Author’s Note: Sri Lanka’s long and devastating civil war between the predominantly Tamil north and the Sinhalese south began in 1983, disrupting the peace and tranquility of the entire country for the next 26 years. During this time, the YMCA joined other local and international aid agencies to provide support to the many thousands of people affected by the conflict, and continues to engage deeply with young people and their communities as they rebuild their lives. The YMCA has also been quick to respond to natural disasters, including meeting the massive needs that emerged following the 2004 Asian Tsunami.
In 1982, Sri Lanka’s civil war hadn’t started yet, so Michelle and I were able to travel freely throughout the country, savoring the incredible natural beauty, the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the rich religious, social and cultural heritage of this ancient land.
We visited botanical gardens, spice plantations, highland tea estates, gem mining pits, and toured ancient cities, temples and fascinating ruins dating from 300 BC. At the ancient rock fortress Sigiriya, narrow steps etched into the cliff-side led us up the sheer rock face to the caves housing well-preserved 5th century fresco paintings.
Religious festivals are integral to life in Sri Lanka. High in the easy-going “capital of the hill country” we watched the entire frenetic procession (10 days and nights) of the Full Moon Perahera from the roof of the Kandy YMCA. It was an amazing spectacle of indescribable splendor, including many hundreds of dancers and drummers in dazzling costumes, balancing acts, horns blaring, whips cracking, and over 100 massive elephants in batik robes – the largest one parading the tooth relic of the Buddha.
The predominant religion in Sri Lanka is Theravada Buddhism (over 70% of the population is Buddhist), followed by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. But 2500 years of history bring a vast array of traditions, rituals, music, dance, legend and mysticism.
At the YMCAs in Colombo and Kandy, I taught swimming, first aid, led youth programs and assisted at a camp for disabled children. The Sri Lankan kids were delightful, and amazingly respectful to any “teacher” or adult entering the classroom, immediately and quietly lining up facing the front.
A real highlight was taking inner city kids hiking and camping in the rugged mountains and jungles of the island’s interior, where we caught and cooked fish each night for dinner. These kids had never been out of the impoverished urban center. But several came prepared with a small packet of herbs called a “snake stone” which they insisted would draw the venom from a snake bite wound.
Indeed, on our jungle treks we were in the company of deadly cobras and vipers, which scurried away as we approached. No one was bitten, but one kid had the unfortunate luck to wake up one night with a snake inside his sarong!
Local transport was “a trip” in itself – enduring all-night train journeys standing packed like sardines in 19th century locomotives sporting “Spitting Prohibited” signs, or in overloaded minivans packed with passengers, blaring music, blasting horns, and speeding as fast as possible over the horrendous roads – more trips translated to more profits.
But ultimately, we were traveling on “Sri Lanka Time” which meant that “you arrive when you arrived” – except for those numerous overturned minivans strewn alongside the roadways. The noisy old government buses weren’t much better as they roared and rattled along at top speed, spewing smelly, black diesel exhaust, and with few rest stops.
There were never any toilets on these stops. Everyone just went behind bushes and women squatted underneath their saris. I learned to carry some extra plastic bags on these overnight trips to use in emergencies, and then toss out the window.
One time while riding in a packed and wildly careening bus that seemed committed to making our destination in record time with no stops, I squeezed through the solid mass of passengers to the front of the bus and presented my desperate situation to the driver – who finally stopped, much to the relief of the other passengers who were also suffering in need of a toilet stop.
Once, when returning from a field trip, I was given a different room at the YMCA. It was common to see huge sewer rats scurrying around in the streets and drains beneath old buildings like the YMCA. But that night, while sleeping under a wobbly ceiling fan, I was rudely awakened when one of those hefty fellows fell through a hole opened by the fan and landed right on top of me – whoops!
Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!