An Ocean View
First appeared in Fringe Magazine.
You’d never know that our driver was in Dubai when the tsunami struck Sri Lanka. He plays the intimate tour-guide as we dodge tuk-tuks, scooters, and delivery vans. He points out the place where a train, full of people who sought refuge after the first wave, was torn from its track and washed inland. He speaks of the superstitious locals who believe that the ghosts in the tide dragged the beach into the sea. He says that the tsunami was a very bad thing. I say nothing.
In Unawatuna, the scars have begun to fade. Those who can rebuild have done so, some with clapboard and twine, the more fortunate with brick and stone. In the aftermath, the hotels ignore the law prohibiting beachfront development as enthusiastically as before. You’re part of the recovery team—you buy fresh coconuts and bananas from the huts dotting the shoreline, and dine on fresh seafood in the restaurants. You head to favourite places, the beaches, the tea plantations. But it’s the hundreds of bare foundations that really get to you as you trace your way along Sri Lanka’s coast. The massive waves claimed families whole, and the remnant slabs of concrete are testament that often no one was left to rebuild.
Just inland from Unawatuna’s beach restaurants and hotels is a clearing studded with moldy concrete pilings, lush with undergrowth. Here, the waves scraped even the palms away. A small, white shrine sits at the edge of the clearing, a Swedish name splitting the Singhalese inscription on its side.
The slightly-built woman smiles as I hand over some rupees. We’ve purchased cotton sun-shirts and paid, I’m sure, far more than they’re worth. But the creased black & white photo of a young boy’s face has dissolved my desire for a bargain. There are no official figures for how many perished in Unawatuna, but the locals agree it is somewhere between 100 and 150. In such a small community, I have no cause to doubt the story about her son’s death, which left one other child to grieving parents, an almost-family.
For the second night in a row I am having trouble falling back asleep. We’re on the ground floor, our little terrace butting against the hotel’s stretch of beach. Restless, I wait for the telltale roar of a wave rushing ashore, and dive into image-cycles of waves and water. I listen to my wife sleeping beside me and I imagine ways to cheat a disaster. Maybe we’d lock arms and swim together, hold onto trees and walls. It’s comforting, and eventually I drift back asleep, ignoring the reality: holding hands against a wave moving hundreds of miles an hour is laughable. Survival would be nothing other than a miracle.
Scars come in as many shapes and sizes as the tragedies which cause them. In Unawatuna, as you look around at the smiling tourists and gracious residents, you sense that although it moves on, life may never return to normal. “Tsunami” has stitched itself into Sri Lankan tales and has become an indelible part of the culture, as much as cricket and Ceylon tea. Stories—real and not—drift in and out of life like shadows, but with less definition. On the beach you pay too much for the fresh peanuts and listen about the toothless man’s devastated family. You believe the woman with one arm. You pay a little more, try to enjoy your surroundings, brush skepticism aside. Embracing sympathy becomes as much a part of a country’s recovery as aid packages, five-star hotels, and ad campaigns.
The manager visits while we’re eating breakfast. We’re leaving for Colombo and he’s arranged a car because, as he says, foreigners should avoid public buses. We’ve found out that the war up north has spilled southwards, and the Tamil rebels have killed a well-liked minister in a suicide bombing outside Colombo. We have this problem in the north, he says. He brightens when I ask how business is. He tells us that the hotel will be closing at the end of the month to be completely rebuilt. All rooms will have a sea-view, he says, so that every visitor can look at the ocean.