The Great Escape
After many wine-fueled conversations and an epic trip to Africa, we made the decision to leave everything behind to travel and volunteer around the world. Once we set our “escape plan” in motion, everything happened so fast. Hectic doesn’t even begin to describe our last few weeks in Chicago.
We quit our jobs, called our parents, canceled our gym membership, listed our apartment and started packing our lives into a 40-liter backpack.
We started selling, donating and giving everything away. It was sad for about a minute and then it was extremely liberating! When you have to carry everything on your back, you realize how little you actually need. I even gave our crock-pot to a rough looking man pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk who introduced himself as Cornelius.
The Mongol Rally
As if that wasn’t enough, we also made an impulsive, last-minute decision to sign up for the Mongol Rally after being tagged in a video on Facebook (thanks Courtney). The Mongol Rally is an intercontinental car rally that thunders 10,000 miles from the UK to Siberia with no backup, no support and no route. Along with this wild adventure comes the painstaking task of securing an absurd amount of visas. We brushed it off and figured we would get the visas sorted when we got to Delhi, which has consulates for every country we will be rallying through.
Then, only three days before our flight we learned that a Russian visa can only be issued in your country of origin. We were frantically trying to change our flights and make arrangements to get to the Russian consulate in DC. Two days before our flight, we went in to the State Department and got an emergency second passport issued, which we never even knew was possible!
Our final day in Chicago consisted of haggling with prospective buyers on craigslist, waiting in line at the passport agency office, getting our last round of travel vaccinations and filling out annoyingly repetitive visa paperwork for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. We made two separate trips to the FedEx office and were literally stuffing the envelopes with our visa paperwork when they came for the final pickup – close call!
Our last night in Chicago, we slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of our barren apartment. The sleeping bag was our last possession and we gave it to the homeless man who hangs in the alley behind our high rise on the way to the airport. We were free, we had nothing tying us down and we were ready to get this party started. Absolutely nothing standing in our way…except a mere 40+ hours of travelling!
Our outbound flight left O’Hare on Sunday morning and we didn’t land in Sri Lanka until Tuesday. From Chicago, we flew to New York (2-hour flight) and had an 8-hour layover before our flight to Delhi (14-hour flight), then a 9-hour layover before taking off for Colombo (3.5-hour flight). We were so exhausted, we slept like babies. I guess the best way to sleep soundly on a flight is to just not sleep at all before your trip.
Colombo woke us up real fast! It was a buzzing, chaotic, colorful cluster of tuk-tuks, food stalls and people. And the heat – it was intense! I am talking Beyoncé upper lip sweat by 9:00 am, we had never felt heat like this before. The first day we saw a man with a monkey on a leash and a snake charmer with a cobra in a basket. Later that night we saw a man pull a python out of a garbage sack behind our hostel. Colombo is pure insanity!
There’s a confluence of religious cultures in Colombo including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. You’ll find a temple, church and mosque all on the same street. We visited the Gangaramaya Temple, which was built around this majestic twisted tree that resembled the tree of life from Pocahontas. People would pray, and then make laps around the tree, stopping to splash bowls of water on the tree. The temple is also known for housing the smallest Buddha statue. It was so tiny, it was setup to be viewed through a magnifying glass. We definitely would have missed it without an energetic, older man pointing it out to us.
Buying train tickets in Sri Lanka is seriously great material for an SNL skit. A sweltering little room with multiple windows, thronging crowds and no signs. When we arrived, we were pointed in the direction of one counter. We stood in line, got to the front, asked for tickets and after a long confused look, were pointed to a different counter. After doing the same thing again, the man behind the counter pointed to the next counter over. It took 6-7 more times of repeating this process, before we were told the trains were full and to come back in the morning. We finally escaped Colombo after two days at the ticket office.
The trains look like they are straight from the 1920’s, with people hanging out the windows as it rumbles through the countryside. Men with baskets of prawns, nuts and bananas push their way through the crowded train, hawking their goods. Our seat mates were a friendly, giggly bunch of school girls who shared their chili covered mangoes with us.
We quickly learned the rules for Sri Lanka transportation – that there aren’t any rules. People jump off the train whenever they need to and freely walk across the tracks. The buses are just as lax. They are covered in loud paint jobs, have flashing strobe lights and bumping speakers. The buses never actually stop, they just slow down a little. We saw our lives flash before our eyes every time we made the mad dash to grab onto the door handle before the bus picked up speed. Transportation is insanely cheap here. The 5-hour train ride was $1, the buses between cities around 75¢, and local buses costing just 6¢!
Kekirawa is a small town within the “cultural triangle” located towards the center of Sri Lanka. We are volunteering at the learning center, teaching English and computer skills to people in the community. We arrived in time to catch the last 3 minutes of a class led by a peculiar Dutch fellow named Bart. Then we were told we would be teaching the next 2-hour class. “I am sure you have materials prepared” Bart said as we stared back at him blankly. We had so many questions. What will we be teaching? Which materials have already been covered? What level are the students? The answer to each of these questions was just a shoulder shrug. Needless to say, it was the longest 2 hours of our life.
The students are good at reading and writing in English but are shy and reluctant to speak in English. We tried reading out loud from a book about Star Wars and the Dark Sith, doing a crossword and even playing catch with a stuffed duck. Can’t say how much English was taught that first day, but at least we kept the students entertained. Mad respect for teachers!
We will be staying with the local family who lives next to the learning center. The family uses an outside toilet and shower, and cooks over an open fire. The host mom, Sugalla, is always smiling. Her favorite word is “eat” and she is always scooping more food onto our plates. We have had rice and vegetable curry – for breakfast, lunch and dinner – every single day.
Pit and Peak
Pit: Spicy food, the sweltering heat, jet lag and nonexistent WiFi.
Peak: Not having to go to work is pretty damn great and to be starting this adventure of a lifetime.