YMCA Volunteer in Sri Lanka (Part One)

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Author’s note: “The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) is one of the oldest and largest Movements for youth in the world. Founded in London, England in 1844, it now works in 119 countries, reaching 58 million people. The YMCA works to bring social justice and peace to young people and their communities, regardless of religion, race, gender or culture.”  World Alliance of YMCAs

A few pints of Guinness helped calm the nerves on our London layover before flying on to the tropics. Michelle and I were about to embark on a whirlwind of incredible adventures in the steamy heat and strange madness of this exotic third world nation – Sri Lanka!

Where is Sri Lanka?

Beginning our descent, we peered anxiously out the window to a sea of coconut palms that opened to narrow, tar-sealed roads lined with smoldering piles of burning coconut husks. The busy thoroughfares were clogged with motor scooters, three-wheeler taxis, bicycles, ox carts piled high, barefoot pedestrians carrying huge loads or pushing overflowing carts – and elephants, meandering as if without a care. Jolts of adrenaline shook me as the surreal scene appeared before us. It was really happening, and we would soon be landing in this strange land – for good or for ill.

It was June 1982, and our first trip to Asia. Michelle and I had volunteered for a six-week summer internship with the Colombo YMCA in Sri Lanka, organized by an American YMCA. We were the only participants in the exchange program and had met just prior to boarding our flight. No formal orientation had been provided prior to our departure to help us prepare for this experience, nor was any financial stipend included. My high school paper route savings had covered the cost of my air ticket. But our food and lodging would be provided at the Colombo YMCA and at home stays with local families.

YMCA women in their elegant saris

Our reception at the Colombo YMCA was genuinely warm and welcoming. We also spent time at the Kandy YMCA in the central highlands, and stayed with families in the northern city of Jaffna across the strait from India, and in Sri Lanka’s cool, rain-washed highlands of Nuara Eliya. Everyone was incredibly friendly and hospitable, with cheerful smiles and laughter all around.

Our arrival coincided with preparations for Colombo YMCA’s “Centenary Celebration” commemorating 100 years of continuous service to the community and the nation, particularly the underprivileged. The President of Sri Lanka was the Chief Guest. A special postal stamp was issued in recognition of the YMCA’s steadfast commitment to youth leadership development and its outstanding achievements bringing all communities and religions together in a common fellowship.

His Excellency J.R. Jayawardene, President of the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, addressing the Colombo YMCA Centenary Celebration

One of our first tasks was to help prepare for the event. But it was hot and humid, and the work painstakingly slow – even the smallest task seemed a major undertaking – and almost any time was teatime! I found it necessary to nap in the heat of the day.

Staying three floors above the YMCA kitchen, I was awakened each day by the ominous smell of curry wafting through my shutters and over the tiled roofs above the city’s worn, tired streets. From my window, I could see the sweaty kitchen workers busily wiping dishes “clean” with their bare hands, ready to be used again.

The slightest exertion produced torrents of sweat, and my weight was dropping. I needed to eat more, but even the mildly spiced food was burning holes in me. The sickly sweet, syrupy “Cokes” (a locally produced concoction) did nothing to quench my thirst, and the overly sweetened milk tea brewed from otherwise delicious and wonderfully aromatic black tea, for which Sri Lanka (formerly “Ceylon”) is famous, didn’t help much either. I soon switched to downing gallons of plain bottled soda water whenever possible.

With my host family in Colombo

One of my favorite hangouts was the YMCA cafeteria where my trusty waiter Ratnapala kept me well fed with rice and curry, dahl, curd (yogurt or dahi), egg “hoppers” (crispy-edged crepes filled with a steamed egg), an amazing assortment of succulent fruits, and milk tea. The cafeteria was also popular with old religious zealots eager to spin their yarns to this wide-eyed young Y-guy from America.

Tropical evenings at the bar next to the YMCA were pleasantly cool and refreshing, with ice cold pints of locally brewed lager and heavy, brown stout – thanks to the Brits!

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon! 

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







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