Reaching higher ground, in Sri Lanka

by Monday, September 3, 2018

Guest Traveller Melinda Bell and her husband Stuart made a very special journey to Sri Lanka. They went back to school – a school they had visited during the building phase of their newly-opened treehouse guesthouse, set among tea plantations in Ella. They wanted to give something back to the community they had just joined so, they found a local primary school, assessed its needs, and set about raising funds to plug some vital resource and maintenance ‘gaps’ with the proceeds. This was their return trip, where they got to hand over the goodies (and pay local tradies), and ‘cut the ribbon’ on the Higher Ground Treehouse. The idea is that their treehouse will support the local community school for underprivileged children, on an ongoing basis. Prepare for some genuinely good ‘feels’, people. Let’s hear their story… 

Melinda Bell, and a curry cooked by local families.

All about Ella
Ella is a small but popular town due to its position along the famous Sri Lankan rail route.  This is truly one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world.  Many people travel from Kandy in the north or Colombo in the west, or pick up the train part-way along the journey at one of the many gorgeous train stations.  Either way, it’s an incredibly cheap and picturesque journey.  In Ella itself, hiking is popular, with trips to Little Adams Peak, Demodara Nine Arch Bridge and Ella Rock being some of the top favourites.  All are easily accessible from our new, Higher Ground Treehouse.  We can also show you our local waterfall (little known to tourists), and also the Rawana Temple and Cave, both of which are just a few hundred metres from the treehouse.

Dressed up to party. An elephant parades during Poya.

Full Moon festival 
If you are lucky enough to be in town around the Poya Full Moon Festival, as we were in June, you’ll be treated to a spectacular parade of elephants, dancers, fire-twirlers and local entertainers through the streets at midnight.  This is truly a special experience where the incredible spirit, passion and simplicity of the Ella people is at its best.

The dusty school grounds contrast with the lush foliage of the surrounding mountains.

250 students, 2 toilets, 1 flushing 
When I first visited the Ella community school, back in December 2017, it was obvious that here was a school that was severely underprivileged and lacking basic, sanitary facilities.  Yet what had the most impact on me was the undeniable joy and enthusiasm of these kids and teachers, despite their conditions.

With donated funds, we engaged a local plumber to fix the school’s toilets.

Standing in a dust bowl
I stood in the playground – a dust bowl with just a couple of simple swings and a tattered volleyball net – and reflected on what my two children have here in Australia, both at home and at school.  Of course, I was immediately filled with guilt but that quickly turned to intense gratitude and I directed my emotion towards planning an immediate strategy for helping these kids and their dedicated teachers.

Classrooms are minimal, with teaching supplies in short supply.

Hatching a plan & raising funds
I knew my long-term plan was to give the school a percentage of income from our treehouse guesthouse, which is close to the school. But as the build was going to take six months, I wanted to find something I could do straight away.  So, on my return to Australia, I set up a Go Fund Me Page and asked family and friends to make a small donation to the cause.  Over six months, and thanks to an incredible community of friends including some I knew only a little, we raised around $2,500!  With this, I was able to purchase three second-hand laptops, given to the school in June 2018, and a further $2,000 went towards much-needed equipment for the school.

The 250-strong primary school turned out in force to receive the donations.

Delivering donations
We were invited to the school on a day when they were celebrating a festival of mindfulness.  We sat cross-legged on the concrete floor and listened to local monks chant, sing and address the children and teachers.  We were then treated to a delicious curry lunch made for us by local families before heading off in a tuk tuk [local transportation] with several teachers to Bandarawela [a local town] to purchase the items they identified as most-needed on their list.  At the end of the afternoon, we had successfully purchased a multi-media projector, screen and speakers, several pieces of furniture including three cabinets for their library books, and a number of musical instruments, including a Yamaha keyboard.

Angelic faces during the mindfulness exercise.

Gestures of gratitude
We were, again, invited back to the school the following week for a ‘small party’ they wanted to throw as a gesture of gratitude.  So, we arrived to a guard of honour made by the students and were lead by the school band up to the science laboratory. There, we were treated to a presentation of student work, in the form of dance, drama and English-student presentations. There were also, of course, several speeches given in reply and I was quick to point out that we were simply the ambassadors of our family and friends who made all of these donations possible.  We wished all the donors could have been there to see the joy on the faces of the students and hear the words of simple but heartfelt thanks from the teachers.

A view from the terrace of our treehouse.

The treehouse opens
Our trip also marked the milestone of the completion of our Higher Ground treehouse. A three-level, eco-friendly treehouse, it is nestled into the mountain-side in Ella, near the school.  It is close enough to town to access all the restaurants and local sights, yet just far enough away to experience the serenity of the mountains –  and share breakfast with a monkey or squirrel. The treehouse is now open for bookings through Airbnb and booking.com and there are now direct flights from Australia to Colombo via Sri Lankan Airlines, so the trip is now a breeze from Australia. Ella is only 200km from Colombo and then the overland journey adds about six hours more. The train trip to Ella from Kandy or Nuwara Eliya is amazingly scenic and most visitors to Ella come from either Kandy or Nuwara Eliya.

Higher Ground Treehouse can sleep up to six adults across three levels and was built by local craftsmen.

My happy place
I have found my happy place in Ella. My little piece of paradise. I’ve also found a new purpose: Helping Ella’s children. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to set the foundations for an ongoing support program through the profits of our Higher Ground Treehouse. I’ve also come back with a bunch of new friends with whom I can’t wait to visit Ella again, soon.