Anisha Niyas, Kaveesh Gunasekara, Sanura Gunawardena and Johann Ratwatte are clearly friends for life. They complete each other’s sentences, laugh at jokes only they can understand, and are quick to make fun of each others’ little quirks. All this after barely two weeks of knowing each other; perhaps the start of their friendship has something to do with this-they met and bonded at a location rather out of the norm - a chartered passenger ship optimistically known as the ‘Peace Boat’.
|Friends for life:Johann, Sanura, Anisha and Kaveesh
Peace Boat is a Japan-based international non-government and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment. With a history of almost three decades, it uses a variety of tools for its activities. The main activities are carried out through the chartered passenger ship named after the organization-the Peace Boat.
It was on this ship that the four students, all of them on board for the first time, bonded, on the common grounds that they were there to promote Sri Lanka to the ship’s passengers. Kaveesh, who is involved with the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research (an instigator in selecting Sri Lankan volunteers for the Peace Boat since 2005), finally got the opportunity to be a part of the delegation. Anisha heard about it from the Weeramantry Centre as well. Sanura and Johann got involved through Sri Lanka Unites. They barely had a week to prepare for the voyage. In the mad rush to get visas, to pack and make arrangements, the four volunteers never got the chance to meet up.
They eventually did meet each other, at the start of the trip. Kaveesh, Anisha and Sanura, are in their twenties, while Johann is 17. The four of them were there as part of the International Student programme. Their task was to introduce the Japanese volunteers on board to Sri Lanka, giving them an in-depth look at the country’s history and culture, along with the post conflict situation. The Peace Boat uses this method in its mission to promote international peace and understanding, through education.
Anisha recalls the moment they got on board the ship. “We were like celebrities! They were all on the upper deck and waving like crazy… We were a little nonplussed at first but then you get used to it.”
The first day was spent introducing themselves to those on board. The next day, the group was asked to speak about their individual volunteer experiences. Sanura spoke of the talented child soldiers at IDP camps that he had met through his work with Sri Lanka Unites, while Johann spoke about his first time visiting Jaffna and meeting the children there. For Kaveesh, speaking about three of his friends from three corners of the island and their friendship was a trip down memory lane. Anisha spoke of her volunteer efforts raising money to buy shoes for over 300 children in Valaichchenai.
An important experience that they all remember well is learning about civil conflicts in other countries. Kaveesh says it opened his eyes to the situation around the world like no book or report ever did. “When you’re from a country like ours, it’s all too easy to imagine only yourself in that situation. But then you meet people from other countries and the similarities are uncanny-you realize that there are other people like you around the world.”
Sanura recalls teaching the Japanese on board Sinhala. “We went for the obvious and taught them Ayubowan,” he smiles. “What we didn’t expect was for them to diligently practise it and make it a point to greet us with the Ayubowan whenever we saw them!”
Cultural night saw them dress up in traditional Sri Lankan attire and recreate an Avurudu Uthsavaya. From playing raban pada and the banis games, to teaching the Japanese volunteers how to write their name in Sinhala, the four of them had fun.
It wasn’t all playing for the crowds either. The four of them had their own moments. Johann, an avid photographer, managed to capture two dolphins jumping in a perfect arc in front of a setting sun, a beautiful moment frozen in time. The plethora of classes conducted on the ship was open for them to duck in and out whenever they liked. They remember the Jacuzzis and other luxury facilities available on the ship with wistful sighs-a packed schedule meant those were beyond their time constraints. “Despite the hectic schedule and pretty much running on no sleep at all, we had a blast,” says Sanura.
They docked in Colombo, and after two days spent taking their new-found friends around the city, the excursion came to an end. A tearful farewell followed a dinner given on board the ship in honour of the Sri Lankan team. “I was feeling a little teary and hoping no one would cry and then I look around and Kaveesh is like, ‘waaaah’,” Anisha rolls her eyes. “Soon everyone was crying.” Sanura recalls some of their Japanese friends offering to hide them in their cabins so they could stay on!
They definitely want to do it again. The four of them hope to be part of one of the Peace Boat’s longer three month voyages, as they now feel they are more qualified to take it on. For now, they’re content with the memories of what they were part of. As Johann says, “We were all there for one great cause. So despite being from different backgrounds, the bonds we forged were amazing.”
You can learn more about the Peace Boat at www.peaceboat.org