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. I few years previous, I'd spent a short time working on a kibbutz (an Israeli communal farming settlement). Apparently, that gave me the agricultural expertise to go from Brooklyn, New York, to a small village in Sri Lanka. I quickly realized the people in my Sri Lankan community had thumbs far greener than mine.

Most of my early days in the community were spent looking for shady spots to sit 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 also went from house to house, speaking in my best Sinhalese, getting to know the villagers and discussing future undertakings.

I was fortunate to be working with members of the Agricultural Development Authority who would drive down to my rocky village in government jeeps and work with me on specific projects. The first project seemed easy. we were to plant rambutan trees. Almost everything would be provided for free and everyone loved this fruit. It’s funny-looking, encased in its red prickly shell, yet underneath it is the most luscious, succulent lychee that melts in your mouth. They were scrumptious and lucrative — the project would be 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, in which to place a young tree. Once all the holes were dug, we would gather donated plants and fertilizer and provide training on how to care for the trees and harvest the fruits. In 10 years, 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, so much tea that sometimes I tossed the brown liquid out when they weren’t looking. I was persistent though, and by the time the supplies arrived, a significant number of people had dug the necessary holes.

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, my cohorts and a lot of villagers dressed in sarongs. We must have 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 frequented the households to see how their trees were growing and, yes, I drank more tea. I enjoyed the chance to get to know the locals better and see the plants sprout up through the years. 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. I’m back in Brooklyn and I 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 have since become. I miss her spirit. Sometimes I long for it.

I oscillate between yearning to return to the village and the need to keep it at a safe distance. Since leaving, I’ve lost both host parents, the country has suffered both 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. Instead, I like my memories of the lush crops resting on the hills between temples. But I often wonder if my time there had any meaning.

But recently, out of the blue, and with the help of technology, my akka posted a picture on my Facebook page. It was a picture of a clear plastic bag holding a pile of crimson fruit. Her message read: “The fruits of your project in the village — rambutan. The trees have grown and bared their fruit and the families enjoy 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 a sweetness and happiness I didn’t think possible. And I realized that perhaps my time there was not for naught. Somehow, in the crowded city I was living in now, among the double-parked cars and endless sirens, I felt a comfort in knowing that in a village near a temple, far across the world, my sisters were enjoying a tasty fruit that we had grown together and that would be there long after we were all gone.

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

Elana Robinowitz the author