Published: November 11th 2006April 11th 2003
First, a little background: Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a small island off the southeast coast of India. Its people are mostly Buddhist, but also Hindu and Muslim; they mostly plant tea or make apparel to earn a living. The Singhalese, mostly Buddhist and the Tamils, mostly Hindu had been engaged on-and-off in a civil war until last year. During the conflict, the Tigers, a Tamil guerrilla group, perfected suicide bombings throughout Sri Lanka to carry out their fight for independence in Tamil-dominated areas of the island. Now, a cease-fire has been signed, and there is widespread optimism on both sides that there will be peace, and this nation of 18 million people will be able to prosper.
In Sri Lanka, elephants are used as horses or mules are elsewhere, and they can pop up just about anywhere. Monkeys take up their place inside temples and are thus seen as holy creatures by the people. It is a tropical country, and nearly everything can and does grow there. We saw growing before our eyes, pineapples, bananas, and more exotic fare such as mangos, papayas and guavas, and my favorite, coconuts. There are trees everywhere the eye can see, punctured by sudden steep cliffs and ancient man-made lakes used to irrigate the rice fields that make up much of the place.
As a Global Village team for Habitat for Humanity, we were able to see and talk to the people on the ground level of society, in villages and local schools and learn a small piece of what it means to be a Sri Lankan. My friend and I did a homestay in a rural village with a family who lacked electricity and plumbing, but certainly not a sense of humor and a positive outlook on life. The room lit by an oil lamp, we entertained the local children with rounds of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes and Duck, Duck Goose. Seemingly, everyone in the entire village had gathered in this tiny house when news of our arrival got out. We were the first foreigners they had ever met. When we woke up, we ate breakfast (with our hands of course), and then walked half a mile to a well to bathe. Our host dad hoisted up buckets of ice-cold water from the bottom of the well, and dumped it on us as we scrubbed ourselves clean with a bar of soap. Some of our fellow travelers later told us of bathing in the river with tiny fish nibbling at their toes, so in hindsight we had it rather lucky. The “bathroom” used by the family consisted of a hole in the ground, but it served the purpose. Water drawn from the well was our sink to wash our hands.
We came to Sri Lanka to build houses, although we soon found out the people there had other ideas. Virtually the only tasks we were allowed to do were making cement, hauling dirt and breaking up rocks for a foundation, and not even much of those. The future homeowners often halted us mid-shift, offering us a cup of tea and a plate of desserts and pineapple for refreshment. Even when we were working, we passed the time by learning Singhalese, playing cricket, and singing our respective national anthems. (We were a multinational crew, coming from the U.S., Canada, England, and Scotland.) . We realized in time that we weren’t there to work. After all, we weren’t trained carpenters or even skilled laborers, and the people themselves could do the little that we could do much more expeditiously and efficiently with their superior strength and their familiarization with the environment. We learned that we were there to provide donations (that they would pay back), to lend them a helping hand and spread the word about the program wherever we went.
We helped build four houses, one of which was completed during the course of our week there. In the end, here was a dedication, with many tears flowing, both ours and theirs, and a final goodbye before we continued on our way. The people of the village bombarded us with fragments of papers with their addresses written on them, eager to stay in contact with their first link to the outside world. It was very hard to say goodbye.
In the following days, we checked out an elephant orphanage where we saw extremely close up tame elephants playing in the water, pretending to be bathing, and feeding on grass and bark. A couple of times, I had to back up for fear of being trampled. Elephants are not renowned for their eyesight. We climbed by night a holy mountain on whose peak is said to be variously the footprints of Adam, Buddha, or Shiva, the god of Hinduism to see the glorious sunrise from the zenith. We checked out an ancient Sri Lankan capital from two thousand years old that is remarkably well preserved, and a tea plantation high up in the hills where we saw tea being planted, processed. Of course, we also drank our fair share. Finally, we made our way to Colombo, the economic and political center of the nation, and the only city in Sri Lanka with traffic lights. (I counted three.) It was time to say goodbye to the always-smiling people who taught us so much. I offered a prayer that someday they might have a permanent peace because they surely deserve no less.