Volunteering and Getting Cheated in Sri Lanka

Disclaimer 1: I don’t mean to give a bad name to genuine NGOs on the island. This is my personal experience and I hope to spread awareness so that any backpacker who needs recommendations for volunteer travel in Sri Lanka will find some genuine answers.

Disclaimer 2: I am not giving actual names here because there are chances that this can be a misunderstanding. But the way this organization functioned raised a lot of questions. But directly naming them won’t be ethical on my part.

Why do we volunteer? To gain a new experience or to connect with new people and communities. But when that volunteer experience goes wrong, it makes you lose your trust and faith in humanity.

I have spent a long part of my travels volunteering with different organizations. Most of the experiences have been in India, so the idea of volunteer travel was always different. I always felt that NGOs promote volunteer travel in India because they want to connect with genuine people who’ll help them with their operations.

One of the major reasons I wanted to visit Sri Lanka was because I was interested in learning about the groups that are doing something significant in the country. I shot a couple of mails and ultimately found out about a turtle rescue farm in Galle. I messaged them on their Facebook page and they replied within a few hours. They told me that they will like to have me onboard but the minimum volunteering period is five days and I’ll have to pay three thousand Sri Lankan rupees for my stay and food. It didn’t seem too much considering that I had a similar budget and most hostels cost more than what I had to pay here.

I didn’t know anything about scams in Sri Lanka tourism so I didn’t consult anywhere before applying for the volunteership.

Time came, I flew to Colombo and after a day I went to Galle. My disappointments began the moment I reached there. The Turtle rescue farm was not in Galle. I had to go outside the city to find the place. I didn’t find it to be a big issue because in my understanding it was a good thing that the rescue centre is away from the tourist destinations. On Thursday they showed me a place to stay which was basically at dorm with 4 beds and simple hostel like settings. The food was okaish but again not a big deal. I was sharing my Dorm with two strangers from Finland, I guess a couple who wanted to save lost turtles.

After half an hour of basic introduction, we were told to take rest for the day. They gave me a couple of books to read on turtle conservation. A lady came, offered me some juice. We had a conversation in her broken English. She had her relatives in Tamilnadu and she went to India once or twice in a year. In the meanwhile, the Finnish couple who were outside (I assumed for work) returned with a group of white people. It was then when I realized that I walked into a literal scam.

Next day after a breakfast of bread and eggs the rescue centre’s manager called me along with the other two volunteers. We were asked to go to the fort area and bring more tourists. In return we will get commission.

It was then I realised what was rescue centre was doing.

The centre didn’t rescue turtle eggs but was breeding the animals in the farm itself

The tourists would come and will have to pay 500 Sri Lankan rupees per person to see the turtles. There were additional chargers for holding the babies in hand. Photography charges were extra, you can send the baby in the sea while a video being made, but additional charges had to be paid. It was really disappointing to watch this happening in front of my eyes.

I have previously been a part of Velas turtle conservation project. It was not a volunteer project but two days made me understand that you are not supposed to leave the baby turtles in the ocean. Their brains record the location through relatively simple navigation system involving the earth’s magnetic field, and this allows them to return to the same egg-laying site without having the ability to correct for the deflection of ocean currents. You are also supposed to send the babies in the sea early morning or evening so that they can find the path seeing the light at the horizon. The organization didn’t care about any of these rules.

The incident shook my faith. Organizations bring a bad name making others lose faith in the groups that are doing genuine work. This also made me realise that how less information is present online when it comes to connecting with genuine NGOs and organizations.

I left that place after two days.  They didn’t return my money. If it had not created such a burden on my conscience I would have stayed in the dorm just for the sake of it. But I didn’t care and left after three days. What could have been an amazing experience in my head turned into a messed up story that took much such a long time to write.

My advice – The next time you plan to volunteer and travel, look for reviews. Check out any information that is present not only on Facebook try to find any information. I was planning to do the same thing in Vietnam. I was cautious while approaching any NGO, I also checked with a number of online forums to confirm the validity of the establishment. Not all volunteer travel organizations are bad but there are some of these which really bring a bad name and make people like me move away from helping genuine people in need.

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