Volunteering for a service organization in a foreign country allows the traveler the chance to work alongside locals and see the culture from a perspective that isn’t possible while just passing through as a tourist. There are a number of organizations that offer opportunities to volunteer in foreign countries for certain amounts of time. Most require a commitment of six months to a year, but Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village (HHGV) programs only ask for anywhere from ten days to three weeks, depending on the particular program. Volunteers help with construction and/or renovation of houses in areas beset by poverty or recovering from a disaster, such as tsunamis or earthquakes. As well as working hard to improve the living conditions of people in needy parts of the world, volunteers get a chance to see the local culture up close and personal, as well as seeing the local sites in their off time.
This past summer, I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, two of them in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on one of these Global Village programs, helping the local Habitat for Humanity affiliates build a number of small houses and extensions to houses in a deeply impoverished community in a coastal fishing village. The price of $1,650, plus plane fare, paid for my hotel room (though I had to share the room with a fellow Habitat volunteer) for the two weeks with HHGV, as well as three meals a day and a weekend of traveling to various tourist sites within a day’s journey of where we were building, as a break from the work. Any remaining funds from the cost were considered donations to the organization.
I flew into Bandaranaike International Airport ten days before the date on which I was supposed to meet the rest of the HHGV group so I could travel around the country and see as much of it as possible, since our group would be limited by time in what we could see outside of Negombo once we started working. It was an intense journey made more difficult by the lack of real infrastructure and the ‘skin tax’ (tourists’ name for the inflated prices charged to foreigners), which made it more expensive than I had expected. Once I teamed up with the HHGV group though, all that was made a bit easier since we had the local Habitat affiliates to help us with transportation, water, language and other issues.
On July 3, I arrived at the hotel in Negombo, where I was to meet up with the rest of our team, a day early since I had to travel down from Kandy in the mountainous central part of the island. I arrived early in the afternoon with enough time to check into my room in the Paradise Beach Hotel and then wander around the main drag there for a bit before hitting the pool to cool off with a quick swim. Our hotel was right on the beach with its own entrance to a quiet stretch of sand. There are palm and coconut trees along the edges before the sand becomes open to the tides and surf. The coastline curves around on both sides, so I could see the local hotels and beaches up and down it. Catamarans and broken sections of catamarans, some covered with nets, are scattered along the beaches. In the early mornings, generally, there is at least one person sleeping by one of the boats. Dogs roam freely along the beach (and streets), as do women and old men, carrying plastic bags filled with wooden puppets, batiks, and other tourist fare to sell. Unfortunately, dogs and humans seem to use the beaches freely as a place to defecate or urinate, and there is trash scattered all along the coast.
Negombo, once a trading port for both the Portuguese and the Dutch, is approximately 40 km north of Colombo and 6 km from the Bandaranaike International airport. Estimates vary, but probably the most reliable is that 80 % of the population is Christian, predominantly Catholic though there is an Anglican church there, as well. The other 20% is a mix of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist, though the Buddhists are the smallest portion of the population in this city. (They represent over 70% of the population in the rest of the country, however, and the drive to and from Negombo and the rest of the country leads past many Buddhist temples, stupas and shrines.) It is considered the “Heartland” of Christianity in Sri Lanka. There are several beautiful churches there, especially St. Mary’s, which dates back to the Dutch era – approximately the 1600’s – and St. Sebastian’s, and a popular pilgrimage site, St. Anne’s. There are also the beaches, which draw tourists from around the country, as well as from India, Holland, Great Britain, Germany, and many Middle Eastern countries.
Eventually that first evening, my roommate joined me. She and I, both self-avowed Zen Buddhists and vegetarians meditated for 10 – 15 minutes on the beach many mornings before breakfast with the sounds of the choppy surf and raucous, ever present crows as background.
Two male members of our group arrived that evening, and the others joined us directly from the airport the next day. There were 9 of us altogether – 7 women and 2 men – all US citizens, though one lived in Dubai, one in Puerto Rico, and the mother/daughter pair lived in Hong Kong.
The families whose homes we would be working on held a welcome ceremony for us. Rows of plastic chairs were set up in the yard of the largest of the houses we were going to help build an extension to. A plastic table with food on it was set up in front of the main window of the house, and in front of that was an approximately four or five foot high brass pole with the small head of a brass rooster on top. There were three brass circular discs around segments of the pole. Thin lines of white wax were poured from the middle to the edges of the discs, with a tiny piece of camphor at the tip. Each member of our group was asked to light one of these. Then the children and women presented us with garlands and small bouquets of flowers. Francis led us in a prayer, and there were speeches from the local Habitat construction leader, as well as Francis. One of the children – a girl of about six or seven – performed a local dance for us, in costume. They fed us local pastries, cookies and tea. Then we got to work.
We were separated into 4 smaller groups and worked at 4 different sites. Later in the week a 5th site would be added, and the following week 2 more, though the last site was only just starting the setting-up stage when we left at the end of the second week. I ended up working with 2 Sinhalese volunteers, very nice guys, in their early 20’s who spoke English very well. Their language skills were enormously helpful to all of us over those two weeks. The older one was a sailor who worked on commercial ships and generally had at least a month off between shipping assignments and liked to spend some of that time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity there in Negombo. The other was his best friend, a college student who wants to transfer to a college in Canada over the next year. Both are from wealthy families and liked to help out where they could in the local community, most of which was deeply impoverished. Together we spent the rest of the morning moving concrete blocks from the edge of the road, where they had been delivered, to the edge of the ditches from which the floors and walls of the rooms would rise. We spent the afternoon sifting sand to be used in the making of concrete. The large pile of sand was from the local river and contained many stones, shells, dog feces, and other dirt that would undermine the quality of the concrete. We used a large wooden screen made from thin wire stretched between boards. It took three people to use it, one on each end of the screen holding onto the wooden handles and shifting it back and forth in a rocking motion between them, and a third to shovel the sand onto the screen as it all trickled down into a smaller pile beneath it. Then we dumped the debris into the small road of cracked asphalt and dirt. It was tiring work, especially for our arms and upper backs, and we did this for most of the afternoon, switching places with each other and talking because there was nothing else to do.
The local children wandered up to us at times, giggling and trying to help. They were, in general, full of laughter and energy, but not misbehaved. Even their small practical jokes were not malicious. A group of girls, ranging in age from about 4 to 9 or 10, loved to dance, and when one of the homeowners would blast his stereo into the street to help lighten the work day, the girls would beg Gabriela Rife (Gabby), our team leader, or one of the others of us to dance in the street with them and show them western dance moves. Gabby loved to oblige them and became the local entertainment at times as she worked her way back and forth between sites, dancing with the kids and checking to make sure we were doing okay and were drinking enough bottled water (which Habitat for Humanity provided).
The week progressed like that, with our tasks including mixing the concrete, sometimes with small stones for the actual floors, helping the masons lay the concrete blocks, helping with the plastering, digging ditches, filling the floors with bucket after bucket of red clay dirt, stamping the dirt down till it was the base for a hard floor, then passing bowls and buckets of concrete to a mason as he covered the dirt with a layer of concrete to make a solid but simple floor. By the second week some of our group were brushing pitch onto wooden beams for the roof of a house and helping to put up the roof, though we were told to stay away from the asbestos laden tin slabs that made up the actual roof. On one site, two others and I pulled nails from old lumber so the wood could be used again as beams for the house we were working on.
The houses were made primarily from concrete blocks and cement with wooden frames around the doors, windows and tin or asbestos roofs. They were small. Two of them were only one room, one was two rooms, and another three. Still, they were built on solid foundations that were raised up so they didn’t flood during the rainy season, and the rain and wind didn’t leak through the walls and roofs. One of the one room houses was being built for a family of 9 people who were currently living in a two-room wooden shack about the same size as the house being built. The walls had large spaces between the weathered boards and flooded with about 3 feet of water every rainy season. The one room, concrete block house was an enormous move up for them, and they were excited and relieved to be moving into their new home.
Every day between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m., we were served tea and something sweet like biscuits or cookies by the homeowner’s wife, or mother, or one of the other women connected to that family. Throughout the day, the men would occasionally climb up a King coconut tree in the yard or somewhere close by and cut down coconuts. He would chop off the top with a machete and put a straw in it (though some of them just handed the coconuts to us with just the hole cut in the top) for us to drink the juice straight from the nut. It was incredibly refreshing.
On the Wednesday afternoon of our last week there, one of the men whose home we were helping to build, who is a fisherman, took the entire group out for a trip on this lagoon in his boat. The Negombo lagoon is famous for its lobster, prawns, and fish, but is also the most northern edge of the Muthurajawela Marsh, which stretches between Colombo and the lagoon. This beautiful but somewhat busy and polluted waterway is the economic life of the city, along with the enormous, bustling fish market that stretches beyond the large, blue wooden stalls clumped in small streets and alleys, parts of which are covered by one large, high blue roof that extends over about half the area, to large sections of the beach the market is built along. Large swaths of fish lie drying on tarps or boards draped on the sand up and down the beach, crows and sea birds circling over head.
Our group was served lunch every day in the small, three room house (built by Habitat for Humanity) of a local woman named Jogila, who cooked a large spread of local Sri Lankan food for us every day and served us in the main, front room of her house (for which our group leader paid her approximately $20 a week – a good sum of money there where the average per capita income is between $3000 and $4000 per year, depending on who is citing the statistics). The food varied, but generally included a bowl of white rice and one of red rice (only partially hulled rice), two different curries (one usually with dahl and one with prawns or other seafood), a dried, crunchy type of shell fish, plantain chips, a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, fresh bananas, and a dessert of either yoghurt or pudding. This would be a feast to the local people.
Jogila’s young son (who looked in his photo to have been anywhere between 8 and 10 years-old) had been murdered by one of the neighbors who broke into their new home shortly after it had been built by Habitat for Humanity, looking for something to steal. Jogila’s husband became reclusive after that, refusing to trust anyone around him, especially his neighbors, though the killer had been caught and was in prison for it. We never met him any of the times we ate in his house. Yet Jogila was a very friendly, warm, smiling woman who went out of her way to make us feel welcome and to see that we were fed well.
Our HHGV group spent the weekend between our two work weeks seeing the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, the elephant ‘orphanage,’ and further north, the citadel and caves of Sigiroya, and then the cave temples of Dambulla. Gabby hired a guide to drive us north in a van to all these sites.
Traveling around Sri Lanka is not easy. What infrastructure is there is largely left over from the British colonial period and much has been damaged by thirty years of civil war. The trains do run on time pretty much, but are left over from the British, as well, though the railways seem to be maintained fairly well. The buses take twice as long as the trains to get to the same destinations, and all are generally severely overcrowded. Taxis are expensive, and drivers refuse to stay in their lane on the almost exclusively two lane roads. Cars, vans and trucks are constantly passing each other, playing ‘chicken’ and seemingly defying the rules of relativity. In general, rules of the road (and the lines on the road) seem to be more suggestions than laws, guidelines that no one takes very seriously. A secondary language of horn honking guides traffic more than any system of rules. Motorcycles with any number of people on them weave in and out of all this traffic. It is not uncommon to see whole families on one motorcycle, with a child balanced on the handle bars and three or even four members squished together on the seat, sometimes with no helmets. The trains seem to be the safest (and cheapest) mode of travel.
On the last day, the local families and Habitat volunteers and staff threw another ceremony for us to thank us for our help and to dedicate the three completed houses. We walked to each house. One of us cut the pink ribbon across the doorway, and then we watched while in two of the completed houses, the home owners lit a fire under a clay bowl filled with milk. It was considered auspicious if the milk spilled over on the right side of the bowl, which happened for each of them. Back at the first, largest site, we again lit the tapers on the large brass candelabra; this time each of us lit one along with one of the homeowners. The children lined up, and then each handed one of the HHGV team members a Habitat shirt and cap, while bowing and thanking us for being there. There were speeches, and then food and tea. Two of the girls performed another dance for us, and then the music switched to the more modern – Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album had been a favorite of the kids all week. The girls got almost everyone to dance in the road for awhile. We took group photos, cried a little, and then drove away in our van back to the hotel, waving from the windows.