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.

In the evenings, the project team alternated between the colonial indulgence of sipping gin-and-tonics on the lawn of the Lighthouse Hotel and visiting an unofficial refugee camp where families had pitched tents next to the wreckage of their homes. The government had ordered them to leave. After the tsunami, officials decided to enforce an old law banning construction within 200 meters of the beach break, but these people couldn't bring themselves to abandon their land and the remains of their houses. Each time we showed up, we were mobbed by children who grabbed our hands and begged us to sing or play cricket or teach them to use the perplexing Western toys we had brought--jacks, jump ropes, a football.

Sri Lankans take tremendous pride in having guests to their homes, and invitations were extended to us by everyone we met, from tuk-tuk drivers to 8-year-old boys on the beach. One night Ranjith invited six of us over for dinner. It was a simple place, with concrete floors, cinder-block walls, and plastic patio chairs, but his wife cooked us our best meal in Sri Lanka. We began with a vegetable omelette, roti, and hoppers, a pancake-like dish usually eaten for breakfast. Then they ushered us into the dining room where they served us curried chicken, rice with cinnamon bark, fiery dal, and tuna baked in a clay oven. Sri Lankans don't eat with their guests--they wait until the visitors have gone home--so while we plowed through 12 different dishes, Ranjith's wife and kids stayed in the kitchen, peering out occasionally to monitor our progress.

By the end of two weeks in Galle, my team had dug foundations, built retaining walls, and laid bricks for two houses in Bataduwa. I was a little disappointed that we wouldn't have the satisfaction of seeing Chandana and his family move into their house, but I was consoled when I learned that we would witness the first handover of a Global Crossroad house, in a neighborhood called Dadella. On the morning of the ceremony, my team was diverted to the Dadella site to help with the finishing touches. Thrilled to put her seeds to use, Caitlin designed a semicircular garden in front of the house, and planted it with cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, and marigolds. The rest of us spent the morning clearing debris. As we heaped the garbage into a pile, my shovel scraped across a rolling pin, a tattered pillowcase, a tiny pair of blue pants.

At 4 p.m., the family gathered in front of their new house, a simple cinder-block structure which had been painted a buttery yellow. A monk lit a tall brass oil lamp and chanted a blessing, and we were invited inside to admire the polished concrete floors and jackfruit-wood doors. It was the first of 100 houses that Global Crossroad planned to complete by the end of 2005; but only 26 have been built to date, and the company says it'll continue as long as there's interest from volunteers. Across the street from our celebration was a sea of bright blue refugee tents, a potent reminder of how much work remained.

Before leaving Galle to travel to the north, I stopped by the Bataduwa worksite with a friend from my project team to say goodbye to the masons. A new brigade of volunteers was there, chopping at the soil with pickaxes and those ineffectual iron rods, guzzling water. Watching them work called up memories of my first day--the exhaustion, the feelings of ineptitude, the staggering heat. I lingered, repressing the urge to blurt out know-it-all tips. "I'm so glad I'm not them," I said to my friend as we climbed into a tuk-tuk, glancing over my shoulder one last time. We both knew it was a lie.

Three organizations with disaster-relief volunteer opportunities

For people who feel compelled to hop on a plane in the wake of a natural disaster and offer hands-on assistance, there are a handful of companies and organizations that provide a structure for all those good intentions.

"We take the time to organize a project, assemble materials, and get supervisors in place so volunteers can plug into that when they arrive," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program, which has offered disaster-relief opportunities to volunteers since 1992.

A recognizable name brand also helps your credibility as a volunteer. An organization with a good track record is going to be more trusted than a solo operator who shows up with a hammer or a case full of antibiotics.

Global Crossroad Two-week program fee is $1,199, which includes shared room in a guesthouse, three meals a day, travel insurance, and airport transfers. From the two-week program, $400 is allocated to building materials. GC also has a 2-to-12-week homestay orphanage volunteer experience; the program fee starts at $999 for two weeks. 800/413-2008 or 225/295-4950, globalcrossroad.com.

I-to-I Help restore beauty to Sri Lanka's southwest coastline by clearing debris left in huge amounts by the tsunami and by replanting coastal trees and plants. There are also opportunities to teach English to children in relief camps. The two-week program fee of $1,395 includes shared room in a guesthouse, two meals daily, airport pickup, travel insurance, and a certification course for those who want to teach English as a second language. 800/985-4864, i-to-i.com.

Habitat for Humanity Work teams are being scheduled for Sri Lanka and India. Volunteers are responsible for their own costs, which run $1,000-$1,800 for two weeks. Habitat will help arrange accommodations. 800/422-4828 or 229/924-6935, habitat.org.

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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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