Sunday Travel Section





COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- When Sadene's grandmother saw the giant wave hurtling toward the beach, she grabbed the three-year-old girl and ran.

The water that crashed into this island 18 months ago took the lives of 30,000 Sri Lankans and left thousands of others homeless, including Sadene. The little girl with the radiant smile and intense dark eyes is now living in one of the tsunami camps on the outskirts of Colombo, where we met her in a dusty treeless field next to the plywood and corrugated tin shacks that are now called homes.

Volunteers walk through tsunami rubble in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Tim Leland)

We were serving as volunteers for an international project known as "i-to-i," a private organization that provides tourists with an opportunity to help needy people in some of the poorest regions of the world.

Call it "voluntravel," a growing trend for vacationers who feel they need more than just another luxury experience.

Over the years we�ve indulged ourselves in many such lavish trips. This time we decided to try to help others instead of simply pampering ourselves.

An Internet search revealed several organizations that make this possible and we chose i-to-i. Formed 12 years ago, the British-based agency has sponsored nearly 10,000 people in more than 20 countries on hundreds of projects.

Out of the many destinations offered in its volunteer listing, we chose to work in tropical Sri Lanka, a country that had severe social and economic problems even before the tsunami hit.

From the start, it was clear that this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill holiday trip. "Things will not be the same as in your home country," the i-to-i handbook warned, gently. "Try not to have a fixed idea of what your placement will be like, and you won�t be disappointed if things turn out differently."

We knew our accommodations would be spartan � and we were right. Who needs hot water, towels or toilet paper anyway? (We never did have the former, but we purchased the last two items.)

We knew the food provided by our Sri Lankan host family would be basic � and we were right about that as well. Who needs coffee or tea at breakfast? (We bought that, too.).

We knew all about the prevalence of malaria and dengue fever in Sri Lanka but hadn't expected the tablespoon-sized cockroaches in the bathroom (Hey, cockroaches don�t bite. We named them George and Harry and made believe they were pets.)

All the minor inconveniences disappeared when we met the head of our project � Father Michael Catalano, an 81-year-old bundle of Jesuit joy. The moment he gave us his first beatific smile and a squeeze on each cheek we knew everything would work out. This was going to be a worthwhile experience.

"What can we do to help the poor children we�ll be working with?" we asked him on that first day.

The answer came immediately. "Just love them," he smiled, "that's all that matters. Love is our religion."

A graduate of Jesuit studies in philosophy, theology and spirituality at universities in Rome and Bombay, Fr. Catalano came to Sri Lanka 27 years ago and opened a hardscrabble community center in the worst slums of Colombo. He sits today in the same cramped office dispensing teaching materials, nutrition packets and pathetically small sums of money ($7.50 per family per month) throughout his Colombon parish.

His humble organization is currently also building 49 houses for homeless families.

When asked where the money comes from for all of this, he opens his hands to the heavens and says, with a shrug and a smile, "From God." (In actuality, we learned that much of it comes from his family back in Bari, Italy.)

Infected by his enthusiasm, we took up our mission -- to play with toddlers in the one-room nursery schools, to teach English to elementary-aged children in the dark, dirt-floor schoolrooms and to give desperately needed attention to the love-starved children who swarmed around us when we arrived at the tsunami camps.

The crowing of roosters and the distant chanting of Buddhist monks woke us up every morning. We walked through the slums of Colombo to the community center, where we received our daily assignments.

The 15-minute trip took us along a narrow street where families brushed their teeth from spigots that splashed water into the gutter, then we continued along a wider road jammed with vehicles of every size and description: decrepit city buses with commuters hanging off the sides; muddy farm tractors pulling trailers loaded with vegetables; darting tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled open-air taxis; rusting lorries overloaded with cement bags; occasional SUVs carrying government officials; ancient bicycles ridden by men in long wraparound skirts; street vendors with pushcarts offering silvery fish darkened by buzzing flies; packs of mangy dogs sniffing the mounds of garbage that lined the streets; Muslim men in elegant white robes and crocheted caps . . . and, incongruously, cows plodding slowly and majestically down the center of the road, seemingly indifferent to the urban congestion around them.

The road crossed a canal littered with plastic bags where white egrets eked out a marginal existence stalking whatever aquatic life they could find in the stagnant, polluted water.

It was a relief when we arrived at our assigned nursery school and left this chaos behind. Stepping inside, our eyes adjusted to the dim light of the single room, where the 2-to-4-year-olds sat politely at pint-sized tables. Forget air conditioning in the sweltering Sri Lankan heat, these schoolrooms don�t even have electricity for light. But the children aren�t aware they�re poor. With innocent intensity, they colored in the books we brought them and played gleefully with the few Lego pieces we provided.

Their grins were wide, their eyes huge, their clothes clean and neat, if not new.

Children in Sri Lanka await class instruction in their one-room school house. (Photo by Tim Leland)

In the afternoon we took tuk-tuks to a different school and an older group of children. Here the classrooms were no better than the nurseries. In one we found a puddle of water on the cement floor, and arranged the makeshift benches around it. As we began our English lessons, three men appeared with a big iron rod and began breaking up the floor in the middle of the puddle. Water splashed about and we raised our voices over the din. The children paid no attention as the men dragged a hose in from the street and pumped foul-smelling effluent out the front door from the newly opened hole. The lessons went on.

Teaching isn�t the only option for i-to-i volunteers in Sri Lanka. Some of our colleagues were assigned to an orphanage near Colombo. Some helped clean up tsunami damage along the beaches to the south. Two of them cared for elephants in a reserve up north, and a young man from England was asked to be a cricket coach.

The volunteers in our group are from England, Ireland, Australia and the United States, and they range from college-aged students to retirees in their mid-sixties.

Jay Manwaring, a retired ceo from San Diego, and his wife Anna signed up for a two-week session (you can come for as little as two weeks or as long as six months), after having participated in a number of other "voluntravel" projects over the last several years.

"Our relatives don't understand why we do this kind of thing," he says, "and frankly, there are times when we wonder ourselves. When we get home from Sri Lanka, though, we�ll forget all about the inconveniences and just remember the smiles on the faces of the little kids we taught in the schools. Those are the things that make it all worthwhile."

Those beautiful smiles were also on the wrinkled faces of the old women who sat in the tiny room that served as a senior center in one of the slums where we worked.

And we saw them on the faces of the children in the destitute tsunami camps we visited, where we improvised ball games and handed out American stickers.

Toward the end of the trip, we saw them once more on the faces of the two families who moved into new homes built by Fr. Catalano's community center. Standing in the rubble of the tsunami-ravaged district, we attended the dedication ceremony, heart-rending in its simplicity, of the two cinder block structures.

A family of nine children moved into one of the two-room houses, and a family of 11 in the other. From somewhere, the adults had managed to gather a plate of sweets to celebrate the occasion, and they insisted we each take one.

When we last saw the children and their parents, they were standing in the doorways of their new cement houses, waving goodbye as we walked out of sight across an empty field where houses once stood.

We didn�t bring home any tourist trinkets from Sri Lanka, only memories.

(Globe Correspondent Timothy Leland's Bon Non Wat Dig

Sunday Travel Section

February 20, 2005





BON NON WAT, THAILAND: The man was lying on his back, his legs slightly apart, arms resting at his side, teeth glistening as though they had just been freshly bleached by a dentist.

They were good strong, straight teeth, but they hadn't been used to chew food for a long time. He had been dead for over 3,500 years.

We were standing in the middle of a graveyard. In fact, we were standing in the middle of several graveyards, stacked like a giant layer cake one on top of the other, each layer representing the passage of hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years.

Forget Six Feet Under; we were eight feet under and heading for twelve. Talk about culture shock. In a matter of hours, a Boeing 777 had jet-warped us back to a time on earth long before the birth of Christ. Two days after leaving Boston, we were exhuming the bones of men, women and children who had been laid to rest almost five millennium ago.

Bronze Age boy buried with pet pig on chest, exhumed by Tim Leland's Earthwatch team

Graveyards don't figure in the travel plans of most tourists, but we had decided our first trip to southeast Asia would involve more than museums and bus tours. We wanted to experience the nitty-gritty of Thailand -- and working on our hands and knees below ground here in Bon Non Wat, a sparsely inhabited village northeast of Bangkok, we did just that In the truest sense, we were "down and dirty" in Thailand.

Along with nine other volunteers from around the world, we were taking part in an archeological expedition sponsored by Earthwatch Institute, searching for answers to the origins of the fabulous Angkor civilization.

The research under way here can be traced back to the late 1940's, when arial reconnaissance of the area near the Cambodian border revealed a strange phenomenon below: many of the tiny hamlets that dotted the countryside appeared to be located in the middle of faint but unmistakable circular depressions.

Closer inspection revealed that these hamlets were built on low mounds surrounded by a system of shallow moats, apparently scooped from the earth thousands of years go.

Today these prehistoric moats have become Exhibit A in a revolutionary new theory about the beginnings of prehistoric civilization in southeast Asia.

Until recently, conventional wisdom of archeologists and anthropologists has held that the influence of advanced societies in India and China gradually spread south and east into what is now Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

It was believed that Indian technology, especially, was responsible for construction of the fabulous religious temple in Cambodia known as Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Built between 9 and 13 A.D., it represents one of mankind^(1)s most astonishing architectural achievements.

Archeologist Charles Higham of New Zealand's University of Otago, however, has a different view of the origins of Angkor. Considered the world's leading authority on prehistoric cultures in Southeast Asia, Higham disputes the common belief that the indigenous populations of the region were backward people awaiting the arrival of technological advances from foreign sources.

He believes that the man-made moats and canals around places such as Ban Non Wat reveal a sophisticated system of water control and land management built by the earliest Thai tribes without any outside help. These and other signs of social complexity - such as extensive rice cultivation, skill at iron and bronze smelting, the exchange of goods in trade abroad - convince Higham that Thais formed a sophisticated society long before Angkor Wat was built. Which is what he is attempting to prove here at Ban Non Wat.

Over the past four years, a team of archeologists, grad students, Earthwatch volunteers and Thai workers have been removing the soil, inch by inch, and peering into the prehistoric "time capsule" that lies below the surface to learn more about the earliest Thais.

Using shovels, hoes, trowels, metal soup ladles and delicate dental picks, they have been unearthing the skeletal remains and valued possessions of the people who lived in that area over a period spanning the Iron, Bronze and Neolithic Ages, thousands of years ago.

Our archeological dig is taking place in a rectangular pit 60 feet long by 35 feet wide, and every morning, before any work begins, there^(1)s one important piece of business to attend to: Thai workers go down and remove any cobras or other snakes that have slithered inside during the night in search of mice.

Minutes later, activity in the "square," takes on the hustle and bustle of an open-air factory. In one corner a group of Thai workers hoe away the soil to extend the pit down another four inches, the maximum allowed at any given time. Thai women above the pit, wearing beautifully colored scarves around their faces to keep out the dust, lower buckets on pulleys to haul out the loosened earth.

A grad student is on all fours in another corner, his face a few inches from the wrist bones of an emerging skeleton. Using a dental pick and paintbrush he carefully scrapes and brushes the last few grains of dirt from four shiny shell bangle bracelets that circle its arm.

Nearby, Professor Higham is also on his hands and knees, peering down at the reddish, partially exposed rim of a burial pot that gleams in the dark soil. "This is an early Iron Age design," he proclaims. "The skull of the body will be right about here." He draws a circle in the dust. "We'll almost certainly find more pots on either side."

Peter Petchey, an archeologist from New Zealand, arranges a string grid on top of an exhumed skeleton prior to making a meticulous scale drawing of the body on a large sheet of white graph paper for future reference.

Above the pit an archeologist looks through a surveyor's level and shouts out numbers to a colleague below, carefully measuring the current depth of the site. A few feet away an Earthwatch volunteer, sitting at a makeshift table, is sorting and washing hundreds of pieces of broken pottery that have been found with the human remains.

By mid-morning it is hot under the colored cloth that serves as a sun protector, but the site still pulsates with activity. Unfazed by the heat, the Thai women rush the waste earth from the pit to a spoils heap, where it is sifted for the last tiny particles of pottery, bone, metals or anything else of significance.

The deepening hole in the ground seems to us, laymen who have never worked on an archeological dig before, in many ways like a giant block of ice slowly melting from the top to reveal the treasures encased inside -- ceramic burial pots of all shapes and sizes, shell jewelry, glass beads, bronze bells, marble anklets, clay smelting crucibles, axe heads, bronze ornaments and, most spellbinding of all, the skeletons of men, women and children who walked the earth before the birth of Christ.

But the "melting," of course, is all man-made. Every day the 65-member team at Ban Non Wat scrapes, scratches, chips and brushes its way ever deeper into the ground, as exclamations of surprise float up from the pit with each new find.

Life in the rural hamlet around the dig goes on much the way it did hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Every morning we jump into the back of an open-sided truck for the 45-minute ride out to the site. We pass huge open stretches of rice fields burned black to prepare for plantings in the wet season. An occasional palm tree stands tall against the fields and herds of Brahmin cattle watch us pass with soulful eyes and long droopy ears. Water buffalo plod across streams after their herdsmen. Tiny villages of wood houses are still built on stilts to keep out snakes and moisture, as postholes in the soil of the dig indicate was ever so. The children who live in the houses frequently come to the side of the dirt roads and wave at us, smiling shyly as we pass.

Before long, the Earthwatch volunteers begin to understand why archeologists suffer more than the average number of back and neck aches, given their uncomfortable daily crouching positions over the treasures they pursue. Our group hired an entire family to give us the traditional deep-tissue Thai massage on blankets spread over the floors of our rooms.

A week after arrival, we were assigned a section of the pit that hadn't yielded any recent skeletal remains, and expectations were low as we took up our trowels and began to scrape. But shortly after 9 a.m. the circular rim of a pot suddenly appeared in the dry yellow dirt. Fifteen minutes later, another came to the surface. . . then anotherS(and another. By the mid-morning tea break a large cluster of burial pots - some with beautifully flared rims, others small and bulbous, all of them a mix of red and black - had emerged from the ground, virtually intact.

"I think you've hit a super burial," Professor Higham exclaimed, using a term describing a mortuary site involving a person of high status, whose body is often decked out in bangles from wrist to shoulder, surrounded by scores of ceramic vessels and perhaps a bronze tool.

The casual banter that normally takes place in the pit stopped. All eyes focused at our feet as the objects slowly, magically, took shape in the loosened soil. Now the large trowels were exchanged for spoon-sized scrapers and steel dental picks. Working on hands and knees, head to head, we scratched the dry earth with greater urgency but more care, and an hour later, as one of us brushed away a layer of dust around something hard, the unmistakable gleam of shiny mother-of-pearl appeared on the surface. It was a bracelet on the right arm of a skeleton. We had located the body.

To the expert eye, pelvic bone structure can determine gender and possible age of skeletal remains, and Prof Higham determined that this was a young man. He had apparently been a very important one. When laid to rest he was wearing 14 shell bangles on one arm and four on the other, and he had a total of 12 pots to mark his grave - eight at his head, four at his feet - plus a tiny bronze bell. The bangles, the pots, the bronze bell and the skeletal remains had lain underground for thousands of years while the history of mankind unfolded. Now, like travelors from ancient times, they were in the light of day again.

To archeologists, burial artifacts of this sort provide important scientific clues to earlier times. But for us, the feelings were more personal than scientific, the questions more intimate, watching as the ancient soil fell from the bones of an individual who had lived and died long before the Roman Empire. What did this man look like when he was alive? Did he have a sense of humor? Was he good to his children? Did he tell jokes? Did he have a lot of friends? Was he happy? Was he afraid of dying?

And what of the people who placed him in the grave, who dug the hole and gently placed his body inside, then arranged the beautiful burial gourds at his head and feet? Who was there - his wife? His oldest son? Did they sprinkle water over the grave and then collapse in grief on the damp soil?

In many parts of the world one can dig for days and not find a single arrowhead or pottery shard. For anyone interested in archeology, however, or even just casually intrigued by the prospect of finding ancient artifacts in the ground, Thailand is the place to be these days.

"There's probably more undiscovered history here than in any other country in the world," says Nigel Chang, the project's co-principal investigator. "A tremendous amount of work remains to be done here. This region is practically untouched, archeologically speaking."

At our site, 261 complete skeletons had been exhumed in the month and a half before we arrived. When we left there were so many grave goods lying around that one had to be very careful not to trip over them.

Every day - almost every hour - something new is detected under the surface. "Hello, what's this?" the digger says, head down, peering closer to inspect the earth under the brush or trowel. A few minutes of diligent brushing gives the practiced eye a sense of what's underneath and the word goes out by some mysterious telepathy to everyone in the pit. Soon Higham ambles over, with the peculiar Woody Allen slouch of his, and renders his verdict.

On our final day, the verdict was stunning. "That, my friends, is almost certainly a Neolithic site" he said, looking down at the array of broken crockery one of us had uncovered and referring to a period stretching back more than 5,000 years ago. "See how thin the pieces are? And they^(1)re all broken up. That^(1)s very characteristic of Neolithic burials, when a dish was deliberately broken over the body at the burial. This is the period before recorded time, even before the Bronze Age. This is rare as hen's teeth."