A dim line of light appeared in the darkness beyond the window of the plane, along with some tiny flashes. As the line broadened, I realized that it was dawn, and the flashes were lightning. The line grew broader, up and down, until it reached the Indian Ocean far beneath us, and I searched in the gloom for the island of Sri Lanka. The sun was well up and the jet was descending when I saw the island, not as a speck in the distance, the way I had imagined, but as a detailed landscape right beneath us: coconut palms, huts made out of leaves, and dug-out fishing canoes on a smooth lagoon. We landed at Colombo Airport.

As I stepped off the plane, the hot, humid air smelled of decaying vegetation. In the terminal a mysterious woman in a mauve sari was waiting for me. She led me to a jeep and talked very little as we drove into town. The drive was like a walk through a great bazaar. There were people all over the street, bullock carts full of logs or palm fronds, bicycles carrying great loads of bread, honking buses jammed with people, herds of water buffalo, cows, shops selling coconuts and bananas, lorries, cars, and everywhere people. The people were small and thin, with a frightened look (easy to understand, considering how fast we were driving). They were dressed in various combinations of shirts and sheets or trousers, with some only in dirty rags, carrying tiny bundles in their arms, or not-so-tiny bundles on their heads. Teeth and sometimes limbs stuck out at odd angles. It was not picturesque. I was dripping with sweat and felt like getting back on the plane again. It was easy to believe this was the other side of the world from Boston.

Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is an island off the south coast of India. It is the size of West Virginia and has fourteen million people on it. The per capita income is $250 per year, one of the lowest in the world. I had come there to learn about a rural development organization called the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. I was connected with them by Oxfam-America, a private aid organization which supports self-help projects in the Third World. Sarvodaya is one of their favorites. Oxfam believes that many foreign aid programs create problems by fostering dependence on the donor nations, and by not adapting to local culture and climate. Sarvodaya, on the other hand, fosters independence, and is a product of the local culture. Reports of its success were good but vague. I wondered what it was really doing, and if it was working, why?

The next morning at their headquarters, I learned that Sarvodaya provides three basic services. They organize village work projects, provide a day-care service (and a glass of milk for each child that wants it) in over a thousand villages, and maintain educational centers which train about two thousand young people a year in such skills as carpentry, masonry, community leadership, health care, and pre-school teaching.

Village work projects are called “shramadanas,” meaning “gifts of labor.” Sarvodaya is reviving the ancient national tradition of Shramadana, which constructed great Buddhist temples and an elaborate system of irrigation tanks over 2,000 years ago, when Sri Lanka was one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Today the Sarvodaya shramadanas build houses, roads, outhouses, and wells.

The Sarvodaya headquarters are housed in a beautiful octagonal building, resembling Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. An open stage at the center is ringed by a vegetable garden, and topped by a cone-shaped roof. A white statue of Buddha looks out on the stage from a blue alcove. Beneath him is a little pool with a purple lotus blossom in it.

After a tour of the headquarters, I ate lunch with my guide, Janet. A Sri Lankan meal consists of rice or bread with very hot curries, and is eaten with one’s right hand. Janet, a kindly middle-aged woman, had brought her lunch in a tupperware box. Her rice, which she dumped out on a plate, was crawling with ants. They were soon scuttling about on the table as well, and I pointed this out to her. She had already been aware of it, but pretended that she hadn’t been, saying “Oh!” as she started to brush them away. Finally she just ate the rice, ants and all. I thought at the time that she must be desperately poor, but actually she wasn’t. She simply didn’t mind the ants.

Colombo is in the “wet zone” of Sri Lanka, on the southwestern coast. A few days after my arrival there I rode a train to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, a hundred miles into the arid heart of the country. We travelled through brilliant green paddy fields, as well as flooded fields where women were bent over planting, or where men plowed mud with buffalo. Between the fields were groves of coconuts palms and huts made of mud and cajuns (woven palm fronds). Children ran about in the yards wearing shirts or trousers or sometimes both. Women washed at wells, dumping buckets of water on their heads or beating soapy clothes against a rock. Villagers watched the train go by in front of dirty little shops. Others were walking by the tracks with water jugs on their heads, or carrying leaves home for supper or sticks for the cooking fire. Gradually the colors changed from green to brown as we entered the jungles of the dry zone and finally faded away altogether as night came. Fires burned in the underbrush and cats’ eyes glowed. Nothing else remained.

When we reached Anuradhapura, I went directly to the Sarvodaya center and met some of the staff. They were friendly and curious. They asked about my family and whether I liked John Wayne. Despite the kindness of my new friends I went to bed feeling discouraged. I was having trouble communicating because their English was poor. When they said something they often meant something else. A simple question like “When will we be going to Polonnaruwa?” got five different answers from four different people. They didn’t care much about such questions of time, as their language reflects: it has no future tense.

Also, the people were not the least bit orderly or mechanical. Most things I had seen in the country thus far were broken: door locks, telephones, chairs, etc. And finally, the living conditions were miserable. The food, which was poor, had bugs in it. My room was dirty and full of ants; I had to sleep on the floor.

The next day, I met an English boy named Tom, who was staying at the center. Tom’s favorite topic of conversation was how much better England was than Sri Lanka. In addition to being a bigot, he was very frank, owing to his youth. This got him into trouble that night.

At four o’clock Tom and I set off to inspect a village, packed in the back of a Land-Rover full of Sri Lankans. It was dark when we arrived at the “model village” of new houses, little brick boxes with tile roofs, built by Sarvodaya with government money.

I was suffering from a swollen foot, and soon had to sit down. (The cause of my foot trouble, which lasted a few days, was like much of what happens in Sri Lanka — unidentifiable.) Sarvodaya was getting ready to show a movie, and about three hundred villagers were milling about in a festive mood. A big crowd of children soon gathered around the tarpaulin I was sitting on. Delighted to see a foreigner, they laughed and giggled and asked endless questions with the little English they knew.

My foot was throbbing from pain, and as I lay with my leg stretched out, staring up at the shining faces of the children, the villagers in their best sarongs and saris, and the warm night sky above us full of stars and a waxing moon, I felt enchanted. For a moment I understood this confusing country. What was important in life wasn’t whether B followed A or if the telephones worked, but rather this moment, the moon and the stars and the people.

The movie was a Sarvodaya propaganda film in Sinhalese called We Build the Road and the Road Builds Us. In the middle of the film the Land-Rover left and Tom cried, “They’ve left us behind!”

Finally she just ate the rice, ants and all. I thought at the time that she must be desperately poor, but actually she wasn’t. She simply didn’t mind the ants.

“No they haven’t,” I replied, without really having any idea what was going on. After the movie Tom spoke to the movie man; we had been left behind.

“They’ve left us,” he said. “Those idiots. Bloody rude I call that!”

“Calm down. We’ll figure out something.” I didn’t know what and didn’t really care; I was caught in the warm magic of the night.

“Those idiots!” Tom cursed. “I won’t sleep here. I slept here before in a tent and the ants bit me all night.”

“Just relax and we’ll see what happens.” Due to the difficulty in communication I had adopted a policy of keeping quiet and doing what people wanted me to do. Tom never kept quiet and never did what people wanted him to do.

“I’m going to tell that movie man off,” he went on. “That’s fucking rude. They do this to me again and again.”

“Wait.” But off he went, to swear at the movie man. After a while the movie man came over to me, quite upset.

“This is very bad,” he said. “Tom is using bad language in front of these young people at the work camp. Why did he come here anyway? He’s seen the movie many times. We go to a lot of trouble to bring him here and give him a meal, and then he does this thing. He says he won’t sleep here; well, we’ve been sleeping out in the jungle on the hard ground all our lives. This is very bad. Here, you come back in the movie van; you have a bad foot.”

“I’ll try to calm Tom down,” I said, but he would not be calmed. The Land-Rover had left without us because nobody had known what the plan was. There was no plan. Sri Lankans are not planners and in fact don’t like plans. Tom could not understand this, and his inability to bridge the cultural gap reminded me of the Americans in Vietnam, not understanding anything about the Vietnamese except how to kill them. I lost my temper and turned on Tom, as about twenty Sri Lankans watched nervously.

“WHY CAN’T YOU BE A . . . good boy?!” I yelled. This is not London, England! These people are as poor as church mice and they give us everything!”

Tom stammered helplessly, “I just can’t t-take anymore of this.” I drew in my breath for another onslaught, but some people took me by the hand and led me away. I started crying in the darkness and rode home in the movie van. Tom was left with the ants.

My foot problem was diagnosed as a scorpion sting (which it wasn’t), and despite my protests I received numerous herbal treatments. The bad foot made working difficult, so I went off to another village, Samapura, with a man named Lal. Lal was a calm, handsome man with a good understanding of human nature and of English.

The village was fifty miles east of Anuradhapura, in a very dry, wild jungle. It was short on water and far from the services of a town. The people, not owning the land they farmed, were exploited by absentee landlords. They had no education and no money. Dangerous animals roamed about the village at night — leopards, wild boar, and elephants. The elephants sometimes trampled the paddy fields. Daytime temperatures during the dry season reached 100 degrees, making work difficult. The place was also infested with malaria mosquitoes and poisonous snakes. Whoever called Sri Lanka the paradise of the East was not thinking of Samapura.

When we got to the Sarvodaya center in Samapura, some people told us of an accident that had happened when Lal was away. Sarvodaya had provided them with a sprayer and pesticides to spray their paddy fields for beetles. A young man had pumped the pressure up too much in the sprayer, causing the hose to pop off. He had not understood the operation of the machine. The spray went all over his body, and his friends carried him a mile to the bus stand, where they waited hours for a bus to take them to the hospital. The man died in the bus.

We ate dinner at the Sarvodaya center, which was a mud hut with a cajun roof and a large porch. Rice, coconut, and chillies were cooked on a wood fire, in earthenware pots, and we ate sitting cross-legged on reed mats, by the light of a kerosene lantern. After rinsing the dishes we sat on the porch drinking tea and watched the full moon rise. The only sounds were crickets and wind. Sri Lankan life is simple, like an endless camping trip, taken with 14,000,000 of your closest friends. I was beginning to realize that poverty had another dimension.

We sat up late discussing Sarvodaya. “A good Sarvodaya worker,” Lal said, “must move with the people. He must understand them and not feel superior. He must not be proud. If he comes in a nice suit, carrying a case, how can he move with the people? A degree is useless; what is important is an understanding of the human nature. Man is man everywhere under the sun. Every man wants to be loved, to be respected. It is simple.” Lal smiled, stared at me, and puffed on his cigarette. “The villager may be uneducated, but he can think, and he must be respected. Every man is great in his place.”

I smiled in agreement and asked him why he joined Sarvodaya. “I want to serve the people,” he replied. “Sarvodaya is the best development organization in Sri Lanka. Most people join because they want to serve the people. They don’t join to make money; the wages are poor. In government work the people are there to make money. There is a lot of corruption, a lot of waste.” As the moon rose higher we fell silent and sat a long time before retiring.

In the morning we walked through the village. There were 30 or 40 huts, widely spaced, each with a few banana trees, some flowers, and a starving dog in the yard. We stopped and talked to one woman about Sarvodaya. Her name was Nandiwathaperis, and she lived in a one-and-half room mud hut with her sister and mother. She said in Sinhalese that her husband had left her and taken their children. Now she worked as a hired laborer and sold cigarettes (one by one) and betel leaves (chewed for a mild narcotic effect). I asked how Sarvodaya had affected her.

“They helped me to rebuild the hut after the cyclone,” she said. I paused.

“Yes?” I looked at Lal, my interpreter. He looked at Nandiwathaperis, she looked at him, and he looked back at me.

“Um . . . is there anything else?” I asked.

“They helped me to plant rice. They gave us loans. I could not have managed.” I asked if she would have had enough to eat without Sarvodaya. Lal did not translate.

“She will not say,” he said. “She would not have had enough, but they are too proud to answer a question like that.” It was easy to believe, judging from what was in the house. There was a box to sit on and a bed made of sticks and a piece of burlap. A table had cigarettes and betel leaves on it, and a bag of rice underneath. A picture of Buddha was nailed to the wall. The back room had a few clothes and dishes in it. In the corner was a hoe and a broom, made out of the branch of a bush. That was all. Nandiwathaperis served us tea before we left.

The day was getting hot as we walked down a narrow path with paddy fields on either side. Laborers were making holes in dikes, to permit water to run into certain fields, and patching up other holes with mud. They smiled and waved. Lal suddenly stepped backwards, clapping his hands. Three feet in front of us was a large cobra, which raised its head in the air before slithering off the path.

We visited many huts, and saw a brick-making plant that Lal had started. There were great stacks of bricks 15 feet high, carved out of the cracked earth, waiting to be burned. We saw the Sarvodaya pre-school, run by a village girl. She gave the children milk from a Dutch charity, and they sang songs embellished with lots of giggles. It was scorching hot by the time we got back to the center, and I felt sick for the rest of the day. The next day I felt better and worked in Lal’s garden before returning to Anuradhapura.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, like the Rotary or the 4-H club, tries to build good citizens. But more than that, it is trying to build a new way of life for the country by rejecting Western values and returning to traditional ones. To really understand it, one must understand Buddhism, the dominant religion of the country. Some of the principles of Sarvodaya (and of Buddhism) are non-violence, loving kindness shown to all living things, and a dedication to serve others. Most Sarvodaya workers are good examples.

The president of Sarvodaya is a charismatic man named A.T. Ariyaratne, who reminded me of Charlie Chaplin. “Ari,” as he is called, founded the movement twenty years ago. He has a small moustache and a high squeaky voice and tilts his head to one side when he speaks. One of the first times I saw Ari was in Anuradhapura. A well-dressed man from Colombo was telling him that Sarvodaya needed better management and more college graduates.

“No, no,” said Ari in his squeaky voice. “Better management would destroy the spirit of the thing, and the spirit is what counts. We can make houses and walls and roads, but we are trying to do the impossible thing . . . we are trying to make men.” It was melodramatic, but it was a good speech. The man from Colombo was silent, and Ari got up and left.

I spent a few weeks at the Anuradhapura center, learning about the mechanics and problems of Sarvodaya and helping with some of the work. I was eager to get back into the villages and finally went to a shramadana in the township of Tantirimale.

Tantirimale is in a remote region north of Anuradhapura, next to the huge Wilpatu Game Refuge. Sumanaratne, the chief Sarvodaya worker there, drove me through ten miles of dense jungle to reach Tantirimale. We travelled the last three miles riding double on a bicycle, and I saw my first wild elephant. They are very dangerous when they charge. I was told by a friend that you can’t outrun them, and if you climb a tree they will pull it down. Your only hope is to run circles around a tree, to the left. They have difficulty turning to the left. (I questioned someone further on this matter later and found out that they have difficulty turning to the right as well.) This elephant did not charge but just stood where he was, flopping his ears.

The villages in this district were very poor. Few people even had a bicycle, and many subsisted on tiny government rice rations. Some of the children had kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency disease, characterized by a swollen belly and skinny limbs. The people were not unhappy though and most said they liked living there. Before I came to Sri Lanka, I would not have believed that. “What do you mean, they’re not unhappy?” I might have asked. “The children have kwashiorkor, the people have no education, no jobs, no money. Of course they’re unhappy.” However I was now beginning to wonder what was necessary for happiness. The people of Tantirimale lacked almost everything money can buy, but they had each other.

Sumanaratne took me around to a lot of huts, to meet villagers. Everyone, without exception, was friendly, and those that could afford it served us tea. I asked one family if I could photograph them. There were three women and six children. They lived in a tiny square room, with a porch made of a mosaic of mud and sticks, cajuns, straw, and newspaper. They were pleased by the request, and the children were ushered into the hut for haircombing and a shirt or two. They bunched together in front of their home with such beaming faces that I didn’t notice their ragged appearance. I only saw it later, in the photograph.

I was now beginning to wonder what was necessary for happiness. The people of Tantirimale lacked almost everything money can buy, but they had each other.

The shramadana involved cutting a road through the jungle to link two villages. About sixty people turned up, and in one morning we cut through a mile of forest with axes and machetes. Trees too big to chop down were set on fire. We finished at noon and Sarvodaya provided tea. People were hot, sweaty, and in a good mood.

In the evening we went to the irrigation tank to bathe. There was a blue hummingbird flitting about among the bushes and trees growing in the tank. White cranes were walking the shallows looking for fish, as were two small boys, with a basket for a net. Trees and grass burned in the twilight, with little fires here and there, set for reasons which were unclear. I could swim only a short way because there was a crocodile in the tank somewhere.

I liked the way the people of Tantirimale lived in harmony with nature, as meager and isolated as their lives were. By this time my confusion about Sri Lanka was gone. The adjustment I started making the night the Land-Rover left us was complete. I stayed for another two months in the country and liked it as much as America when I left. The warmth and calmness of the people grew on me, and I stopped longing for comfort and cleanliness. By the time I left, I was less sure than when I arrived of what the problems of the country were or what should be done about them.

Sarvodaya was working to provide people with ten basic services: food, clean water, clothing, housing, health care, education, a clean environment, fuel, communication, and spiritual and cultural opportunities. They were trying to achieve this by getting people to work together and to lead virtuous lives. It did not work perfectly, but I liked their approach. I met some people from Western aid organizations who thought too much in terms of money and Western expertise. I lunched with one man from the World Bank who was staying in the fanciest hotel in Sri Lanka; could he move with the people? He could perhaps sense how miserable they were, but not how happy.

This article originally appeared, in a different version, in The Vermont Cynic, the undergraduate weekly newspaper of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.