Rebuilding Sri Lanka One House at a Time The tsunami left us all feeling powerless, but the truth is, we can make a difference. Budget Travel Tuesday, Mar 21, 2006, 3:43 PM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


Rebuilding Sri Lanka One House at a Time

The tsunami left us all feeling powerless, but the truth is, we can make a difference.

For days after the tsunami hit Asia, I stood in front of my television, transfixed by tales and images of children being swept from their parents' arms, of elderly men clinging to tree branches until their muscles burned and their fingers went raw, praying for the water to recede before their strength gave out.

Half the world's charities were soliciting donations, but writing a check felt too remote. I wanted to help in a more tangible way, to feel, in some part, the impact of the destruction that I'd been experiencing in my living room via tidy, two-minute news packages. Apparently, I wasn't alone. Dozens of Westerners were flying to the disaster zones to offer themselves up as unpaid relief workers--and being turned away. Unskilled workers were seen as more of a burden than an asset.

When I learned that Baton Rouge-based tour company Global Crossroad had coordinated a working vacation that offered ordinary citizens a chance to build houses for displaced families in Sri Lanka, I was cautiously excited. My only construction experience at that point had been assembling an Ikea dresser, but the cheerful program director assured me that there was plenty of work for unskilled laborers like me.

I was also uneasy about the prospect of a for-profit company earning money from someone else's misfortune. Global Crossroad insisted that it was merely covering costs. Of the $1,100 program fee, $400 went to construction materials, and most of the remainder was earmarked for food, lodging, and ground transportation. Two hundred dollars was applied to administrative expenses, primarily to pay the in-country coordinators. My doubts were somewhat assuaged when I learned that the cost estimate for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit doing a similar project in Sri Lanka, was about the same amount.

Global Crossroad has coordinated volunteer vacations around the world for three years, though its projects, such as teaching disadvantaged children and feeding orphaned elephants, have traditionally been less urgent in nature. After the tsunami, however, the phone rang off the hook with calls from volunteers pleading to be sent to Sri Lanka. Two weeks later, the company launched a house-building project in the town of Galle, on the southwest coast. A hundred and fifty applicants signed up in the first three days. By the time I returned home late last March, the company had arranged reconstruction trips for 600 people.

But wouldn't the $3,000 that you shell out for the flight and the program fee buy a lot more relief than the one or two houses you could help complete in two weeks? In essence, wouldn't it be better just to write the check and skip the trip?

Maybe. "Five dollars can buy so much over there, so it might make more sense to use the money you'd spend on airfare and hotel to help hundreds of people," said Michael Spencer, a public-affairs coordinator for the Red Cross. But by late January 2005, many organizations, including the Red Cross, stopped accepting money for tsunami relief. They said they had enough.

Besides, volunteerism fulfills a different purpose than a cash donation. "If you invest time rather than money, you're being an ambassador," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program. "You're promoting the idea that we're all connected despite our huge cultural barriers."

I arrived in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, 10 weeks after the tsunami. For many outsiders, the devastation had already begun to recede into memory. Along the coastal road that curves from Colombo to Galle, however, reminders of the destruction were rampant: houses that had been reduced to jagged fragments of wall or bleached wooden skeletons; staircases leading to nonexistent second floors; turquoise fishing boats snapped in half.

For all the gutted buildings that lined the road, and all the money that had allegedly been pouring into Sri Lanka, I saw not a single new house going up until we reached the town of Hikkaduwa, two hours from Colombo. Even then, there were only a handful. Locals said it was a planning issue: With so much of the coastline destroyed, the overwhelmed government was busy trying to allocate funds and decide on building sites. Meanwhile, 500,000 people were living in tents, and monsoon season was six weeks away.

Four hours after starting out, we pulled into Galle. At the bus depot, I recognized a statue of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position in a white concrete shrine. I had first seen it on a newscast, a serene orange-robed figure surrounded by rushing water, two young women clinging to one of its knees. Now, people scuttled past it without a glance.

The next afternoon, the 16 members of our project team assembled at our guesthouse, a minty green replica of a Dutch colonial. We ranged in age from 23 to 67; we hailed from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia; and among us were an accountant, a graphic designer, a songwriter, a flight attendant, and a retired business owner. We had all come with different levels of experience: There were a handful of unskilled but well-intentioned people like me, but thankfully, there were also Richard, a retiree from Austin, Tex., who had worked on 12 construction projects around the world; Debbie, from Kansas City, Mo., who ran a remodeling company with her husband; and her son-in-law Greg, a broad-shouldered, 27-year-old ironworker. Some people brought other valuable skills. Caitlin, an avid gardener from New York City, arrived with a suitcase full of organic seed packets, hoping to start a garden for the inhabitants of each new house.

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