In April 2006, I spent a week in Sri Lanka helping to rebuild houses that people who were made homeless as a result of the tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004. This was part of an initiative organised by Habitat For Humanity in conjunction with Charity Challenge. Every week, a number of volunteers from all over Europe would fly out to Sri Lanka to help local masons rebuild houses. The volunteers also provided financial support by raising money which would go directly towards the materials needed for the new houses. The last week of April 2006 was my turn.
We were sponsored by the Reuters Foundation (the charitable arm of Reuters) which meant that all our flights and accommodation were paid for. All we (me + 12 other technical grads) had to do was raise £500 each to go towards the building materials. This we did over the course of January/February, and following a remarkably simple and easy mass-visa application, awaited the departure date. We were joined at the airport by 6 people from Martin Currie, an Investment Management company based in Edinburgh. Our total number was therefore 19.
It was at some point between travelling to the airport and landing there I decided to keep a short journal of the week, mainly for my benefit as I didn’t really want to forget what it was like. As these entries were made at the end of quite tiring days, they might not make sense. So apologies for that. Anyways, here it is.
Day 1 - Hot and humid
Well, I’m here. Sri Lanka that is. We all flew out back on Saturday morning at about half ten, and ended up arriving at 2am local time on Sunday into this strange dark place which was really really really warm. Then, after a 3 and a bit hour coach journey, we got to the hotel and discovered that the sun also rises here, just like it does at home and the place became light and really really really warm. Like most people, I then had breakfast (curry) and went to bed. After I got up into the ‘real’ Sunday at about midday, I found that ‘warm’ had turned into ‘fecking hot’ and that there was a pool. Thankful that my room is wonderfully air-conditioned, I’ve just spent the day lounging around going for walks on the beach, drinking by the pool and all those other wonderful things that are done on a sunny beach holiday. Other fun activities included becoming with the local currency - the Sri Lankan Rupee - one of which is worth approximately the same as a US cent. Therefore the phrase ‘I’ll lend you a grand for drinks’ has become remarkably frequent. I managed to wander into town to find a cash machine from which I withdrew Rs15,000 and the novelty of wondering round with a wallet full of notes as thick as a small tree hasn’t yet worn off. Not quite sure what I’m going to spend it on yet though, as everything seems to be laid on. I’m sure I’ll find some extravagance to flitter it away on. However, tomorrow I’m going to be getting up at 6 and working on a building site in, what I certainly think is, quite ridiculous heat and humidity and therefore won’t be able to buy anything. As a result, it’s nearly half ten local time here and I’m off to bed. The touristy stuff stops now I think…
Day 2 - First day of work
I had an interesting night. After going to bed early, I snapped awake thinking it was 6 am. Upon further investigation, I discovered it was, in fact, only 1 am. Pleased that I was allowed to sleep more, I slept more. This happened again probably twice before the alarm went off. Think it’s just me not knowing quite what this time zone means yet - fairly sure I’ll figure it out. In the morning, I took the bold move of shunning curry for sausage, beans and chips which was great. Then a ten-minute bus ride up the coast saw the group arrive at the village where we were to build exciting things. After splitting into groups of 3, I discovered that my group had the task of rendering the outside of this particular half-finished house. Rendering is an interestingly difficult process whereby a bunch of sand, cement and water is mixed and then scraped onto some walls. If you’re good, it stays on. If you’re not, it just falls off again. I had a few spells of actually being good, but these were small islands of competence in a sea of incompetence which brought most of the village along to point and laugh at the “one with funny hair throw mud on the ground”. Lunch was mostly uneventful and the afternoon brought along more mud- throwing. I’m distinctly worried that today was an ‘overcast’ mild day and I still felt like death most of the time, so my plan for tomorrow is to overcome serious heat/sun-stroke by means of a hat. I don’t own a hat, and I should have brought one, but I’m going to borrow one from some kind person who is slightly over-prepared in the hat department. In any case, I’ll only be dropping mud on the ground again so it can’t get much worse. The evening activities were rather amazing and involved a boat-trip along some rivers and a lagoon at dusk which was amazingly pretty. It couldn’t get much better when we arrived across the other side of the lake at a candlelit garden which turned out to be the front garden of a restaurant which we had to ourselves. The food was amazing, but unfortunately an early night beckoned for the rather early start the next morning.
Day 3 - Good progress and weather
It’s only when you’re on a tropical island and doing heavy work all day that cloudy/overcast is described as ‘good weather’. It was still rather warm, but there was no direct sun which was a bit of a bonus. That, along with the fact that we were all now better at rendering/plastering meant that we actually got a fair bit done. Apart from that, there was nothing much of note that happened. We had a free evening so after some exercise in the pool I just ate and then slept. There was a small incident over dinner in which I was informed that I was no longer allowed in the ‘curry club’ because I’d not been eating curry for every meal (including breakfast) where possible. Being sensible, I usually go for the sausage, beans and chips option which is rather more easy on the stomach than a chicken masala at 6:30am. In any case, seeing as the so- called ‘club’ is just a few nutters who think they’re hard (or Scottish, or something), I didn’t really care about this eviction.
Day 4 - The first rain
Today started like any other. This whole waking up at 6 thing seems to be getting a bit more routine now. There was word that one of the other houses being built would be finished before Friday but they needed a little help with the painting. As a result, a bunch of people went off there to do something other than plastering and we were a man down. Still, we managed to get a lot done and by the end of the day managed to have covered most of the inside and outside walls. By the end of tomorrow we should have everything done and be able to start on the window frames. All this in spite of the interestingly refreshing downpour we had mid-morning which threatened to wash the mornings work away. Thankfully, it stopped and the weather turned out to be stupidly hot and sunny for the rest of the day. Here’s hoping for cloud tomorrow. Tonight we’re having dinner at a local restaurant where I’m told there’s be fire-walking as well as steak. Hopefully, both will be good.
Day 5 - Woodwork
I’m quite surprised at how much I’ve become used to working in the heat and humidity over the past few days. That’s not to say that it’s easy - I still don’t like getting up in the morning, and I spend all day looking forward to the moment I walk into my room and hit the nice cold waft of the air conditioning. However, I do think that day 1 was the most difficult even if it wasn’t the worst in terms of the weather. Today was hot. Very hot. It did rain for about 5 minutes again, but apart from that it must have topped 40 degrees for most of the day. We spent about an hour in the morning visiting a village where Habitat have already completed about 4 houses and so had a wander around looking at the finished houses and talking to the locals. After that, it was back to the sites for more work. Once again, this was mud-throwing - although there was an exciting period at the end where we got to play with some new stuff called ‘wood’. We were building the structure that sits on top of the windows and doors and has concrete poured into it to give the top bit. With all but 2 halves of 2 walls now done in terms of rendering, we might get to move onto other things tomorrow. That said, tomorrow is the last day and I think we’re only working the first half as there’s a dedication ceremony of a recently-finished house happening in the afternoon. In any case, I’m off to watch the sun set over the beach. It was quite startling on the first day to hear this thump over in the west and wonder what happened as everything went dark - none of these lingering sunsets more common of the UK. This is real ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ stuff. Still, must come from being only 6 deg 10’ north of the equator. Must dash.
Day 6 - The last day
Today was Friday, the last day of work. Once again, I seemed to be the first down to breakfast, thus maintaining my 100% record throughout the week. All this despite getting up later and later each day in order not to seem the most keen. Turns out, everyone else is far lazier than I could have imagined. Today was finishing off the lintels for the tops of the windows and doors. We were meant to get all of these finished today and pour the concrete to set over the weekend, but a shortage of good wood meant that all but one were completed. Therefore, with a lack of things to do on the carpentry front, it was back to more rendering. Despite having done most of the walls of the house, there were still a few small bits that needed doing and, being me, I seemed to get the worst job of plastering the two walls that were under the built-in work surface in the kitchen. Working in such a confined space was nice for the shade, but the subsequent sharp pains in my neck and shoulders meant that I would have much rather been outside and standing up. Two coats of funny mud stuff later and the morning was pretty much over. Lunch saw a rather interesting game of cricket against the locals where they won, but only because their bowling was both accurate and slightly suspect. Actually, I lie about the slightly bit. Most of the time they were just chucking it very quickly which placed us cricket-law-abiding Englishmen at a slight disadvantage. Still, everyone had a good time. In the afternoon, we had to travel a few miles down the road to another village where a house had just been finished. It was a rather lovely affair: there was a ribbon on the door which the new owner cut to formally open the house, and everyone looked round to see what a just-finished house looked like. After the nice surprise of tea and cake, we all piled back in the bus to head back to the hotel. Tonight, we have ‘The Gala Dinner’ for which we’ve all picked what we want to eat. Interestingly, there’s no curry anywhere on the menu which will disappoint the mildly hardcore curry club. After that, I think I might just get drunk.
Epilogue - What happened afterwards
Well, I’m writing this about 3 weeks after I got back, but I’ll just narrate quickly what happened during and after me getting drunk. We did all indeed munch on a fab dinner and proceeded along the road to the local beach bar, Mambo. Here, we drank beer on the beach and under the stars at a rather pleasant 88 rupees each (about 50p). I left whilst pleasantly tipsy and wandered back the hotel as I was absolutely knackered. The next day, we had full body massages ordered for the morning and had booked our slot back on the Wednesday. Needless to say, those who were bold enough to order early 8am slots missed theirs. I was booked in at a more sensible 11am, by which time I had already had some pool-time. The massage was an interesting experience. There was a comical should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-take-all-my-clothes-off dialogue, which the nice man and I had for a few minutes - the outcome of which was favourable for myself. And probably the nice man as well. After such initial issues had been sorted, it was actually rather nice. Afterwards, it seemed that everyone had gone through the same dilemma as I, and all but one person had opted for the sensible route of English dignity. Oh how we laughed. Anyways, after some time flailing around by the pool and having some lunch, the time to depart (3pm) arrived. So we did the usual goodbyes and piled onto the coach for the 4 hour trip to the hotel outside Columbo airport. Upon arrival there, we headed for the strangely English pub called ‘The Cricketers Arms’ that was located inside the hotel. Not a lot happened here, apart from some football on the telly and then dinner in the dining room. At the appointed time, we headed over to the airport getting there at about 10pm - 4 hours before our flight was due to leave. We spent a lot of the time wandering around looking in the shops a number of times before actually committing to buying anything. This was more to pass the time than anything else. After buying some expensive rum cheaply, I got bored and fell asleep. After that, I think I must have slept all the way back, as the next thing I remember was landing at Heathrow, seeing it was raining, being told it was 6 degrees and then observing that I was just wearing shorts, a shirt and some small shoes. So, apart from nearly catching hypothermia trying to get the bus to the tube station, the journey home was fairly uneventful.