YMCA Volunteer in Sri Lanka (Part Three)

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Author’s Note: At six weeks, our summer internship with the Colombo YMCA was coming to a close, and Michelle was ready to go home. But I was just getting comfortable. So, with the YMCA’s blessing I stayed in Sri Lanka for a few more months, and traveled to Nepal and India before returning to the USA.

Dramatic mountain scenery

There was so much to see and do. Day trips along the palm fringed southwest coast to a 17th century Dutch Fort for perfect sunsets. Crossing the island on a narrow gauge colonial era “toy” train that winds its way through lush, verdant plains and into mountain country of breathtaking beauty. Then by bus, through a forested canyon filling with mist like a giant exhaust in the cooling rains, and on to the northeast port city of Trincomalee. A wonderful sense of unspoiled innocence and friendliness in the villages. An old woman gave us all mangoes from her simple, highland homestead. 


Spectacular waterfalls empty into deep forested gorges, feeding tiny village hamlets that dot the hillsides below terraced tea plantations. Suddenly, the dense jungle opens onto a vast expanse of brilliant white sand facing the wide blue sea. Not a soul for miles but for a few fishermen heaving on their long dugouts to return to the sea. 

A fantastic display of corals and darting schools of fish entertained the senses in a circus of colors and shapes as I swam through emerald green water to the remnants of a reef (largely blasted away by fishermen). Huge clams and starfish rested in the rifts and valleys of the sandy bottom.

Wilderness hiking and camping in the island's mountainous interior
Wilderness hiking and camping in the island’s mountainous interior

My hands were smarting from neat slices laid open by the razor sharp corals as I climbed onto the highest rocks overlooking the bluest sea. Waves broke with sparkling spray in the sunlight as the empty strip of white sand curved away forming a neat fringe to the jungle behind. As in the jungle, always on guard for the unknown, and yet, filled with the thrill of fun and adventure! 

I never got used to the leeches, which are generally harmless but creepy – particularly when the forest floor would literally appear to be moving as one giant mass of tiny, but determined blood suckers. No matter how nimble your step, it would be impossible to cross that stretch of ground without picking up at least several of the little devils that somehow managed to quickly find a vein to latch onto – even inside your hiking shoes, only to be found later squashed in blood-stained socks before their presence was known, or swollen, gorged on your blood. Others would drop from above only to be discovered later – blood-gorged in the hair, in the beard – no fun!

Mining for gem stones
Mining for gem stones

And don’t forget the insidious bed bugs in the wooden bed frames and handsome wicker chairs at the YMCA. You could almost gauge the length of a meeting seated in one of those chairs by the extent of bites along your back and the backs of your legs perfectly in line with the chair’s wooden slats – silently and painlessly sucking your blood, but leaving horrendous red welts that itched for an incredibly long time afterwards.

But my time in Sri Lanka had come to a close. A six week internship had turned into six months, which included some adventure travel and trekking in Nepal, and an amazing journey down the length of the Indian sub-continent (12 days of budget travel cost just $30). Tears choked me as I struggled with my farewell speech – already homesick for Sri Lanka as I said good-bye to my friends, with their endlessly cheerful, open kindness and love, everlasting smiles and innocent eyes.

YMCA outdoor adventure group with leaders Vaughn, Michelle and Jim
YMCA outdoor adventure group with leaders Vaughn, Michelle and Jim

It was terribly hard to leave, but eventually I boarded a plane for Germany to see my sister Jean who was living in Munich at the time. Germany seemed so easy, laid back, quiet – and clean, compared to the madhouse of Colombo. Spectacular alpine hiking in southern Bavaria and Austria and some good heavy food and drink were in order before returning to the USA.

My digestion was suffering with another change in diet, but the bathroom was clean, and private. I felt relaxed. And the acrid odor of stale urine in the “Gent’s Room” down the hall from my room at the YMCA was fast becoming a distant, fading memory.

The stars over Sri Lanka are so different, the kids so delightful, and the women so very lovely, with their colorful parasols and elegant saris. They will all remain in my heart forever.

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here