After my time at university and especially the mental pressure during my final exams I found myself to be spiritually completely empty and depleted. My university life spent much of my energies and the unsure nature of the future became ever more starkly visible. I needed some time away, see something new and rediscover life and my place in it. I wanted to feel alive again, stop functioning and find again “being” as opposed to the merely existing.
I spontaneously decided to take a backpacking holiday in Sri Lanka, 23 days of adventure in this magical treasure of the Indian Ocean, go where the wind/breeze will blow me, without the guarantee of having a place to sleep each night. I’ve gathered information and discovered that with some budgeting as little as 20 euros could be enough to see me through each day. Still relatively unprepared I left home.
My first impression upon arrival: A holiday in Sri Lanka is an adventure! Everything is unfamiliar – so different and mind-blowing. Most Westerners are likely to experience a culture shock unless they have booked their vacation in a holiday resort.
Certainly Sri Lanka is not an ideal world how we would define it. The island is pure suspense, full of excitement. Opposite of western countries, it is fast paced, friendly and relaxing all at the same time. The Republic is a developing nation, currently the monthly income of many families is below €150.
The road and rail infrastructure are generally in very bad condition – both obsolete and overcrowded. On top of this, the power supply is always unreliable and often cuts out completely. However mostly it seems to work out though in the end, just not with our European habit of reliability.
I still felt directed and driven but no longer quite as empty as in the beginning, because now the drive was about surviving and going onwards. I needed to stay attentive, to live in the here and now being a stranger in the unknown as I was. Many times I was overstrained or became scared without cause. Very often the ideals of my German upbringing and my predominated skepticism made me feel insecure.
But my most intense experience that caused all others to fade into the background was that no matter where I was or how far away from civilization I travelled I was always met with complete hospitality and the unconditional will to help me. The people showed interest and openness and even when I offered money for all their troubles, they always seemed reluctant to accept. Their utmost concern was that I felt happy and at home with them.
I was so surprised though when in every town the children always asked me for „school pencils“. They also liked to know where I came from and laughed as they played with my hair. Their joy was infectious and the last traces of sorrow, fear and emptiness left my heart as I laughed with them.
I spent increasingly more time with the Ceylonese, often sleeping at a local home rather than in hotels. Again and again I travelled onwards, never spending even 3 days at one place. I was impressed by these people, who as I left, gave me breathtaking smiles to accompany me on my journey after having shared their food and homes with me. These people gave me, a total stranger, a place in their homes and made me a part of their families. Just like that, as if it was simply the most natural thing in the world for them. And it really is that easy!
I was taken in by families living in the slums or in small huts. To them it was a given that they would share the little they had with me. Some nights I slept together with the kids on the floor of the hut as there just weren’t enough beds. I really was overwhelmed with their willingness to help each other and their warm hospitality.
I listened to stories or their lives and shared photos of my friends and family with them. We discussed politics and religion. I learned so many new things and experienced openness, tolerance and kindness. Again and again I went to supermarkets to buy pens which I then handed out to asking, smiling children.
Many of them asked me why I was wearing trousers and giggled. Before my arrival I was somewhat afraid of the poverty, the begging and petty crime. This fear vanished within the first five days I’ve been in Sri Lanka. A wonderful experience of life being able and allowed to accept encounters and help without reservation – and this from people who – compared with us – often even lack the bare necessities of life.
How come kind-hearted, generous and charitable behavior with regard to strangers came to be devious? Everyone is so obsessed with his/her own problems and fears, that he/she apparently has no time for such kindness.
If I would have to define for myself the meaning of life, of us humans, the essence would be that we must be thankful. No matter in what we believe and which aims we are going to pursue, our duty is to perceive the creation of life, to honor and to celebrate it by looking at it in its entirety, to contribute to its improvement (simply by sharing) and meet the world around us with openness and friendship. This brings me to the conclusion: We can learn a lot from each other.
During my last few days I stayed in Arugam Bay, district Ampara. It’s the South-East of Sri Lanka, an area where mainly Muslim people live. Upon arrival it was raining. I was already 19 days on tour and unfortunately in this night I caught a fever. I had just gotten this far, everything has gone well and now malaria – “Great” I thought. So I stayed in a small hotel that provided me with food and tea.
When I wasn’t falling exhausted into bed and falling asleep at once I spend my nights exchanging thoughts with Fazeel, the hotel manager. He offered to drive me to the hospital, organized medication and wouldn’t accept a cent for his errands. He himself was living with his family in the slums of Pottuvil!
I could discuss my experiences during our conversations in the evening with Fazeel. I mentioned the Kids on the streets asking for pencils and Fazeel told me about the problems many schools had at the countryside – nearly every school that was further than 8 km away from a city was usually in bad shape with not enough equipment, electricity or running water.
After 3 days I got better and wanted to see the rural villages to find out more about the circumstances regarding education and medical maintenance. So I paid the school Al Mina a visit. It’s a school with about 60 Children and 4 teachers, who teach 4 classes. My first impression upon arrival was: How can teachers and kids teach and learn under these circumstances? Two classrooms in a merely painted construction site, no running water, and the kids have no drinking bottles, no pencils, very often no shoes, no books, no schoolbags…. Most of the tables and chairs are far too low, and are falling apart.
Nevertheless I saw a lot of happy smiling children, attentive, curious, inquisitive and relaxed. Some were looking forward to a great English class with me as their new teacher.
I talked with the head teachers, took pictures and notes. Very soon I thought: With relatively little effort and with comparatively low expenditure we could help these schools here to improve their situation. The idea of Draw a smile was born and since summer 2013 we are a registered non-profit-organization – dependent on the support of members, donors and sponsors – ready to help the schools becoming a more pleasant, more stimulating place for all of the students.
Translated by Klara Marsden and Kathrin Foerster
Proofread by Kento Iwasaki