Sandwiched between two long flights on Cathay Pacific was a trip in Sri Lanka. It was not quite a vacation; it was a mission. I had founded a club called Books Over Seas to send gently used textbooks to Sri Lanka. In this first year of existence, Books Over Seas collected 812 books and shipped them. Now we had to make sure they were distributed properly. So, my dad and I followed the forty-four boxes to Sri Lanka.
The trip was fantastic but sadly brief. We saw as much family as we could while on our mission. All the babies and toddlers had changed so drastically since the last visit and the elder generation seemed to have suddenly gotten old. I tried to make every minute a moment to memorize faces and make vivid memories, keeping in mind that we were there for a specific purpose with only two and a half short weeks to do it.
Inspiringly, my entire family came together to help with my project. Amidst vicious mosquitoes and merciless humidity, we personally presented most of the books to seventeen different schools and left the rest to be distributed by the Ministry of Education. Only their dedication enabled us to meet those principals and donate the books: an uncle gave up his spacious living room to house books, cousins missed work to chauffeur us around, and aunts gave up free time to sort books into piles by school. Even my cousin’s four-year-old daughter helped stamp the books.
The days followed a basic formula: wake up early, tie up the mosquito net, shower watching the ants and one orange gecko crawl on the walls, eat breakfast, call the schools, make an appointment or three, pack books into boxes, pile into a van or car, meet the principal, present the books, explain the club, dodge the sporadic downpours, take a picture or twenty-three (for our website), look at the library, go home, visit family, occasionally make a fort out of the empty book boxes, throw in lunch and dinner, put down the mosquito net, sleep. Begin again.
When there were no appointments, we broke the pattern; once we went hiking in Singharajah (a forest) to explore the village of Wathugala – taking a bus and then a three-wheeler to the edge of the forest and then, loaded with clothes, gasoline, and yelling children, we hiked three miles to the Forest Department’s circuit bungalow, where we spent the night. The breathtaking landscape was stereotypically tropical, with leafy green foliage, cool, clear rivers, and creeping, bloodthirsty leeches.
But I digress. The books were the trip’s main focus. Unfortunately, the meetings became tedious, and if the principals were less than enthusiastic about the books I felt momentarily disappointed after all the hard work we had put in. Then there would be the grateful principal who praises how helpful these books will be and how much he looks forward to hearing from us in the future (like Zahira College’s principal) and there would be the quiet librarians whose faces lit up in appreciation for the opportunities that opened up for their students (like Ananda College’s librarians). Those smiles made the long flights bearable, the bug bites (seven on my left foot, four on my right, thirteen on my arms, and one on my back) less torturous, the heat not quite as humid, and the stress of collecting books (“Can we get any books?”) insignificant.
By the last day, I had seen family, explored my ancestor’s history in that old village, and changed some lives. I would definitely do it all over again.
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