There is a moment of absolute silence – the battered soccer ball whizzes through the air, all eyes following it, before crashing into the glass case and small sobs escape from small mouths. Fortunately, it rolls off, leaving the glass and encased Buddha statue unharmed.
We play soccer on a dusty, sun-drenched hillside with a group of farm kids, and in the midst of the excitement, I almost destroy the village’s religious relic. But the game goes on, with limbs flying all over the place, toes (mine) being stomped on, and the soccer ball continuing to fly skyward.
We are here to meet some of the 30 or so children who are part of Classroom in the Wild, a community project started in 2014 by Chamintha and Rajindra Jayasinghe, founders of Ayu in the Wild Holidays, to create opportunities for children in Sri Lanka’s most disconnected communities.
The children have learned to live with elephants in the rural environment
For these children, the lack of access to learning English has hindered their progress, and for many of them, working in the fields with their parents will be their only viable option. We meet them at their school – a hut accessed by a single road through rice paddies, about four miles from the Sigiriya World Heritage Site. It’s a wild, inaccessible area that takes up to four buses and a tuk-tuk ride to get to, which has led some teachers to refuse to come.
The journey is long, even though we stay fairly close, but the rewards are great and it leads to one of the most enriching experiences we have on our family vacation. There’s a lot of giggling and embarrassment at first, even from our own kids (Seb, eight, and Jemima, four), but there’s an opportunity to play some word games, and then the ice is really broken when we start playing soccer.
In between games, conversations erupt and we learn that the children mainly come from families that grow vegetables and work in the rice fields; that they have learned how to live with elephants in this rural environment (the children live in a community where human-elephant conflicts are rife); and that their classes continued during the pandemic – each Saturday morning, they logged into just one smartphone for an online class.
As we leave, Sithumi, 14, stands at the front of the class and tells us in impeccable English how much they enjoyed the day, asking us to come back again.
Chamintha first encountered the children while traveling with her husband and saw them playing cricket with a deflated football. She says visiting the school remains one of their most sought-after experiences, and the reasons are easy to understand – it gives us the chance to really connect with a local community and gain insight into their lives in a way that would do. are almost impossible in the confines of a hotel or when visiting tourist attractions. In addition to supporting the weekly spoken English lessons by fully funding the teacher and lesson planning, Ayu in the Wild employs a naturalist who organizes regular discussions between travelers to develop the children’s vocabulary and confidence in speaking with foreigners.
Tourism is as important 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 on a path to overtourism. This project shows the value of small-scale immersive tourism and the emotional and intellectual impact on guests. We believe that children can be the greatest advocates for change,” she added.
The ethos 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 will see a different Sri Lanka, and why right now is more important than ever. We arrive when things are relatively peaceful and calm, but the country is in turmoil, failing to pay its debts for the first time in its history, as it grapples with a devastating economic and political crisis. This comes against the backdrop of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2019 Easter bombings and the pandemic, all of which ravaged the country’s tourism industry.
We still decide to travel and arrive late May 2022 in the early morning hours. Heavy rain pounds on the roof of the van as we turn off the main road and onto what appears to be a dirt road. On the other side is the porch of the Wallawwa, a restored 200 year old mansion between Negombo and Colombo. We are given freshly squeezed lychee juice and instantly forget all the fear we had felt just hours earlier as we are warmly welcomed with everyone telling us how grateful they are that tourists are still coming to the country.
“Tourism is as important to the island’s economy as cricket is to the island’s spirit,” says Chamintha.
“In December last year, tourism recovered phenomenally with the end of the pandemic, and that is the kind of welcome that will greet a visitor, with hard-working guides, drivers, experience hosts and local vendors still smiling – still welcoming, wavering despite of the rising cost of living and a loss of income. We’re a pretty resilient bunch,” she adds.
At the Wallawwa, we see this resilience first hand, with the staff making our stay comfortable despite the national unrest. There’s a beautifully maintained jungle pool hidden among mango and weeping fig trees, and the hotel grows many of its produce in its vegetable garden, with water for guests’ showers pumped from the garden’s springs and solar energy used.
On our first evening, amidst a din of insects and birds, the children play pétanque on the green, and we feast on black pork and sweet, sticky prawns; colorful jackfruit and eggplant curries; fragrant dhal and cheesecake with rose water and tamarind sorbet. The food is great. After dinner, Neil, the manager, teaches us how to play carrom, a table game where players throw checkers at the corners of the board. “Concentrate,” he says, just before my husband hits the small wooden disc, causing him to ping pong across the cedar board and miss his target.
We travel around Sri Lanka in the company of 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 journey.
Which was the holiday’s biggest adrenaline rush was a constant source of debate: was it the wind-swept dawn climbing Sigiriya rock; giant fruit bats hanging from the trees in Kandy; the sustainable wild elephant safari; snorkeling along a coral reef in bath water warm seas; or a mountain trail view of a crested serpent eagle taking off and sailing through the thermals over the teafield valleys below?
In between jaw-dropping encounters with nature, we’ll take a breather with a four-day stop at the Uga Bay hotel in Pasikuda (studios from £130 per night) – on the east coast of the island – and have a vacation within a vacation. The hotel is larger than other places we’ve stayed, with its rooms arranged in an arch overlooking the pristine, white beach, but there’s an underlying commitment to the local area and their communities. Water filling stations have been placed around the property to reduce plastic waste; solar panels are used; the hotel is on track to partner only with ethical whale watching companies that approach whales and dolphins responsibly; and it has announced a commitment to getting more women into its workforce.
There’s a similar ethos at the last stop of our journey at Living Heritage Koslanda (forest pavilion cottages from £195 per night), a hotel set in a wooded valley with its own waterfall and kitchen gardens, which employs mostly local people, most of whom are female . The hotel was initially the vision of Sri Lankan film director Manik Sandrasagara, who dreamed of creating an eco-resort in “one of the most sacred and secret places on planet Earth” while protecting natural biodiversity. The hotel was completed by his wife Lucy in 2012, four years after his death.
“These have been incredibly difficult years, but despite everything we have continued with Manik’s dream, and what we have is something completely unique,” says Lucy. “It’s a place like no other.”
In the space of two weeks, we feel like we’ve packed in about four different, breathtaking vacations in their own individual climates. We leave already planning which parts we would like to see more of on our return, and it has alerted us to the importance of traveling with tour companies that put community first, reinforce a sense of cultural identity, and provide opportunities for sustainable development.
The trip was provided by Ayu in the Wild. Check the UK government website for the latest travel advice to Sri Lanka