Volun-tourism: Why We Came to Sri Lanka

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We did not choose Nuwara Eliya. We were assigned here. In my experience, allowing somebody else to pick one’s destination, especially in some sort of official capacity, is more exciting than merely scrawling one’s desires across a map, or choosing fanciful place names—more unpredictable even than a random spin of the globe, eager finger poised.

In this case, our geographic flexibility led our sponsors in New York to point us to Sri Lanka. Our professional skills (a writer and a nurse) would be perfectly suited to the Palm Foundation, they told us (last January, in a phone call to Thailand). This, as daily headlines from Colombo shouted “the brink of civil war” and “failed cease fire,” reporting the latest violence between Tamil Tigers and Government forces.

In the end, a waiver was drawn up for us to sign or not to sign, presented with this decision: “AJWS has determined that the situation in Sri Lanka is sufficiently stable to sustain your proposed work. However, since there is potential that the current skirmishes could evolve into larger hostilities, we wish to give you all the information and options to decide for yourselves whether or not you’d like to proceed with your Sri Lanka placement.”

We proceeded.

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“If you’re going to a place where there are going to be guns,” says Tim Cahill in A Sense of Place, Michael Shapiro’s 2004 book of travel writer interviews, “it really does help to know what everybody is mad about. Do a lot of reading. Find out who’s who and what’s what so that if you happen to be in the hands of somebody who may have reason not to like you, you would be able to say some things that a person might agree with.”

Wise words, but totally unnecessary, we soon discovered. There were plenty of machine guns on display in Colombo, but this is par for the course in these troubled times, even in Manhattan. Anyway, we were to be sheltered in Sri Lanka’s hill country, experiencing the country’s vast diversity while remaining far away from any northern or eastern hotspots.

Which brings me to the reason we came to Sri Lanka: to work with the culturally diverse staff of the Palm Foundation, a well-respected NGO which employs all manner of Tamils, Sinhalese, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus—working together instead of blowing each other up.

For the last 15 years, Palm (Participatory and Action Learning Methodologies) has been applying a unique holistic approach to community development, empowering scores of villages and groups of tea plantation workers to create a better life for themselves.

My job: to create, design, and write content for a new Palm website (this is their current one); to assist the staff in writing their annual progress report, which is read by potential donors, government officials, and other VIPs; to offer advice on their tourism development project; to give a workshop on writing press releases; and to assist in any other way I can.

Tay’s job: to work in Palm’s health education sector, obtaining resources, designing workshops, etc. With her clinical training and background (as opposed to educational/public health), this is not her dream job, but it is similar to what she did in the Peace Corps; she grins and bears it like a champ—even when denied crucial transport and translation services. Development work is not always as easy and obvious as it sounds.

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What does this mean as far as day-to-day life? Most obviously, there is the daily commute from Toppass, into Nuwara Eliya, than south to the Palm office in Hawa Eliya; a journey which takes anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes, depending on the combination of walking, hitch-hiking, bussing, and tri-wheeling. After that, it’s pretty much an office job, 9-5 (ish), with a day or two each week spent in the field.

After 10 months of travel, any sense of routine is welcome and delicious. We’ll let you know how it goes.

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