Serendipity is a wonderful word. It means, according to my dictionary “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”.
It is also a word synonymous with Sri Lanka, one of my favourite countries, and comes from one of several names by which that country has been known over the centuries: Serendib.
This is a story of serendipity. It starts earlier this year, when I taught a week-long travel writing course at the annual Camp Creative summer school in the small town of Bellingen, New South Wales. My students were a group of mature travellers, keen to hone their writing skills in order to best record their experiences. Among them was a woman called Vreni Voigt. After the course was over, Vreni called me for advice on a fund-raising idea she had, to raise money to help build a pre-school in Sri Lanka.
The Samadhi Grove pre-school is the dream of Sister Susila, an Australian Buddhist nun who has worked with Sri Lankan villagers in need since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated so much of the country’s coastline. Vreni had met Sister Suila and wanted to help out by creating a project that would raise money for the pre-school.
My interest was immediate. As a professional travel writer I have been to Sri Lanka three times, and like so many who travel in this beautiful country, I had found it enchanting. I knew many of my travel writer colleagues felt the same. I had also seen first hand – some months afterwards the devastation left by that terrible tsunami.
The idea of publishing a book of travel stories about Sri Lanka was born – by serendipity! When I asked my friends and colleagues in the Australian travel writing fraternity if they would agree to contribute stories for an anthology to be sold to support the pre-school, the responses were swift and positive.
Each writer had their own tale to tell and their own perspective on Sri Lanka, born of their individual experiences while travelling. Their views about Sri Lanka are as personal and diverse as their personalities and writing styles.
Over months, Vreni and I talked on the phone, gradually bringing together the elements to make a book. We found the publisher, the good folk at Perth-based Vivid Publishing, who understood what we were doing and also assisted generously. I went with Vreni to meet Sister Susila and some members of the local Sri Lankan community at Susila’s peaceful bushland retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland.
Stories for the book were gathered, including from some unexpected sources such as Melbourne restaurateur Shanaka Fernando, who donated an extract from his just-released autobiography, Lentil As Anything. I chose an evocative memoir piece, dealing with his childhood in Colombo.
Another story I knew I wanted to include was that of my friend and colleague John Maddocks who, with his wife Cheryl, was lucky to survive the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. It is a story you won’t soon forget.
Through the skill of the 21 writers who contributed so generously, those who read this book will be transported to Sri Lanka, whether they have been there already or not. Whether you travel to Sri Lanka for the cricket, the surf breaks, the culture, history, landscape, or the food, there is something here for you.
This week, the finished books were delivered and it’s a big thrill to finally hold it in my hand. The cover is resplendent with a montage of images by Melbourne-based photographer Ewen Bell. The title comes from the contribution by the doyenne of Australian travel writing, Susan Kurosawa.
I thank them with all my heart, along with the other writers: Brian Thacker (who also created a beautiful map of Sri Lanka for us), John Borthwick, Greg Clarke, Brad Crouch, Tim Elliott, Carla Grossetti, Sally Hammond, Carmen Jenner, Brian Johnston, Sue Llewellyn, Chris Maher, Sheriden Rhodes, Daniel Scott, Mike Smith, Louise Southerden, Tom Neal Tacker, and Margaret Turton.
The Samadhi Grove pre-school is currently housed in temporary premises and is looking build a permanent home to take 30 students. Ninety-five per cent of the book price goes directly to buying building materials and equipment for the building, and construction is due to start in May, if there are enough funds.
Copies of Snapshots of Sri Lanka can be ordered through Vivid Publishing.