This weekend I spent 16 hours on a train to get not even halfway across the island, a distance of less than 100 kilometers as the crow flies. When things get this bad I usually think about Ginny, a friend and fellow AP intern in Afghanistan, because I know she must be dealing with much worse, and that somehow makes everything better.
In a hurry to get to my final destination (World’s End, the top of a 700 meter high cliff at the end of a vast grassy plain) once I got off the train, I took the “shortcut” outlined on the map in my guidebook, conveniently forgetting that the same guidebook got me lost in the Thai countryside at night only a few months back. It turned out to be the most frightening hike of my life.
The large black snake that slithered behind me across the path after ten minutes convinced me not to turn back, but the forest only became denser and denser, darker and darker, until I was crawling through thick underbrush with a short stick to notify any snakes (cobras, kraits, and the other highly venomous natives of Sri Lanka) ahead of me of my presence.
When I finally emerged from the woods onto the plain (actually rather hilly), I thought I’d made it. Then things got worse. Surrounded by herds of enormous barking (yes, barking) deer and grunting bear-monkeys in the trees, I walked through the knee-high grass in the direction of the only path I could see.
Fearing more snakes – not to mention the wild leopards that live there, which I thankfully did not encounter, unlike the French tourists I met on Sunday, who saw two in the plains – I started running until I was surrounded by nothing but fields of thick grass.
It was getting late, not to mention cold (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit), misty and very windy. I had only one small piece of bread and a few sips of water left in my bag. So I simply kept walking, following my instincts rather than my useless map, which told me to go in the complete opposite direction.
Finally, just as I’d begun to give up hope of finding a way out by nightfall, I reached the other side of a hill and saw a patch of pavement, then a road, and then a parking lot. I’d come out of the plains not 200 meters from the entrance to World’s End; predictably, the ticket booth was already closed.
It was a fitting end to my Sri Lankan summer. The journey, like my hike in Horton Plains, has been tough; visa troubles, language difficulties, a repair shop’s sabotage of my camera, LTTE checkpoints, assassinations, a suicide bombing, office politics, and countless other anticipated and unexpected obstacles threatened to derail my work like snakes in the grass.
I was alone in a totally foreign environment with no map, relying on my intuition to guide me from being utterly lost (Advocacy? Me?) to staying the course through to the end.
And when I did reach the end, it wasn’t how I’d planned it to be. I never got to see World’s End, and I never got to see HHR implement all of the ideas I’d proposed. But along the way, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about Sri Lanka. And I left a mark, both with my footprints in the forest and with my presence at HHR. I just hope that the effects of my work last longer than the footprints.
The fears I expressed in my naпve first blog several months ago turned out to be misplaced. The bureaucracy here is indeed tremendous, but I largely avoided it. And my initial anxiety faded quickly as I realized that, although I may not have the experience of my colleagues, nearly 20 straight years of schooling have left me qualified enough to conceive of new ideas, plan out their implementation, and then make that plan a reality. I’m still not an expert in human rights or advocacy, but I’ve proven to myself that I can take my schoolwork and apply it in the real world.
My age also didn’t pose a problem; the HHR staff was surprisingly welcoming of my input, considering that I’d never worked in a developing country before and that I knew nothing about Sri Lanka or HHR. I don’t know if I’ve helped Sri Lanka move closer to freedom, and I don’t feel as though I’ve changed the world (as AP kindly asked us to do), but I’ve definitely gained the sense of accomplishment that’s been elusive in past internships. And yes, I did see the elephants I was promised.
When I leave Sri Lanka in less than 24 hours, there will be no hugs – I learned the hard way that that’s not really done here. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t miss the people who’ve been kind enough to open up their world to an outsider and hear what he has to say.
They’ve made my summer as fulfilling as it could have possibly been, and no hug can convey my gratitude for that. I sincerely hope that the next time I come to Sri Lanka, the Home for Human Rights will no longer exist… because it won’t have to. Until then, it’ll need all the help it can get.
Let’s wish the staff the best of luck in finally bringing peace to their island.
Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)
Posted Aug 24th, 2004