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Religious Youth Service

Reflections on Religious Youth Service Experience in Sri Lanka

When I close my eyes, I can still smell the air of Colombo. It was a fantastic experience. I’m so honored to represent all the delegates from Mr. and Miss University and participate in the service project held by Religious Youth Service (RYS) in Sri Lanka.

There is so much to talk about. When I look at the pictures we took during those ten days, I smile. Though those ten days were the toughest days I’ve ever had, I still appreciate the precious experience. Before I readjust to civilization, I’d like to share the whole story.

Our first project was held in a remote mountain village called Hunnasgiriya. Our mission was to build a reading room that would serve as library for village children. The second part of the project took place during the last four days in the capital city, Colombo. As campus ambassadors promoting one global family, we had several intense meetings with present and former governors and local media representatives.

As I write this reflection, my heart is filled with appreciation and joy. During the project in Sri Lanka, I had no time and strength to look back. Every day we had work and classes. Under extremely unexpected environments, I tried my best to adjust to the pace of the local people. It was very hard for me. I’ve been to more than 30 countries, and I never experienced culture shock before. However, this trip was totally overwhelming. Before I went, I printed out more than 40 pages of information about Sri Lanka. But only when I personally lived there did I realize how great and uneasy our missions are. This service project was longer and more difficult than the one we did in Korea.

I arrived from Taiwan at Sri Lanka International Airport with Midori and Lee (a professional photographer). What welcomed us was humidity and heat. While we were waiting in the airport for Midori to rent a cell phone, several cats walked by us. People are extremely nice and friendly. That was my first impression of Sri Lanka. The airport did not seem busy, and everyone was pretty relaxed, which totally reversed my definition of an "international airport." Instead, the airport looked more like a train station in Taiwan. Fadle (Mr. University of 2003, from Lebanon) told me later that people were surprised when he handed them $100 US to change into local currency.

We finally met our local coordinator, Thillai, and hopped on his van heading for the remote village. The road conditions were unimaginably bad. The van bumped all the way for five or six hours. We stopped at a religious town called Kandy. What came into my first sight was an old man sleeping on the road next to a hotel, covered with a torn sheet. A couple of three-wheeled motorcycles drove madly by us. Many crows called out at dawn.

As our morning milk tea was served in a dark hotel, I started to get to know this mysterious country. Their buildings are low and old. Somehow, there is a religious smell within them. I was enchanted by the beauty of ancient primitiveness. Across the hotel is a river, lined by green trees decorated with colorful lights. Chanting in the temple broke the peace at dawn. I was so fascinated by the beauty of this land.

On the second day, after a few hours of travel we arrived in Hunnasgiriya, I woke up to popular Sri Lankan music. It was so amazing driving along the narrow path viewing all the green mountains with ladder-like tea farms. I started to envy Sri Lanka for its beautiful, unpolluted nature. Right after arriving at the village, with its population of 700 people, we started our opening ceremony and classes.

I met my best friend, Fadle, as well. He had arrived earlier and had already spent one night there. It was so great to see him. The classes were fantastic. However, it was really hard for me to concentrate. There was no minute when my skin was not itchy. All those days I spent lots of time fighting mosquitoes and insects. The heat sapped my will to be active. I felt sleepy and uncomfortable. I had never been to a place without air-conditioning in cars or houses. I felt I could not breathe at all. We had a couple of breaks to drink hot milk tea and get to know people. The heat and humidity made me so sick.

The food culture was a greater shock. In Chinese culture, we are told never to use hands for eating. My parents always forced me to wash hands with soap before eating. However, Sri Lankan people use their hands to eat. Since we were in a village, the water supply was not abundant, so we washed our cups and plates in a container instead of in running water. The running water is not only unclear but you can’t even see through it. When I saw people eating food with their hands, I just couldn’t eat. After trying those spicy dishes, I had no appetite at all. We tried to eat but it was way too spicy. They even add pepper to pineapple. During that week, I ate Fadle’s Lebanese bread and cheese. So we decided to apportion his food over seven days, so we would both have something to eat.

The first night we had no chance to take a shower. I felt so dirty and desired a shower so badly. The second day we had no water supply. I had not taken a shower for three days. This experience made me realize how convenient my life used to be. By the third day, I could take a shower but only outside. I didn’t know what to say when I realized I would have to shower in the jungle in a stall without a door and use muddy water. Every day a different situation happened. The first day there was no time to take a shower, the second day there was no running water, the third day there was no electricity, and the fourth day the door broke.

This was totally another world for me. I wanted to call home, but there was no phone available until the fifth day, when Thillai drove Fadle and me downtown to make calls. It was a release for me. My heart was down in a pit every day when I faced such unexpected circumstances. However, I have to thank Midori, who encouraged me every day and gave me some Korean cookies every day for breakfast, and Fadle, who always give me his shoulders to cry on.

The people who participated in the project were from Sri Lanka and India. They're never stingy about sharing their beautiful smiles with people. Every morning we had meditation from a different religion. That broadened my vision, and I realized that every religion is unique and ought to be respected.

The second through the fourth days were the toughest for me. We carried the bricks and sand to build the library. I never worked like a laborer in my whole life, but this time I tried. It was hard in the extremely hot weather. People worked really hard, and that encouraged me to push myself to my limits.

Through working together, we found ourselves forming a little global family. This deepened our friendship into a brotherhood and sisterhood. The people of Sri Lanka have much darker skins. Through working together and breaking up into several groups for discussion sessions, I found I enjoyed working with them and having fun with each other. Although we spoke with different accents, we still had lots of fun during the culture night.

During these days I got to know people’s political and economic difficulties. We discussed ways to solve the disorder of this nation. We lived together, laughed together, sang together and danced together. This enabled me to humble myself and get involved in this great atmosphere.

I truly love the way the Sri Lankan kids smile. When we were working or discussing, kids always came to watch us. They stared at us with their innocent round eyes and smiled at us with whole-hearted friendliness. I always got lost in their beautiful smiles, but at the same time I worried about those kids’ future. I hope they can get a better education and better quality of life. What I experienced was their daily life. It was a torture to my heart to see how they live and eat. I believe I’m a strong girl, but I still cried during my stay in that remote village.

Those kids had never seen a camera. They asked us for pictures all the time. Some even brought us beautiful flowers just to ask us to take a photo.

The third day I cried, partly because I had diarrhea that morning and partly because I felt sorrowful for people living in this village. Fadle let me cry on his shoulder and encouraged me to stand up again. With his caring words I felt I was not alone. He was always like a brother to me, taking care of me and making me laugh. His company made my trip so much fun, and I learned so much from him.

I remember one day we walked around the village, and suddenly the rain poured down. Fadle and I were welcomed by a village family with their friendly smiles. One lady tried to talk to us as she pointed to the sarcoma on her face. At the same time she gave us 10 rupees (around 10 cents in USD), which is a lot of money for them, asking for our help to cure her sarcoma. Her helpless eyes still stay in my heart. I’ll never forget that scene. We went back to ask one of our project leaders, Dr. Chula, to help. During these days we experienced what others might never have the chance to experience.

One day when we were driving downtown to make calls, I saw a car coming toward us with the sign "Jesus loves you" on it. Suddenly I was so happy that I was not alone even in this primitive remote village. God is still with me. Especially in this country that is 80 percent Buddhist, God’s words still come this far into this seemingly forgotten village. I suddenly felt that God is so great! I couldn’t help but cry out, "Yes! That’s right."

Another challenge was to walk in the dark. There was no light on the way back to the girls’ residence. I had never been to a place without light at all. It was scary to walk back at night, even with more than ten people. One night Fadle walked me back. It was 15 minutes walking in the path of darkness. Even worse, I had forgotten to bring the key. So we stayed outside for more than 30 minutes in the jungle with neighbor dogs barking the entire time. I’ll never forget how frightened I was, trembling in the dark.

Things got better during the last few days. I feel surprised at how well our body adapts to the environment. Lee made us some chopsticks, and we got some instant noodles from downtown. At the same time, I felt horribly sorry that all the Sri Lankan people saw us eat our own food instead of sharing their food with them. They worried about our health as well.

On the fifth day, we had an exciting field trip. Everyone was so excited, but I was scared, because there were no seat belts on the bus. The way people drive is so crazy. The only rule there is to break the rule. People’s only goal is to pass the car in front of them, and they pass one another again and again till they reach their destination.

People honk all the time when they drive on the mountain path. They honk to warn cars coming from the opposite direction. At the same time, they sang and danced all the way in the bus. Some people always hung onto the bus door, even when on extremely dangerous, winding roads. With the hot sun, bus honking, Sri Lankans dancing and singing to pop Indian songs from radio, our journey was never lonely.

We hiked to a beautiful waterfall and swam there. Midori and Lee took a dip in the water. Fadle and I washed each other’s hair. The beauty of the waterfall was breathtaking. However, two people from our group almost drowned. We also discovered that the river has leeches. We visited a temple as well. We were always seeking cold drinks. All these episodes weave the most unforgettable memories.

After our field trip we had one more day of leadership training, and then we left for a beautiful village on the road toward Colombo. We visited a famous and well-respected religious leader of Sri Lanka and had the most delicious meal of fried chicken. After one week without feeling full, we were satisfied. We saw televisions again. How familiar and distant everything felt! I somehow understood why those village kids were curious about our cameras.

After four hours of driving, we arrived at Colombo. I was kind of depressed because the outskirts of the city are old and dirty. However, when we got into the center of Colombo, I had to admit that it is such a beautiful city. It has the best beach and luxury hotels around. We stayed in an apartment called Hilton Residence with a swimming pool and great facilities. It was so unbelievable after spending a week in an extremely primitive village. We jumped into the water right away.

Then we met with the prime minister, the former prime minister, and the mayors of Colombo and Hitawali. We also met some governors at a formal afternoon tea and meal. The remaining four days we had interviews with newspaper (The Observer, Sunday News, etc.), radio stations, and television. We had more than eight interviews one day.

We barely had time to see this beautiful, sophisticated city. However, Fadle and I stayed one day in South Beach-Hikkaduwa, which is close to Maldives. It is the best beach. We spent the whole morning on the beach and had a seafood lunch on the beach, watching the white sands, coconut trees, blue sea, and pure sky. In the afternoon we took a boat to see all kinds of fish. It was so relaxing and gave my trip a beautiful ending.

I was so tired every day, but each day was so special and precious. I have to thank the Mr. and Miss University International program for giving me this chance to go to Sri Lanka. I learned a lot. Now I feel satisfied with what I have. I will never be picky about food any more. I am starting to view things with a different perspective. There are too many people to thank for this whole trip.

After this, I am determined to continue my mission as a global peace ambassador forever. It is what I believe in, and I am going to work on it for the future. There is still too much to learn. I will never stop learning and promoting the realization of one global family. This great experience I will never forget, and I will continue to transmit this great idea to every corner of the world.

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