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Please Read - Account Of Sri Lanka


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On 26 December at around 9 AM local time, the Eurasian and Austrailian tectonic plates northwest of Sumatra ground past each other for a full seven minutes, releasing a vibration that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale, reportedly the fourth most powerful the earth has experienced since 1900. The consequent displacement released a surge of energy radiating otward from its source across thousands of kilometers of the Indian Ocean in an arc ranging from Thailand to the Maldives.

Having gotten stuck in Hikkaduwa for much longer than I anticpiated, (got sick twice and had to get surf-ful each time I got better) I was up early to enjoy my daily breakfast on the beach and to watch the waves of the Indian break on the offshore reef, planning to catch an early morning train east along the coast and then catch a series of buses bringing me eventually to the hill country. Like each morning I had spent there, the serenity of the honest ocean roaring in the background while I read was the best imaginable start to a day in a life of total leisure. Getting back to my room, I packed up my stuff, took a few minutes to talk with the family about my route, and pay my week's board. Looking at the clock, it was just past nine thirty and the train was scheduled to arrive anywhere between nine fifty and ten thiry. I decided to walk the three kilometers into town since it was a cool morning and I had enough time. In a day of chance for everyone in south Asia, a random series of individual decisions would prove fortuitous or otherwise. In my case, I was lucky, my experience of the day comparatively benign, in the right place at the right time, but like everyone else, a different decision, the desire to get in a vehicle or leave five minutes early would've produced a different outcome. I've come to conclude that natural disasters seem to be a microcosm of life itself, and though socioeconomic factors help determine the outcome, its still a matter of chance.

As I made my way down the street, I sensed an agitation of a small crowd gathered in the downstairs lobby of a nearby hotel. I decided to stop, thinking that somebody had just had just had a heart attack or something and stood around curious to know what was going on. I vaguely recall being disuaded from that inital assessment by the looks of the faces on the by-standers. They were moving forward and back and their faces were mixed between horror and humor, astonishment and disbelief. As I glanced around at each of them, it happened, and within a moment, they were out and running. Paralyzed in confusion, I stood for a moment as the water came rushing out behind them, meanwhile thinking that a water pipe must have burst. Looking up the street, and seeing a scene of chaos that I won't forget, it became clear that the entire town was running away. Fortuitously, I was across the street from a sturdy two story building; I turned, ran up the stairway, and dumping my pack in a corner, ran to the open balcony- my smirk of disbelief turned suddenly to horror as I realized that the ocean was surging. The water had risen so quickly that people were already up to their waists in it, cars and rickshaws were floating into buildings, hotel furniture, bricks tumbling, glass breaking. I no longer felt so comfortable in that building realizing it too could tumble but was quickly resigned to the fact that within four seconds of a quick decision, I had one way or another sealed my fate.

A few minutes later the ocean receded, and I ran out with some local kids to help an old woman who had been clinging to a nearby tree. The street emptied of water pretty quickly, revealing an unbroken line of destruction down the street. We heard a man yelling from an overturned rickshaw, and with a group of others lifted it off his partially crushed body; in the process, one of the kids impaled his foot on a piece of broken glass. There was a chaos of acitivity in the street, shop keepers grabbing what they could, tourists stumbling in shock, many people hurt in some way but seemingly not badly; that five minutes of activity again turned to panic as somebody yelled that the ocean was coming back.

The second surge was more powerful and longer, but where I was, most people managed to get to a safer place for it. Again, ten minutes after the ocean receded, the streets drained, and a flurry of activity started again, the salvage of friends and material possessions carried out quickly until it looked like the surge was coming again. It was over, but for the next few hours no one was sure, and the perpetual fear-mongers among the tourists made sure to incite panic and rash decisions. I decided to stay close to the coast as many fled inland, helping dress the cut leg of a friend I made in the excitement and deciding that I'd prefer to see and know what was going on. Walking down to the ocean, I watched a series of heroic actions, as local kids on rafts brought in surfers and snorkellers that had been stranded in the water for hours. Meanwhile, the beach was an unrecognizable mess and the shopkeepers and hotel owners were collapsed in chairs in tears. I looked through hollow eyes and saw hollow eyes looking back.

By the afternoon, it was clearer that the events were over, though the local rumors of it coming back continued to circulate. It turned out that the building I had been in was the only place with cold beer, and returning from a short and disillusioning walk, there were a number of sun-burned, overweight foreign tourists drunk and ordering around the same kid whose foot had been lacerated by a shard of glass. When the floods came, they were on the fourth floor of their super hotel. It was the first time I had the sensation that would continue to pervade for several days; in a time of disaster where everything, but especially food, water, and electricity were scarce, anyone with the financial means to do so, would buy it up.

A British photographer and I went for a walk later that evening into the main part of the town, a five minutes walk further from where I had run up into the restaurant (the 'Blue Fox" incidentally), and the scene was beyond belief. All day, I had been amazed by how little one could know by actually being there; what had happened in my immediate view was the only knowledge that I had, and that sitting before a computer in North America, I would've known more of what was going on than where I was; based on what I saw alone, I knew it was a horrendous incident, but it wasn't until I made it to the town center that the full scale became clear. Everywhere the buildings were entirely demolished, cars and buses were overturned, hanging over bridges, through windows. Boats from the harbor had been carried up to two hundred meters in from the shore. Electric wires were lying in the street next to corpses. The photographer, Richard went along to take photos and I turned back. Five minutes more and thats where I would've been with nowhere to run, in the same part of town where hundreds of people were killed.

I had a serene evening with some local kids and a few tourists spending the night on the floor in a candlelit Buddhist temple. Everyone had a story that we shared amidst the wafts of coconut oil and incense.

The text book natural disaster, and as the WHO now warns will become increasingly worse in the event of Cholera, lack of water and electricity. I was surrounded by tourists who just needed out, and they were throwing cash at every driver trying to get back to Colombo. Invariably, they did, and instead of being used to transport the injured or bring in supplies, demands were being dictated by the dollar. I tried to find something to do, but other than clear rubbish from the streets, I am completely without relevant skill. I decided yesterday morning to jump in a van with some other tourists, an envied ticket out, but as we drove away, I felt awful like I was running away and maybe I could do something, the reality being that I can't. One of the girls remarked later on that she felt so much better now that we were gone; Its the problem with the developed world as a whole; when it gets too much, we can just tune out, leave, and for us it really is over. The destruction, the devastation, the shortages of supplies, the rebuilding process, coping with the death of friends and families were something that we didn't have to deal with. The southern coast of Sri lanka had in fact ceased to exist as we drove into the mist of the hills. And I have to admit, I felt better. On the road to the hills, we passed an endless convoy of volunteers and medical supplies heading to the coast, to the world that no longer existed to those in the van.

I thought of so much on that drive that I wanted to be able to put into words, that I feel I can no longer do. Things about hypocrisy and our illusions of reality. Perhaps I'll be able to materialize that emotion at some point later in the trip, but for now, its stored in a sensation that is beyond my attempt to verbalize it. I said earlier, that I felt natural disasters were a micro-cosm of life, somehow following the same socio-economic determinism. Like everywhere else, the poorest suffer hardest.

It was overwhelming to log onto the computer this morning and find so many emails in my account. Thank you for worrying about me, although I feel strange because I never felt in danger. Only today did I hear that 23,000 were killed in Sri Lanka alone. I'll stay around here for a little while, for how long I'm not so sure.

Best,

Dave

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