Sweet memories of helping plant trees in Sri Lanka came flooding back

Peace Corps Volunteers with village elders
By Elana Rabinowitz
March 13, 2019

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.

The second best time is now.

Chinese proverb

Special to The Times

Originally published March 4, 2016 at 5:01 pm

TWENTY years ago, I was wearing hand-sewn floral dresses and working as an agricultural volunteer in Pilikuththuwa, Sri Lanka. My short stint working on a kibbutz (an Israeli communal farming settlement) a few years before gave me the expertise to go from Brooklyn, New York, to a small village in Sri Lanka. I quickly realized their thumbs were far greener than mine.

Most days I spent looking for shady spots and drinking hot tea with fresh pieces of ginger floating on top, often drowned in heaping teaspoons of sugar or doused with powdered milk. I went from house to house, speaking in my best Sinhalese, getting to know the villagers and discuss future undertakings. Aside from small gardening projects, I was gearing up for the village-wide one — how hard could it be?

I was fortunate to be working with members of the Agricultural Development Authority. They would drive down to my rocky village in government jeeps and worked with me on specific projects. This one seemed easy; almost everything would be provided for free and everyone loved this fruit — rambutan. It’s a funny-looking fruit, encased in a red prickly shell, yet underneath it is the most luscious, succulent lychee that melts in your mouth. They were scrumptious and lucrative — a good investment for the village in years to come.

Students in Pilikuthutuwa
Students in Pilikuththuwa
Host Sisters
Peace Corps Volunteer's host sisters (and their young cousin)

I was more the public relations side of the operation. My job was to meet with the villagers and have them dig a large hole of specific dimensions to place a young tree. Once completed, we would donate the plants, fertilizer and training. Then in 10 years’ time, the trees would bear fruit to be eaten or sold.

What I didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to get the villagers to dig the holes. I spent months drinking more tea with them than seeing progress, sometimes tossing out the brown liquid when they weren’t looking. I was persistent though, and a significant number of people dug the opening and we were ready to begin.

To mark the occasion, I wore a special red frock that my akka, or older sister, had made for me. We had a big gala in front of the temple where I helped plant the first tree. No paparazzi, just me and my cohorts and a lot of villagers dressed in sarongs. We must’ve given out a hundred plants that day and it felt honorable — not life changing, but good nevertheless.

Villagers preparing their plot to plant Rambutan
Villagers preparing their plot for Rambutan

Throughout my two years of service, I would frequent the households to see how their trees were growing and, yes, I would have more tea. I enjoyed the chance to get to know the locals better as well as see the plants sprout up through the years. Yet knowing I wouldn’t be there to see the fuzzy little fruits blossom made me feel sad as if the project were incomplete. I left when they were only a few feet high.

Twenty years is a long time ago. I’m back in Brooklyn and spend little time outdoors working with the earth. I drink more coffee than tea and my time in Southeast Asia has become a distant memory. It’s hard to believe I was once that young adventurous woman. She was more confident and hopeful than the cynical homeowner I am now. I miss her spirit. Sometimes I long for it.

I oscillate between yearning to return to the village and the need to keep it in a safe distance. Since leaving, I’ve lost both host parents, the country has suffered wars and a life-changing tsunami. I like to remember it as it was and not what it may have become. I don’t want to see all the Internet cafes — I like the image of the lush crops resting on the hills of temples. But I often wonder if my time there had any meaning.

And then, out of the blue with the help of technology, my akka posted a picture on my Facebook page. There was a clear plastic bag and placed on it was a pile of the crimson fruit. Her message read: “The fruits of your project in the village — rambutan, the trees had grown, and bared their fruit and the families were enjoying them — plucked from the trees.”

Apparently my eldest “sister” wanted to let me know that after all this time, my fruit trees had grown.

Just like the fruit itself, I was filled with sweetness and happiness in such a way I didn’t think possible — that perhaps my time there was not for naught. Somehow in the crowded city I was living now, among the double-parked cars and endless sirens, there was a comfort in knowing that in a village near a temple, my sisters were gathering around, enjoying a tasty fruit that we had grown together and that would be there long after we were all gone.

I knew the world was not as simple as drinking tea and planting trees. Or maybe, just maybe, it was?

Elana Robinowitz the author

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