Lifestyle

Island travelers deliver supplies to victims in Galle, Sri Lanka

Islanders Kevin Petrie and Logan Gee were in southern India when the Dec. 26 tsunami hit. They have since traveled to Sri Lanka to volunteer.

Both Petrie and Gee are graduates of Mercer Island High School class of 2000. Petrie, 22, has been studying writing at Bellevue Community College and plans to attend Evergreen State College on his return. Gee, also 22, recently graduated from Santa Clara University and plans to attend graduate school next.

Last month, the Reporter published an e-mail account from Gee describing their experiences.

Following are excerpts from an e-mail to family and friends, written by Petrie in Galle, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 20.

``It really does look like a war zone,'' Logan is saying. ``The way some of the buildings are completely gone and others are fine. Looks like they were bombed out.''

I nod and mumble agreement, continue staring out the window.

We are on our way back to Galle after delivering food and supplies to three of the many refugee camps and partially destroyed coastal villages a few kilometers to the south.

It does look like a war zone. Clumps of untouched buildings abut huge sections of nothing but concrete foundations, people milling around or sitting in plastic chairs over squares of earth that once contained their food, their shelter, their pots and pans and stoves, their children's toys, their children and their elderly relations.

All of it is gone -- scraped down to bare earth by an ocean that now glitters benign and blue just a few meters away.

The U.S. Marine Corps is on hand with bulldozers and back hoes, clearing away the brick and debris that have gone undisturbed for weeks now.

... Our organization is called Galle Project 2005. It was created by a group of foreigners living in Galle, and a number of tourists who just happened to be visiting the area and had their travel itineraries adjusted by the tsunami. They have two offices, several vans, a group of local drivers/guides/translators, a warehouse to store goods delivered from Colombo and a number of extremely generous benefactors to fund it all.

For a rag-tag group of ex-pat tourist randoms, they are remarkably effective. We have been with them two days and already have a vehicle, a guide, access to food and supplies and a territory for which we are responsible. This morning, we were introduced to the warehouse, complete with its own staff, where we filled the van to capacity before heading down the coast.

Our van is empty now. All the rice and dal has been distributed. The soap, milk powder, baby formula, canned mackerel, sanitary pads, biscuits and mosquito coils that filled the cargo space this morning are gone, handed out in three stops to about 300 families constituting something like 1,200 people. Three stops to empty the van.

Logan and I scouted out 12 camps and villages yesterday, where we attempted to ascertain ... what is in short supply and what needs doing. Most camps are at schools, temples and mosques. Children wave and shout ``Hello'' as we enter; groups of women with molasses-frowns dripping endlessly down their faces sit around talking and breast-feeding children who look too old for nursing; men hang around in clusters stewing in their boredom.

The Sri Lankan army is almost universally present, brandishing large firearms and smoking cigarettes. Every camp has the same wish list: pots and pans, mosquito nets, tents, mattresses, bed sheets and underwear. Some have plenty of food, with canned fish stacked ceiling-high. Some have plenty of rice and dal but no milk and inadequate toilets.

Some have nothing.

It is this last group that we concentrate on.

The final stop on our route is a village of 85 families. They have been ordered to return home from their local refugee camp, situated at a nearby Buddhist temple, and are no longer receiving aid of any kind. As we pull onto the access road, people emerge from among the palms and big-leafed banana trees to follow the van down the narrow, sandy track toward the ocean.

I can feel the eyes locked onto the pile of food visible through the back windows. All the children I can see are either running toward us or running home to alert their parents to our presence. We get out of the van and immediately find the same 20-something guys we talked to yesterday during our first visit to the area. They are happy to get the rice and dal, but are worried about equally distributing everything [among] the 85 families.

One resident, who speaks excellent English, explains that they will divide everything into packets labeled from 1 to 85, then have each family draw a number from a hat and take the corresponding packet. Some families will get milk but no fish, some will get fish but no mosquito coils. It is remarkably altruistic.

They want mosquito nets (a precious commodity in this part of the world right now) but stress that if we bring one, we must bring 85 or pandemonium will ensue.

``If you only bring 40, we will have to cut them in half,'' one man jokes.

... Hope all is well with everyone. Everything here is sort of messed up, but we're helping and that's good, I guess. If anyone is thinking of taking a trip, consider Sri Lanka. It's an amazing country filled with wonderful people and they could really use the tourist dollars right now.

And, if you want to volunteer, there's lots to do and will be for a while yet. On a brighter note, we're staying on what is supposed to be one of the best beaches in the country -- I'd believe it's one of the best in the world -- and we have it all to ourselves. White sand, blue sea, the occasional four-foot lizard. It's a nice place to come back to at the end of the day. Take it easy, ladies and gents.

Much love,

Kevin

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