What’s your poo count? Life at Millennium Elephant Foundation

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I have been in Sri Lanka for a month now and it has been nothing short of an adventure. When I told people where I was going to be spending the next three months, most of the responses I got went something like this, "Isn't that in Africa?" or, "You know that elephants are really big, right?" I politely responded with a bit of a geography lesson and a very firm yes, and was then greeted with nothing but enthusiasm. Although I did know that Sri Lanka is off the coast of India, and that elephants are in fact very large creatures, I didn't know much else until I got here. So arI have been greeted with warm smiles, kind hellos, and lots and lots of fruit. Unless you're in one of the bigger cities, like Colombo or Kandy, foreigners are usually a rare site for the locals. When I'm in Kegalle, a town about 15 minutes down the road from MEF, I am constantly stared at. At first, this was unnerving. I knew why it was happening but I had a hard time accepting it. However, I've stared to feel more confident. I respectfully carry myself as if I belong here, which, how I see it, I do. I'm not leaving anytime soon, and stares and laughs won't convince me otherwise. I'd be kidding myself if I said that it wasn't really hard to do at first. There were a lot of moments those first few weeks when I wanted to give up and go home. I wanted to go back to my English speaking world. A world without dal and rice and extreme heat and mosquito bites and people who don't think that staring is rude. To get through those times, I tried my best to put things into perspective. I had to remind myself of how grateful I am for this opportunity, how one exactly like it changed my life in the fall. I thought, and still think, about how the hard things could be much, much harder. All of my basic needs are met; food, water, a roof over my head, a place to sleep, etc. My bed might be a bit harder than I'd like it to be, and some nights I can't fall asleep because of how itchy my bites are, but least I have a bed to be laying on. I am also lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the kindest and most welcoming people I've ever met. All of the other volunteers welcomed me with open arms, including me in their conversations and weekend plans. There is such a strong sense of community here at MEF and I am so appreciative of it. Something that has been unexpectedly difficult is watching other volunteers come and go. I've come to accept that it's all part of my experience here, since most volunteers only stay fora few weeks. I will meet people that I really like, and I will have to say goodbye to some of them shortly after. The space is filled with new volunteers, and so on and so forth. I've learned more about people during my time here so far than I was expecting to. I've learned that some people are kind hearted through and through, and some people can be the exact opposite. I've learned that age truly is just a number. I was worried that because I'm still young, people would talk down to me, but everyone here has treated me like their equal. An extraordinary 62 year old French volunteer showed me that it's never too late to do all of the things that you want to do. I've never met someone who loves and appreciates life as much as she does. I think that everything happens for a reason, and that every person that you meet, you meet for a reason. The people I have already met, and will meet here, have and will have a profound impact on me, and for that I am grateful.

Similarly to how the people here have impacted me already, so have the animals. I frequently compare my life here to my life back at home. At home, I sleep in, have breakfast, and I'm ready for my day around 11. Here, I am up by 7, have given my elephant Rani her vitamins, a bath in the river, and I have counted her dung and cleaned her bed by no later than 11. At home I vacuum, here, picking up large palm leaves in Rani's bed is the equivalent. At home I write long essays, here I teach the local children how to read and write. As you can tell, the contrasts are plentiful. What this shows me is that there is a way to live that's much different than the typical predetermined path. You hear so many people say how much they hate school, they hate work, they hate waking up every morning and doing the same thing every day. I hated it too before I realized that nothing was stopping me from straying off that path. You might think that things are stopping you, but those things are usually not as important as they initially seem. My life here in Sri Lanka is the farthest thing from ordinary. Every single day I am covered in elephant poop, I sleep with a mosquito net, and ride in tiny vehicles with no doors called tuk tuks. It doesn't even begin to resemble ordinary or comfort, but I have never felt more free than I do right now. It has made me realize that I don't want to live my life this way just for a year, this is how I want to live my life always. I want to wake up in the morning, excited for my day and excited to do something I love. I don't want to live my life for the weekends, or the summers, or the snow days. I want to live for every single day, even the bad ones. I can't, and I won't find myself stuck in a routine, hating more than loving, and wishing away time. I have experienced the most honest definition of freedom that I know, and to forget that to make lots of money, or lots of friends, or a "comfortable" life is not worth it for me. There are a lot of things here that make me uncomfortable, but it seems to me that most things that are worth experiencing usually do. I am so grateful that my first month here has taught me that, and I can't wait to see what else I will learn during this wonderful adventure.