Thursday, April 4, 2013

Refreshingly Tourism - Out of the Box 35

By Renton de Alwis

It happened in June 2011, but is still fresh in my memory. This morning, as I join Ape Pattauw Special Education School kids at their Aluth Avurudu (Luner New Year) celebrations and Sports meet, to share their joy and skills and I thought it apt to repost this picture story I presented in the ‘Daily Financial Times, Sri Lanka’  nearly two years ago on my blog.

It also serves to illustrate that there is value to tourism much beyond that we imagine of the beautiful beaches, attractive resorts, heritage sites and the like. A tourism, that is about education, about sharing, about caring and most of all about mutual understanding and of human bondage. These do not get registered in the statistics and economic analysts and planners have little use for such in their presentation of the success stories about tourism.

Upon reading the article I urge you to take a few moments to click on the link at the end to view the photo album that says much more than my words can tell you.

It was late morning on Monday, the week before (June, 2011). I was at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens with a group of special-kids from ‘Ape Pattauw’ of the Deep South. They were on their annual outing and I went out there to spend a few hours with them, on the invitation of the volunteer staff-team and parents. We were all sitting around an open patch at the gardens, participating in the various acts of the kids, whose skills development is gained basically through the use of drama therapy. Unnoticed by us, a group 23 of young American students and their parents had been watching us. A little later, a parent approached us and asked for approval for the young students to entertain the special kids in our group. It was indeed a surprise and a welcome change for ‘Ape Pattauw’ and the staff-team happily nodded agreement.

The young student skip rope jump team ‘Bouncing Bull Dogs’ (BBD) from North Carolina, USA was on a two weeks tour of Sri Lanka, and this spontaneous gesture of theirs turned out to be truly amazing entertainment for the kids. They loved it and their elation and joy were written all over their faces. The twelve member team and their coach, a most humble Black American gentleman Ray Fredrick Jr., offered a half-hour of sharing and caring for the special kids like no other, they had seen before. Their performance arena was the tarred road and their backdrop the blue Sri Lankan sky and the lovely tree lines of the gardens. I later learnt that they were the US Skip Rope Jumping Champions for several years in succession and that they had travelled to many countries to demonstrate their skills. (Refer for more on them).

After its completion we got chatting. I learnt from Coach Fredrick and Dr. Lalith Perera, (a Sri Lankan scientist now domiciled in the US, whose  daughter Hasangie was also a member of the BBD skip rope jumpers), that they were tourists in Sri Lanka and part of their tourism endeavour was to share their skills with kids of Sri Lanka.

Their tour has been designed by ‘Sri Lanka Tailor Made of Jetwing Travels’ and included interactions and performances at a couple of schools in Negombo and at schools in Inamaluwa and Kimbissa near Sigiriya. According to their tour-guide Tishan Dabarera, they had opted for quality accommodation at the Beach in Negombo, Vil Uyana and Hotel Sigiriya, St. Andrews in Nuwera Eliya, Elephant Reach at Yala, Light House Hotel in Galle and the Ramada Hotel in Colombo. On the part of the Bouncing Bull Dogs, it was a tour of sharing their skills and on the part of the rural schools they touched, it was a rare opportunity for them to meet their counterparts. They came with an offer very different to the gifts of pens, pencils and other goodies, we find tourists bringing along with them usually to share with the ‘poor kids’ of Sri Lanka.

My thoughts were on their theme ‘Kids are Special’ and I realised how beneficial this interaction could be for the kids at the village school where I live in Kiula. The skills they exhibited through their act with skip ropes would be a lesson for anyone on how to reach beyond one’s perceived potential. They were not just skippers of rope, but gymnasts, acrobats and dancers all-in-one. On casual inquiry, I realised that their next locations on the tour were Yala and Galle. Since Kiula was en-route, I invited them to stop by for a few hours at the Junior School here. What I had in return was an immediate and spontaneous acceptance. Upon my return to the village later that evening, I arranged with the school administration to expect the arrival of the BBD team for a performance at the school, two days later.

The result was an overwhelming success. Performing in the gravel-laid-make-do play ground of the school, Coach Fredrick and the team got the kids and even the teachers involved in skip-rope jumping on a scale they had never done before and demonstrated various acrobatic moves and gymnastics skills that could be brought into it. In his farewell speech, the Coach told the kids “there is nothing kids could not do if they set their minds to it”. At the school, a group of mothers prepared a treat of kola kanda (herbal soup) for the visitors demonstrating how it was done with the use of traditional implements. They also were treated to tala guli (sesame sweets), local bananas and king coconuts. A kid of the Kiula school, in turn demonstrated her skills on a hula-hoop (a recent star performer at the Perahara of a village temple) and the traditional dancing team performed two items. A school prefect made a vote of thanks in English and the parting was an expression of the emotional bondage that had developed between the kids, their teachers and the visitors.

At a time when the tourism industry is seeking up-market, high yielding visitors where with minimalist use of resources and built facilities, much need be achieved, the experience offered by the Bouncing Bulldogs team of tourists, presented an example of what is possible.

Most would tag it a sports tour and push it to the low-end of the spectrum of tour arrangements. At a time when most in the industry still take the easy route of offering packaged tours where ‘more of the same’ form the recipe, these tourists and the type of tourism should open our eyes and minds to the wide spectrum of opportunities we have, that go unexplored.

With the hope that lessons will be learnt, I venture to say a big Thank You to the Bouncing Bulldogs, Coach Fredrick and the parents for their generosity and the sharing and caring they did, while they were tourists in our country. It was indeed an experience that was ‘Refreshingly Tourism’ for me and for the kids who had the fortune to meet and interact with them.   

As was said at the beginning, this is in part a picture story… the pix link is at :

Chethani of Ape Pattauw with Bouncing Bull Dogs     at the Peradeniya Gardens
Pic credit: Self

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