this is sri lanka at its best

There’s a moment of absolute stillness – the battered football whizzing through the air, all eyes following it, before it smashes against the window and tiny gasps escape from the little mouths. Fortunately, it rolls away, leaving the glass and the enclosed Buddha statue unscathed.

We’re playing football on a dusty, sunny escarpment with a group of farm kids, and in the midst of the excitement, I nearly destroy the village’s religious relic. But the game continues, with limbs flying all over the place, toes (mine) getting stomped on, and the ball continuing to fly skyward.

We are here to meet some of the approximately 30 children who are part of Classroom in the Wild, a community outreach project launched in 2014 by Chamintha and Rajindra Jayasinghe, founders of Ayu in the Wild Holidays, to create opportunities for Sri Lankan children. most disconnected communities.

Children have learned to coexist in rural areas with elephants

For these children, lack of access to learning English has stifled their progress, and for many, joining their parents to work the land will be their only viable option. We meet them at their school – a hut accessible by a single road through the rice fields, about six kilometers from the world heritage site of Sigiriya. It’s a wild and inaccessible area that requires up to four buses and a tuk-tuk ride, which has led some teachers to refuse to come.

The journey is long, although we stay quite close, but the rewards are great and it leads to one of the most rewarding experiences we have had on our family vacation. There’s a lot of laughter and shyness at first, even from our own children (Seb, eight, and Jemima, four), but there’s room for word games, and then ice cream. is well and truly broken when you start playing football.

There are bursts of conversation between games and we learn that the children are mainly from families who grow vegetables and work in the rice fields; that they have learned to coexist in this rural environment with elephants (the children live in a community where human-elephant conflicts are rife); and that their lessons continued during the pandemic – every Saturday morning they logged onto a single smartphone for an online lesson.

As we leave, Sithumi, 14, stands up in front of the class and in impeccable English tells us how much they enjoyed the day and asks us to come back.

Chamintha first met the children while traveling with her husband and saw them playing cricket with a deflated soccer ball. She says visiting the school remains one of their most sought-after experiences, and it’s easy to see why – it gives us the opportunity to really connect with a local community and have a insight into their lives in a way that would be nearly impossible within the confines of a hotel or while visiting tourist attractions. In addition to supporting weekly spoken English lessons by fully funding the teacher and lesson planning, Ayu in the Wild employs a naturalist who regularly hosts Traveler Talks to build children’s vocabulary and confidence in speaking with friends. strangers.

Tourism is as vital to the island’s economy as cricket is to the island’s spirit

Chamintha Jayasinghe, Class in the Wild

“We believe that tourism should be a catalyst for inclusive development. Classroom in the Wild connects disconnected rural communities,” says Chamintha.

“Before Covid-19, Sri Lanka was heading towards over-tourism. This project showcases the value of small-scale immersive tourism and the emotional and intellectual impact on customers. We believe children can be the greatest advocates for change,” she adds.

The philosophy of Ayu in the Wild Holidays is community tourism, and from the moment we land at Colombo airport and meet our guide, Dhanu, we know this will be a trip where we see a different Sri Lanka, and why at this moment which is more important than ever. We arrive when it is relatively calm and peaceful, but the country is in turmoil, having defaulted on its debts for the first time in its history, as it grapples with a devastating economic and political crisis. This is against the backdrop of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2019 Easter bombings and the pandemic, all of which have ravaged the country’s tourism industry.

We still decide to travel and arrive in the early morning hours of late May 2022. Heavy rain hits the roof of the van as we turn off the main road and take what appears to be a dirt road. On the other side is the veranda of the Wallawwa, a restored 200-year-old mansion between Negombo and Colombo. We are handed freshly squeezed lychee juice and immediately forget any worry we had felt hours earlier as we received the warmest of welcomes, everyone telling us how grateful they are that tourists are still coming to the country.

“Tourism is as vital to the island’s economy as cricket is to the island’s spirit,” says Chamintha.

“In December last year, tourism rebounded phenomenally with the end of the pandemic, and this is the kind of welcome that a visitor will receive, with guides, drivers, experienced hosts and vendors always smiling locals – always welcoming, despite reeling from the soaring cost of living and a loss of income. We are a pretty resilient group,” she adds.

At Wallawwa we see this resilience firsthand, with the staff making our stay comfortable despite national unrest. There’s a beautifully manicured jungle pool hidden among mango and weeping fig trees, and the hotel grows much of its produce in its vegetable garden, with water for guest showers pumped from wells in the garden and from solar energy in use.

The first evening, amidst a din of insects and birds, the children play boules on the green, and we feast on black pork and sweet, sticky prawns; colorful jackfruit and eggplant curries; fragrant dhal and cheesecake with rosewater and tamarind sorbet. The food is delicious. After dinner, Neil, the manager, teaches us how to play carrom, a board game in which players throw discs into the corners of the board. “Concentrate,” he said, just before my husband hit the little wooden disc, sending him ping-ponging across the cedar plank, missing his target.

We travel through Sri Lanka with our guide Dhanu and driver Eddie – who combine enthusiasm, knowledge and such warmth towards our children that they feel like family by the end of the trip.

What was the biggest adrenaline rush of the party was a constant source of debate: was it the windswept dawn ascent to Sigiriya Rock; giant fruit bats hanging from trees in Kandy; sustainable wild elephant safari; snorkel along a coral reef in warm bathwater seas; or a mountain trail view of a crested serpent eagle taking off and cruising in thermals through the valleys of tea fields below?

Between breathtaking encounters with nature, we catch our breath with a four-day stopover at the Uga Bay hotel in Pasikuda (studios from £130 a night) – on the east coast of the island – and have a holiday in the holidays. The hotel is larger than other places we’ve stayed, with its rooms arranged in an arc facing the pristine, white beach, but there’s an underlying commitment to the local environment and their communities. Water filling stations are placed around the property to reduce plastic waste; solar panels are used; the hotel is geared towards working only with ethical whale-watching companies that approach whales and dolphins responsibly; and it announced its commitment to integrating more women into its workforce.

There’s a similar ethos on the final leg of our trip to Living Heritage Koslanda (forest lodge chalets from £195 a night), a hotel in a wooded valley with its own waterfall and vegetable gardens, which employs mostly locals , most of whom are women. The hotel was initially the vision of Sri Lankan director Manik Sandrasagara, who dreamed of creating an eco-resort in “one of the most sacred and secret places on planet Earth” while protecting its natural biodiversity. The hotel was completed by his wife Lucy in 2012, four years after his death.

“The last few years have been incredibly difficult, but despite everything, we have pursued Manik’s dream, and what we have is something completely unique,” ​​says Lucy. “It’s a place like no other.”

In the span of two weeks, we feel like we’ve packed about four different, breathtaking vacations in their own climates. We are already leaving by mapping out the elements we would like to see more of when we return, and this has alerted us to the importance of traveling with tour operators that have the community at the forefront, reinforcing a sense of cultural identity and providing opportunities for sustainable development.

The trip was provided by Ayu in the Wild. Please check the UK government website for the latest Sri Lanka travel advice.

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