Friday, September 27, 2013

Wasserman Family Adventures with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Sian, Sam, Scarlet, Rob, Jamie, Izzy & Siriya at the Temple
August 2013 my husband and I and our 3 kids, Sam 15, Izzi 13 and Scarlett 10, spent a week volunteering with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society.  We had no idea what to expect and, unlike many people who volunteer with SLWCS, we didn’t have a personal project we were working on.  I have a love of elephants and, since we were planning on travelling around Sri Lanka, we decided that volunteering at the field house would be a great way to do something useful and also to learn more about the elephant -human conflicts in Sri Lanka.

I love elephants
When we arrived in Sri Lanka, the field house was our first destination.  Chinthika met us at our hotel in Colombo and informed us that we would be traveling for several hours on the bus and then be met by the Land Rover.  We are seasoned bus travellers so we didn’t mind that at all.  We all actually quite like traveling by bus but even though I made this really clear to Chinthika he still seemed a bit uneasy.  It was when we got on the Lanka Ashok Leyland that Chinthika’s apprehension started to make sense. 

An obnoxious and road grabbing Ashok Leyland bus
If you have never had the pleasure of taking one of these buses it is a thrill not to be missed.  Being the largest vehicle on the road gives these drivers a right of way that they use to their horn-honking advantage.   Amusement park rides are tame compared to how these guys maneuver.  I was happy whenever we hit traffic because at least the driver was forced to slow down even if he was doing his best to drive through whomever or whatever was in our way.  And did I mention the ear splitting soundtrack that adds to the frenetic nature of the situation? 

The commanding view from the driving seat
When we finally arrived in the field house the adorable little scope owl Amarasena, who we knew as Eddy (but later learned it was actually AD, the initials of the person it was named after), greeted us.  As soon as I walked into the building Eddy flew onto my head and made himself comfortable in my hair.  I think he thought I was hiding food.  And perhaps I unwittingly was! 

Eddie (AD) digging for food in my hair - good thing I have a thick skull
Eddy alone was worth the trip to Sri Lanka.  To say we all fell in love with him is an understatement.  Eddy’s well being quickly became one of our major concerns.  When travelling with kids it is always helpful when there are animals about.  It was with great relief that we discovered that the field house had not only Eddy, but also 2 little kittens, and a cat named Useless. 

Eddie was simply adorable

No bigger than an adult's palm but so much character packed into it
Scarlet with Eddie
Izzy with Eddie
Feeding the cats was easy enough. The girls just let them eat from their plates and gave them leftover spicy lentils.  These cats eat everything including the little frogs that hang around the shower.  It took a little time for the girls to get used to snuggling with a cute little kitten who at some point had wiggly frog legs hanging from its mouth.

Useless and Purposeless 
Izzy with the curry and frogs loving kitties

Eddy, on the other hand, was harder to feed.  That task fell to Sian, a lovely young woman from Britain who was shooting a documentary about the human-elephant conflict.  Eddy eats live bugs and geckos.  The gecko population around the field house has shrunk considerably since Eddy’s arrival so the evening hunting sessions were often long and frustrating.  It became all of our preoccupation to look for anything Eddy could eat and when we found an unwitting victim we would then get the intrepid Sian to catch it and feed it to him.  

Sian contemplating her next angle

Hanging out with Eddie
One evening after working ourselves up into a worried frenzy about Eddy’s diet, Sian and I scoured the Internet in search of a solution.  To our great relief, we found a family in England who sold frozen mice to bird and reptile owners.  I had read a book called Wesley the Owl where his owner fed him frozen mice so I was sure this was a great idea.  Never mind that London is worlds away from the field house or that the freezer is not exactly reliable.  The absurdity of the situation became pretty clear when I casually asked if they would deliver to Sri Lanka.  They had never heard of Sri Lanka and after consulting a map assured us that it would never ever work; the ice would melt before the plane even landed.  Not to mention customs and all the other obstacles.  “Don’t they have mice in Sri Lanka?” they asked.   I’m pretty sure they thought we were out of our minds. 

Thankfully Eddy was learning to hunt for himself and spent his nights flying in and out of the field house making little squawks and attempts at hoots.  It was not unusual to wake up in the early morning and find Eddy sitting by your bed, wide eyed and alert.  One morning, Rob was awaken by Eddy perching on one toe and pecking experimentally at another.    

It was because of Eddy’s nocturnal meanderings that we all decided not to use our ceiling fans.  Even though it was stifling hot and the noise of the swirling blades masked all the snoring and sleep talking and nightmares etc. no one wanted to be responsible for the accidental demise of this adorable little creature.

For us the field house experience had 3 distinct layers that occurred simultaneously. There was the physical experience of living in the field house, the emotional experience of building relationships with the people who were also living there, and the volunteer work experience. All of these layers were deeply entwined and worked together to create one of the greatest weeks we have ever spent during our extensive travels.   

The Field House with the Knuckles Mountains in the Distance
Making new friends
Sam and Siriya practicing for the Jungle Philharmonic

Celebrating new friendships
Working in Siriya's Mung cultivation

Lizz, Sian and one of Useless' friends
Physically, the field house is pretty basic.  There are 5 separate bedrooms with a variety of mosquito net-covered single beds and the afore-mentioned overhead fans.  The floors are cement and there are no real walls to speak of.  Cloth hangings serve as room dividers, which is significant because in essence you are never really alone.  For privacy loving people that may sound like a bad thing, but as it turned out the constant togetherness forced us into an intimacy with each other that was profoundly nice.  We became like an extended family in a matter of days.

Beds with mosquito nets
Our volunteer experience was really a mixture of the greatest hits of things to do with SLWCS with every day being a new adventure. We, and by we I mean Rob and Sam for the most part, picked mung beans with Syria, we woke up early to watch the sunrise, we gathered garbage from around the field house, and we helped move rocks for a construction project at the temple, to mention just a few. In the interest of brevity I will describe the three things that stand out as really special.  That is not to say there were only three, but that these seem worthy of special mention.

The rising sun

On the Sun Rise Rock

Starting the day by watching the sun rise

Picking Mung

A bumper harvest brings a smile to the hardworking farm hands faces

A bag mung is a joyous occasion
Rob carrying a bag a Mung

The Mung picking team heading back to the field house
A tea break at the Temple

Sam and Rob cleaning the Temple

The Chief Priest looks critically as Rob cleans up the temple

Sam wheeling away rubble at the Temple
One afternoon when we were watching elephants at the tank, a small herd of 9 or 10 elephants came out of the bush.   It was a mixed group of bulls and females with babies in tow.  They noticed us as we were a pretty big group and they appeared to   find us an obstacle on their path to the water because they stopped quite short of the tank.  After several minutes of shuffling around and bumping into each other like elephants do, I noticed 2 elephants chatting to each other.  It seemed very cute to me as they really looked like they were having a friendly but intense conversation. I pointed it out to Chinthika who casually informed me that he had been watching them and he was pretty sure they were discussing which one of us they would attack first.  Just at that moment their ears went up, they stopped talking and stared directly at us.  Chinthika quietly and calm as a cucumber told me to move very slowly to the truck.  What?  I slowly stood up and my life, my family’s life, flashed before my eyes.  I had read of the elephant attacks in the SLWCS blog and I did not want to add another one.  Luckily when I moved I made a rustling noise because of the leaves I had been sitting on and one of the babies got spooked and ran in the other direction.  Thankfully the whole herd followed and we were safe.  I gave Chinthika a dirty look and asked him to give us a heads up the next time he knew we were the topic of elephant conversation.  He just laughed.  I guess when you work with wild elephants all the time that was not considered a close call but for me it is as close as I ever want to get.

Waiting by the tank for elephants
Elephants arrive to feed and drink at the tank

A herd feeding at the tank

Izzy contemplating her fortune
Two elephants having a chit chat whether to charge us
The next amazing elephant encounter was at the national park.  We went one afternoon for a safari and after seeing many lone elephants, one with a bullet hole in his trunk, we came upon a raucous party of bulls.  There must have been 20 of them frolicking and wrestling in the pond.  It was one of the most spectacular sights we have ever seen.  They were having the greatest time together.  They were absolutely hilarious in their antics.  It had begun to pour rain after a log dry spell perhaps that is why they were so joyous. We were fortunate to be able to watch them for a good 20 minutes before they took their “bachelor party” to another location crossing the road just feet in front of our truck. Chinthika kept telling us how lucky we were to see such a thing.  He said he had seen these many bulls elephants together maybe once before.  We certainly felt lucky.

The bull with a bullet hole in its trunk
A bull with a cool and casual pose
Feeding in the salad bowl
 The boys day out

That feels soooo good!
But of all the wonderful opportunities we had, the most transformative was for my daughters.  Izzi was very interested in helping by teaching kids English.   Though it was summer vacation for the village children, Veroni was able to pull together about 15 kids and Izzi met them in the school at the temple.  I had never really seen this side of my daughter.  It was as if she had been doing this all her life.  She was shameless and comfortable singing at the top of her lungs and dancing around to show the kids what different words meant.  She taught them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and the alphabet song.  They played “Red Light / Green Light” outside and they all had a great time.  The next day Scarlett went with her and twice as many children showed up.  Izzi and Scarlett were deeply inspired by the kids and are planning on going back next summer with a larger group of their friends.  It was a really amazing and bonding experience for tall the kids.

Izzy having the time of her life

Scarlet with a friend

The Class of August 2013

Scarlet, Sam and Izzy making a difference where it matters

The other unforgettable and quietly consistent event that occurred 3 times a day were the amazing meals prepared by Leila.  I loved to hang around the kitchen and watch her skillful hands prepare complicated dishes and make it look easy! She is a wizard cooking over a wood fire.

Leilawathie preparing a dish
Something spicy and good is cooking in there
 We sincerely want to thank each and everyone who made this experience so special; Sian and Alex, the other volunteers, Chinthika, Sampath, Syria, Leila, Eddy (AD), Sebastian, Princess, Useless, and, of course, Ravi!

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