It was the most meaningful and rewarding work I’ve ever done.
Bold statement for a man well into his thirties? Perhaps. But I’ll start from the beginning. I received an email from a friend that simply said “What are you doing the first two weeks of February.” Mind you, this was closing in on the last week of January. 48 hours later, a round trip ticket to Colombo, Sri Lanka in my name arrived in my email box.
This friend is Sri Lankan. While she works as a producer in Los Angeles, most notably as head of production for YOMYOMF, Justin Lin of ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise fame’s network, and runs Jeeva Productions, her own production company, creating advertising and publicity campaigns for clients including TheTruth.com and Bedsider.org, Pradeepa Jeeva has made it a point every year to return to her home country to work on some social project to help out the impoverished nation, especially the Northern Province, which was hit extremely hard by a bloody and brutal 30-year civil war that came to an end just 6 years ago. To this day, they are still finding mass graves from the brutal onslaughts brought about by the fighting, and the UN is currently debating when to release its findings in a detailed human rights abuses report. Not to mention, in the middle of all this, the country was hit by the now infamous 2004 tsunami that ravaged the coastal cities throughout the nation. Not surprisingly, amongst the chaos of mother nature and the unforgiving nature of war, the region’s infrastructure was destroyed, and not the least of which being the education system.
The project she flew me out for was based specifically around this.
My first 24 hours in Sri Lanka were spent tuk-tuk’ing around Colombo, the capital city, as I tried to fight jet-lag, a battle I’ve never quite struggled with to this degree before. It might have something to do with the fact that the 16 hour leg of the flight from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi found me squashed in between two people that decided to use my shoulder to prop their heads, leaving me no opportunity for relaxation, let alone sleep. I felt like I was a zombie lurking in a dream for most of my first two days while Pradeepa led me through a hazy tour of town that included my first (of what would be very very many uniquely decorated and equally terrifying) tuk-tuk rides (which I'd quickly realize is the lifeblood of this country - people eat in them, sleep in them, serve food out of them, work in them, and they are the primary source of transportation throughout the island...a terrifying fact on your first one, but something you get quite used to, and, eventually, fond of).
Next stop? A poolside beer and club sandwich at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel because “Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but for the next 12 days you’re going to be eating nothing but Sri Lanka food, so might as well get this while you can,” mojitos at the historic Galle Face Hotel pool bar straddling the Indian Ocean, picking up linen pants and a shirt at the local mall (because the airlines lost my luggage and figured if I was going to be frolicking around Colombo, Sri Lanka, might as well do it in style), brazenly swerving through traffic to get to the rombutan stand on the other side of the street (if you don’t know the fruit…Google it…trust me…worth it!), buttery sushi and sashimi in a private room at Nihonbashi, one of the cosmopolitan city’s premier Japanese food joints, and Scotch neats at the Sky Lounge, overlooking the city, the ocean, and the Sri Lankan capital’s skyline. Yes, we were living it up, and I had nooooooo problem with that, but I would soon understand why she was so intent on "getting it while we can.” As Deepa so eloquently put it, “The next 2 weeks are going to be drastically different.”
The day that I arrived marked less than two weeks that the universally detested President of old was ousted and replaced by a new President that everyone seemed to have hope would bring things back together. He placed a self-imposed ultimatum to begin progress in all sectors of government, including unifying the country’s spirit and split populations as well as instituting constitutional reforms based on an executive cabinet responsible to parliament within 100 days of taking office. One of the first things he did was double the budget for education from an obscenely insulting 6% to a slightly more respectable 12%. Not a bad start.
The even better news here was that $20,000 was allocated by the Ministry of Education to helping build a small studio in a town called Vavuniya in the central Northern Province. The purpose of this studio was to begin recording educational videos based on the country’s curriculum. The idea behind this purpose was to help spread education in a more accessible, interesting, and interactive way to students that have been stifled by an uninterested educational system at best. The reason behind the idea behind the purpose for this studio was that the education system needed a boost - the children needed to be interested - the perpetual cycle of memorize and regurgitate outdated information had been well past tired. A key figure behind the reason behind the idea behind this purpose was one Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam.
Ethirveerasingam came to fame in Sri Lanka in the mid-1950s when he became the first Sri Lankan to compete in the Olympics in 1952 and 1956, and the first Sri Lankan to medal in the Asian Games, winning gold in 1958. He is a native to the Northern Province and has made it his life’s work to reform the education system to break that perpetual cycle that was was more adept at creating fighters and laborers than educated children with a wide-open and limitless future. He was so dedicated that he found himself literally hopping through trenches to collect information from schools during the height of the war.
This was the man we’d be traveling to meet the next morning.
And that is where the next part of story, 3 Weeks In Sri Lanka - Part 2 : Jaffna And The Northern Province, picks up.
Until then, here are a few images from that first hazy jet-lagged half-day in Colombo.
All images and videos for this series of blog posts were shot with a Samsung NX1.
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