up lectures at their university on weekends. Up till now, challenges in the form of deeply entrenched socio-cultural norms had remained; a proposed reduction in sugar intake was rejected by most of the population, accustomed to valuing the relatively expensive sugar as a sign of respect. Nonetheless Sri Lanka is slowly opening up to the world again—and something we found so impressive was the resilience in many Sri Lankans taking the active step to rebuild their lives and their country, and the open-heartedness and mindedness with which they received what was foreign — namely us.

Rounding off the trip

By the end of the trip, despite our initial apprehension about what to expect from Sri Lanka, the beautiful country had instead presented to us astounding sights and a rich culture that left us infinitely hungry for more. The “resplendent island” indeed lived up to its namesake in its very own way, imparting to us knowledge of its beauty, its rich heritage, and most of all the priceless gems of humbling experiences and memories. Eye-opening and enchanting, without a doubt, our stay was an immensely fulfilling one, one that many of us would love to relive again. Sri Lanka, to many of us, hence turned out not to be so much of a symbol of post-war dilapidation, but rather more so the zenith of cultural insight, and a wealth of humbling experiences. To us, the serene contentment and the brightest, warmest smiles of the Sri Lankans will be the most memorable sights to behold for a long time to come. On this reflective note, we left the with confidence that a few years later, if we landed on its shores again—perhaps as tourists, perhaps even for business—so much more would’ve changed for the better.

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