I’ve always found that one of the worst things about traveling to third world countries was passing by the poverty stricken villages. It’s a complicated situation to try to enjoy yourself while you are constantly passing by people much less fortunate than you. The only volunteer trip I’ve ever done was to Sri Lanka in 2005. I had been in between jobs right when one of the most deadly natural disasters in recorded history struck southeast and southern Asia. With nothing else to do at the moment, I figured this was my opportunity to help a nation in distress. I do wonders at losing things and when I arrived to Colombo I realized I had forgotten the information of the people I was supposed to help! My flight arrived at 3am and I found a man who was organizing transportation and explained my situation. He seemed to ignore every word I was saying and kept trying to offer me tours around Sri Lanka. I couldn’t believe it, I had literally traveled to the other side of the world to help a nation that lost tens of thousands of people and this guy was trying to sell me tourist packages! I was able to find someone else who put me in touch with a Sri Lankan church who was helping bring supplies to refugees. Since 90% of my time was dedicated to volunteering I didn’t get a travelers perspective on this island nation. I do hope to return and see the people I met again and the rest of the country under better circumstances. For travelers Sri Lanka has much to offer in terms of history, natural beauty and religion.
The official capital of Sri Lanka is called Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte which is located on the western side of the island. Aside from being very difficult to pronounce, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is a small suburb of the larger city Colombo, which is usually referred to as the nation’s capital. As a matter of fact it was after I left Sri Lanka that I first heard of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte! These photos above are from one of the markets in Colombo. As you can see its a very busy place, I saw people using cars, trucks, wheel barrels, wagons and other tools to transport goods back and forth. The person above is a friend I made while I was in the city. On the left is a family from Colombo who were helping send supplies to the victims of the Tsunami.
Most of my volunteering in Sri Lanka involved packing up food, clothing, and hygienic items in Colombo. This was done during most of the day then at night I was selected to ride solo with a truck driver to make the delivery in the eastern towns. There was a day where our supplies didn’t make it to the capital and we were left without anything to do. As a matter of fact Colombo seemed unaffected by the tsunami and life continued on as normal. With the day off I decided to see some of the natural areas of the country. Much of Sri Lanka is made up swamps and wetlands. I took a boat ride through one of the swamps and even though my ride was short I saw a significant amount of wildlife. I came across monkeys, reptiles, and several species of birds. Above is a large heron and a photo of the mangrove forest.
Before we entered the swamps we had to pass through some local canals through some rural villages. Here I saw the giant monitor lizard pictured above as well as the humble house seen on the right. I’m not sure how often people come through this area, but the locals I passed by all smiled and waived to me.
The same day I was able to stop by the ocean on the way back to my room. These pictures are all from the western side of Sri Lanka which is opposite of the side that was hit by the tsunami. The beaches here are absolutely beautiful. I’ll make it a high priority on my next return to Sri Lanka to spend time here.
Other than the brief swamp visit and stop at the beach the rest of my time was spent volunteering. Some of the locals seemed scared about making the trip to the disaster areas as some trucks were being hijacked. On my drive east we were pulled over literally about 10 times by police and the military. Sometimes they just questioned us from the street, other times they asked for my passport, and a few times they even inspected our cargo. Regardless of what they did or asked the military and police were always to polite and to the point taking little time. The photos above show damage from the city of Batticula. A strong bridge has been destroyed and even it’s steel railings deformed under the raging waters. On the right hand photo there was once a large market full of vendors. Now there is nothing.
The ride to Batticula was terrible and took all night. With so many road blocks and lack of good roads we hardly got any speed. I honestly don’t think we ever hit more than 40 mph on any of the supply runs. One point during the night I had fallen asleep and when I woke up we were going in reverse because a large elephant was walking towards us on the road. The road was so bumpy I didn’t really get any decent amount of sleep. When I got to one refugee camp which was part of a church at 5 in the morning I asked to use the bathroom. Exhausted, I went into the bathroom only to have a man come in after me and try to sexually assault me.
He hadn’t tried to hide himself from watching me use the rest room. I wasn’t sure if this was normal in Sri Lanka or what. After that I tried to leave and he shut the door and began to make some vulgar offerings to me. I started yelling which caused him to take off running and that was the last I saw of him. I wasn’t sure what to do of this situation. I was filled with regret when I later read that several women were leaving the refugee camps because of frequent sexual assaults. If that man would be so brazen with a male foreigner I could only imagine what he might due to a local single woman.
Below are some final photos of the damage. The clothing you see in the trees on the right hand photo was ripped off many of the victims as the water raised several meters off the ground. Other incredible feats I saw included a fallen radio tower. It must have once stood at 100 feet, but now it was crumpled up into a ball like a toy. You can apply for Sri Lanka visa online