TRIPS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE

Rebuilding Sri Lanka One House at a Time

The tsunami left us all feeling powerless, but the truth is, we can make a difference.

With more than 20,000 people in the district of Galle displaced from their homes by the tsunami, Global Crossroad tries to ensure that its reconstruction efforts are focused on the neediest families. The company places an ad in the local paper, asking families to submit an application, and then interviews the family and inspects the damage to their home. Our project coordinator, Paul Ferreira, explained that we'd be building two houses: one for the family of a young man with cancer whose house had been destroyed by the tsunami, and another for the family of a fisherman who had lost not only his house, but also the boat that enabled him to earn a living.

Our days were divided equally between work and relaxation. Every morning at 7 a.m., we were driven 20 minutes inland to our work site in Bataduwa, a languid village where kingfishers sailed over the rice fields and locals gathered at the village well to bathe. During our orientation, Paul had advised us to abandon our Western ethos of maximum speed and efficiency. Our supervisors would be Sri Lankan masons, and as their apprentices, we'd adapt to their building methods. That meant no shortcuts: no power tools, no cement mixers, no backhoes. Instead, we had Iron Age implements to dig the houses' three-foot-deep foundations--pickaxes, shovels, and a heavy tool that fell somewhere between a crowbar and a spear, meant to break up the rocky soil.

It's a common philosophy on this kind of project, one that Habitat for Humanity employs as well. Despite the fact that you could knock out a lot more houses with some engine power, the thinking is that control over a reconstruction project should ultimately rest in the hands of the locals. There's a practical side, too: Replacement parts are scarce in Sri Lanka.

The first day, we cleared brush and dug foundations--grueling work that was exacerbated by the 98-degree heat and ferocious sun. It took about half an hour of chopping at roots with the dull edge of a hoe before we were drenched.

Throughout the two-week project, we were under the tutelage of head mason Lasanta, a lanky, sloe-eyed 26-year-old dressed like an Italian playboy in a pressed black dress shirt and fitted jeans. Lasanta spoke only a few tentative words of English ("yes," "no," "here," "there," and "cement"), and the Westerners knew even less Sinhala. But pantomime proved to be a fine communication method. On the few occasions when it did not, we relied on Ranjith, Lasanta's second-in-command, a sweet, perennially smiling man whose 18 words of English picked up where our two words of Sinhala left off.

At noon, we were driven 20 stifling minutes away to a lovely beach. We'd tumble out of the van, peel off as many clothes as we dared, and run into the ocean. The water was warm and embracing, the surf powerful. Our lunches--spicy vegetables, thin rice noodles, and a piece of grilled fish marinated in tamarind and spices--were delivered to us as we sat beneath the palms.

Because the afternoon heat was so intense, we worked for only a couple more hours after lunch before retreating to the guesthouse to shower and relax before dinner. One day, we returned to the site after lunch to find the family whose house we were building. The young couple and their two tiny daughters in matching pink dresses smiled shyly. W.A. Chandana, the man of the house, was 27 and had been diagnosed with leukemia. He and his wife, Rasangika, had 2-year-old twins, and her belly was swollen with a third child. A laborer in a garment factory earning $3 a day, Chandana had lost his house and all of his possessions in the tsunami. He and his family were living under a piece of tarp stretched over stakes, with a thin mattress on the ground, perpetually damp from the humidity and torrential evening rains.

Meeting Chandana's family lent an urgency to the construction, and made every task feel worthwhile. We learned how to mix concrete--hauling bucket after bucket of it to the bricklayers--and we transferred dozens, maybe hundreds, of boulders from one pile to another, where the masons could access them. By the end of the first week, I'd learned how to puzzle boulders together in the foundation to build a retaining wall, how to lay cinder blocks, and how to make support columns out of rebar and wire. Our progress was slow, and there were definitely moments when our tasks felt Sisyphean--the afternoon we spent shoveling out a six-foot cesspit with half of a coconut shell, for example.

Despite the heat, despite the occasional sense that I was paying for the opportunity to work in a gulag, I found that incredibly, surprisingly, I was having a great time. Our camaraderie helped sustain us, as did the constant stream of villagers who dropped by to kick-start us with cookies, bananas, and homemade caramels. One morning an old man and his granddaughter arrived bearing fronds of aloe. They must have seen half the work team glowing red with sunburn. A posse of schoolkids showed up one day, eager to help--frail boys of 9 or 10 carrying 20-pound rocks and buckets of concrete, staggering beneath the weight.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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