Volunteering with elephants in Kegalle, Sri Lanka.

I posted this picture of myself riding an elephant in Sri Lanka on my Facebook profile and instantly the comments came pouring in:

“Bucket list: ride an elephant…CHECK! That is so awesome!”

“These pics are amazing. Makes me want to do this!”

“I’m so jealous!”

No need to be wishful or jealous, you can do it too! Taking your personal learning journey halfway across the world might sound extreme, but the lifelong learning rewards are in your reach.

Most Americans don’t take vacations. The ones who do plan a vacation to take a break and relax. I’ve always considered vacation travel a priority because I consider it a personal growth opportunity.

Three weeks before I planned to take some vacation time, I still hadn’t decided where to go. I only knew that I wanted to challenge myself by traveling to an unfamiliar country totally alone (as opposed to visiting a friend or joining a tour group). To me, traveling alone would be its own challenge and learning experience. Add to that, I started to pick up surfing in my thirties and my recent vacations have focused on challenging my fears and physical limits with waves. I didn’t know where to go, but I wanted to visit a country alone and surf.

Sri Lanka sounded like an adventurous surf destination, certainly less typical than visiting Costa Rica or Puerto Rico. Commence Googling. Hours and hours later, I came across an organization that offered hands-on volunteering at an elephant orphanage. I never would have dreamed up an opportunity like taking care of elephants was just out there for anyone to grab!

Each morning, I bathed the elephants by scrubbing them with a coconut husk in a river.

After spending two weeks volunteering with Inspire Sri Lanka, I can personally tell you anything you’d like to know about the endangered Asian elephant (elephas maximus): They are a bit smaller and have a different shape than African elephants. Only about 6 percent of them have ivory tusks. Their height is two times the circumference of their foot! I learned elephant language and how to train and work with captive elephants. Most importantly, I know the complicated issues surrounding their endangerment — causes of the species’ decline, issues that go into protecting the species and ways we can save and protect these magnificent giants. I learned this while scrubbing their hairy skin with coconut husks each morning to give them a bath and by touching their wet, pink tongues as I hand fed them bunches of bananas. I’m not only educated about their situation in Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia, I’m now personally invested in the cause to save the elephants.

As luck would have it, I chose an elephant orphanage that also supports a girls’ orphanage just down the road from their elephant park! A few times each week, after a morning of dirty work with the elephants, I visited the girls to teach basic math, English vocabulary, geography, reading and writing. The 45 orphans share two bedrooms, a classroom, a kitchen (no appliances, just cabinets and a fire place), a two-stall bathroom with squatting toilets, a large playground and a vegetable garden. Thankfully, Inspire Sri Lanka recently provided them with a washing machine. Can you imagine that up until then, all 45 girls hand washed their clothing!

Spending time with these orphans was heartbreaking and extremely rewarding. The girls are starved for attention, and while two weeks wasn’t long enough, I got to share my time with them and make a difference in their lives by simply playing games like musical chairs and cat, cat, dog (aka duck, duck, goose!) and teaching them American dancing, such as the Electric Slide.


What a vacation! I learned hands on about elephant conservation. I exchanged culture, language and compassion with orphan girls and other locals. I explored Buddhism. I surfed the Indian Ocean. I saw the devastation and discussed personal accounts of the aftermath of a tsunami that killed 228,000 people in South Asia. Three short weeks in Sri Lanka completely changed my life. Experiencing all of these amazing adventures taught me to expand my personal limits, helped me to develop and enhance my compassion and encourages me to turn more to travel as a powerful learning opportunity.

We all know vacation time keeps us healthy and stress-free, and that most Americans need to be taking more of it. Perhaps when we think of vacation as a learning opportunity, we will prioritize vacation travel as much as we prioritize professional development travel. If you’re wondering if cost is an issue, it can be extremely cheap to volunteer or even just travel abroad. I spent the same amount of money flying to and spending three weeks in Sri Lanka as I did flying to and spending just four days attending a BlogWorld conference in Las Vegas.

To learn and give back to society on my vacation is something I plan to do more often. I am determined to make this¬† “once in a lifetime” experience¬† a priority in my life so that it can occur much more often than just once.

More photos of my trip to Sri Lanka are available on Facebook, and additional posts detailing my trip are available on my personal blog.

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