Around the Pearl

It wasn’t until Sarinda Unamboowe ’88 was pedaling down the road that he realized he might have bitten off more than he could chew. Cycling 90 miles a day for 10 straight days with no training—he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

“Honestly, to this day I have no idea how I completed it alive,” Unamboowe recalls. “Now that this is an annual event, it has given me a reason to train regularly. This year was a lot more fun.”

Watch a TEDX presentation that Sarinda Unamboowe '88 and Nathan Sivagananathan gave about their 416 mile charity walk to raise funds to build a cancer hospital in Sri Lanka.

The annual event is called Around the Pearl, a 1,427-kilometer (about 887 miles) bike ride along the coast of Sri Lanka that raises awareness, funds, and equipment for Sri Lankans living with cerebral palsy. The Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation estimates there are about 40,000 people in Sri Lanka who have the neurological disorder, which affects body movement and muscle coordination. Basics, like wheelchairs for those with the condition, are in short supply. The Around the Pearl event seeks to fill some of the gaps.

Unamboowe first participated in the ride in 2014, and he completed it again this past April. The backdrop for the ride itself is spectacular: Sri Lanka is a tropical island nation nicknamed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and cycling around its perimeter nets amazing encounters with the natural scenery, wildlife, historical places, and, perhaps most importantly, the people.

Unamboowe describes himself as an “extremely proud” Sri Lankan, and participating in Around the Pearl isn’t the only way he demonstrates his pride. In 2011, Unamboowe, who is Sinhalese, and friend and coworker Nathan Sivagananathan, a Tamil, created and participated in an event they called Project Trail, a 670-kilometer (about 416 miles) charity walk to raise funds to build a cancer hospital in the town of Tellippalai, in the northern province of Sri Lanka. The hospital was completed in 2014.

Their respective ethnicities are important in this context. The history of Sri Lanka is marked by a bitter civil war between these two groups, and the fighting had only ended two years earlier, in 2009. The route Project Trail took started in the south, within primarily Sinhalese communities, and ended in the north, which is primarily Tamil.

“After almost three decades of ethnic conflict, we were anticipating some resistance or hostility [during the walk],” Unamboowe recalls. What they found instead was generosity and support. Unamboowe recollects an encounter with a group of men who approached the walkers as they were passing through a southern town: “As we approached, this ‘gang’ walked into what I immediately assumed was their hideout to possibly gather poles and sticks to stir up a ruckus. Instead, they came out with bags of ice cream and distributed them to everyone. 

“That simple act caused me to break down, mostly out of guilt for the terrible assumptions I’d made,” he says. “Every day, with every act of kindness as we made our way up north, my faith in humanity was restored.” Humanitarian pursuits have deep roots in Unamboowe’s life and grew during his time at IC as a business student. As a student at Ithaca, he volunteered at Longview, with 4-H, and with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“Coming from a third-world country, I didn’t expect to go to America and find kids living in such horrific conditions,” Unamboowe says about his time with Big Brothers Big Sisters. “The experience while at Ithaca College and those opportunities gave me valuable insight on working with people from diverse backgrounds. It helped me realize how I could assist in my own little way to try to add value to the lives of the less fortunate.”

It’s a spirit that continues to imbue Unamboowe’s life. Though Around the Pearl 2015 is a wrap and Project Trail is over, his passion for humanitarian work hasn’t subsided. He plans to take part in Around the Pearl in 2016, and he and Sivagananathan are currently planning a Project Trail redux, walking from north to south this time with the aim of funding the construction of a hospital in Matara, a town on the southern tip of the country.