Nearly three decades ago, I entered the village of Kaluwawalatenna in the Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my early 40s.
It was nerve racking climbing the dirt path leading up the mountain into a relatively new community that was settled into a former rubber plantation. It was a remote village with one small kade (boutique). That’s where I hung out with my backpack filled with personal belongings wondering what to do. The government sponsor from the Rural Development Authority didn’t show up (he literally never came to the village) to assist me in finding a place to live. *
A wonderful man (about 10 years my senior) approached me and offered his assistance. Barely out of infancy with the Sinhala language, we half-signed our agreement that I could live with him and his family until I was able to procure independent living. Thus began my relationship with the Nandasena family; he becoming my aiya (older brother) and mentor. They tapped rubber and smoked it into sheets, a rather dirty and smelly operation. Next to the smoke house was the family well, where bathing and all water-related tasks were performed. A large cement circular affair, it was required for one to lean over the rim to lower a bucket tied with a rather thick rubber cord (about one-half an inch square in shape) to retrieve water from the deep cistern. The cord was an unruly snaky beast that had a mind of its own, unlike say, a rope. For my first attempt at bathing, I put my soap dish and glasses on the rim of the well; subsequently, the rubber snake saw fit to grab both my spectacles and soap and deposit them to the bottom of the well as I was gingerly lowering the bucket. Nandasena somehow rescued both items for me while I was ashamedly pouting in my room.
It was decided that I would go to a ground spring in the future with other villagers to bathe. The water bubbled up out of the ground into a rather shallow pool that then streamed downhill. Everyone patiently waited their turn. The standard procedure was to wear a sarong secured by one’s teeth while pouring bucketed water over the top of one’s body. Then, onto quickly soaping inside the sarong to keep modestly covered in the company of nearly the entire village; rinse and done. It was finally my turn. I inserted my sarong into my mandibular vice and proceeded to pour the first bucket full of – ICE WATER – over my head. The shock loosened my dental grip and the sarong dropped earthbound as did my pride, status, manhood and well, frankly, honor.
I cherish my memories of those days in the village and was especially proud when many of the villagers came to bless my Battaramulla rental home (owned by A.T. Ariyaratne’s daughter, Dr. Charika; he, of course is the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, which I proudly brought to that village) in 1995.
*While bathing methods may not have changed in rural areas since the 1980s, Peace Corps housing policies and practices have. Peace Corps Sri Lanka carefully screens and trains host families, and inspects houses to ensure compliance with health and safety and security standards.