In 2004, Sri Lanka was hit by one of the most powerful natural disasters in human history.
Out of blue, what seemed to be a paradise on Earth floating on the mystical waters of the Indian ocean, turned into a living hell for those ones who decided to spend their Christmas holidays on this exotic island in the south of India.
He who faces nature’s ferocity stands no chance; he can only try, hope, and believe. Chami Chaturanga grappled with the Christmas tsunami, and lived to tell me his story.
Sneaky sun of Sri Lanka
December 26, 2004. It was a peaceful morning in Unuwatuna, a small coastal city in the south of Sri Lanka. Dotted coconuts wandering away from the nearby palm trees, waltzing back and forth with the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, on the snow-white sandy beaches. Dawn broke as the sun manoeuvred through opaque clouds making the city yawn awake. Here, in Sri Lanka, the sun is sneaky- it seems distant and harmless, hiding behind brilliant white wisps, but at the same time it is always there, above you, keeping an eye on you. That very peaceful morning, that rascal managed to trick everyone into believing that it would be just another quiet sunny Friday. What nature had plotted that day, no one could have foreshadowed.
Sri Lanka is a small island country snuggled right by the Indian subcontinent. Old Greeks, as well as Persian and Arabic merchants used to give it different names.The name that stuck the longest, Ceylon, was given by the Portuguese as the first interested European emperors. Until 1948, the country had been under the British administration, when it became a free, democratic republic of Sri Lanka.
The island’s nature is lush, its tea plantations in the central and northern part of the country stretch out as far as the eye could see.One of the most beautiful I had ever seen was on the way from Kandy, the Queen’s favourite city in the center of the island, to a little town of Ella, nowadays known as a stop towards even smaller NuwaraEliya. Ella is often called ,,Little Britain’ among tourists who noticed obvious British influence in impeccably clean Tudor style gardens and hotels. This tucked mountain haven enveloped in nature and Ceylon medicinal tea plantations is and has always been a place where you go to relax and escape from every day life.
Four hours southwards, several sudden downpours and many unfinished roads later, I arrived at the point where I could see the sea shore in front of me. Untouched, wild, no man’s land. Just like I needed it to be. Soon after, I arrived in Unawatuna, where this story began.
A loud bang on the door woke Chami up. He dashed towards the door so his kids, Geha and Irida, don’t wake up. At the door, he saw his friend gasping for air, telling him that their neighbour had fallen into a well this morning, just before dawn. Nothing could have been done and their good friend had tragically died. They got ready and went to help out the mourning family.
He was lighting his fourth cigarette in a row in front of a shop on the main road Matara, not far away from his home, thinking about how unpredictable life is; sometimes it turns for the better, other times for the worse. Little did he know that the worst was yet to come.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by the screams of the crowd running in the same direction. Chami still couldn’t see what was going on, he stood petrified. There, behind the crowd, the horizon looked unusually peaceful, he couldn’t see a single wave, not eventhe ocean foam, or even water for that matter. Where had everything disappeared?
The ocean had receded more than 50 metres away from the shore and was about to unleash an unimaginable force. The wave was that big that Chami couldn’t even see it in front of him. Only when he looked higher up to search for that sneaky sun that promised a beautiful warm day, he then saw a gigantic ten metre high water wall that was about to wipe out everything on its way. What he saw was unbelievable. Already the next second, he became a part of the stampede he had wondered about just a few moments before. He ran like he had never run before in his life; though, he had never had to run for his life.
The water started splashing the streets, covering the houses and its roofs little by little. All of those who were running away from the wave, were now floating in the never ending river. Chami managed to clutch the first palm tree he spotted on his way. He grasped so tightly trying to gather as much strength as possible. What he saw next devastated him- his father was carrying his five-year-old Geha unable to stop. He told me he had never felt so powerless before. The river was carrying them further away from him, and there was nothing he could do.
Ten minutes later, wild waves were calming down and Chami swam down the river and reached his house. Since the upper floor was still above the water, he managed to cling to the balcony and step into the house. His wife, son and mother were there – terrified, but safe.
When he glanced at the horizon at one point, he saw that the water was receding again, this time even farther away. He felt there was another tsunami coming, but the rest of the people, mainly tourists, were trying to save what they could- either their belongings, or their friends and family lying still on the ground. The water started getting wild before it bashed again and tried to desert what it was left. Chami left his family to look for his father and daughter. Fortunately, he found them just nearby. His feeble father was holding the facade of an old blue house where he hid little Geha, in the small attic above the water.
They were waiting there for some time, hoping that it was all over. In the following hours, the water level gradually went down. At one point, they all felt the ground under their feet. They went back home, tired, still unaware they survived one of the biggest and most destructive tsunamis in history.
That year, the epicentre of the earthquake was in Sumatra, in Indonesia, where it took away 250 000 lives. It hit 14 countries among which are India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Thailand. On the small island of Sri Lanka, it killed 30.000 people. On the Mercalli intensity scale, it is one of the strongest earthquakes in history with 9.3 degrees. This earthquake, which was followed by several destructive tsunamis, affected the tectonic plates on the other side of the world, and reached even Alaska. Only two earthquakes of similar intensity were in Kamchatka, in Russia (9.0; in 1954) and in Tohoko, in Japan (9.1; in 2011).
Now, 13 years later, Chamiis trying to find ways to be grateful for having his family around. There is nothing left of that little family-run hostel which was making just enough money for them to pay the bills in the end of the month and to get by. The ground floor of their house with two apartments they used to rent per hour to local couples was completely ruined. On the first floor, where the family used to live, only a few documents and some jewellery survived.
Months after the tsunami, Sri Lankans became united in a way that only disasters can unite. They organised spots for help, shelters, open kitchens and places for collecting food and first aid, until the people started to get back on track. Because of this, Chami was on the crest of a wave. He remembers now through tears what he thought back then: if tonight is the worst, tomorrow can only be better. He says that he has always respected and believed in Buddhism, which he grew up with, but it wasn’t until the disaster that happened did he start believing in karma. He says he didn’t need a better proof that he had done something good in his previous life to deserve to be spared in this one, when the tragedy was inevitable.
He decided to make use of the perfect location of his house, which was just next to the main beach in Unawatuna. It was the time for the new beginning. There was no money, but they tried to find a way to realize their idea. Little by little, they were building their ,,castle on the beach” as they called their new hotel. Chami would drive a second hand tuktuk during the night, and he would build his castle during the day.
Tourists would come every now and then, they would hear his story, and help him out with a small donation.
Today, Chami is happy. He remembers exactly when a turn for the better happened. One day, an older German couple, Mr and Mrs Schmidt, arrived. They were photographers, adventurers but above all, they were humanitarians. They were amazed by his story so they decided to do something much more than donating. They told him about online booking, trip advisor, and other essential tools for us travellers. Back then, Chami didn’t know anything about computers, but he understood their importance right away. After a while, the photographs were uploaded, the castle was faithfully represented; so what was next? Mr Schmidt looked at him and told him: ,,Now wait, your first guests are coming soon.”
First online booking was a different dimension, which he didn’t have a choice but to believe in. Someone on the other side of the world found his castle and was coming to the small Unawatuna the following day at 11 am. That morning, Chami had everything ready: coffee, Sri Lankan tea, fruits and a warm smile. Half an hour past 11, first guests knocked at the door. He remembers that day as the new beginning.
As I was finishing my conversation with Chami, I noticed that even though I coped well with the sweltering summers in Montenegro, I was still tricked by the sneaky Sri Lankan sun. I got carried away so much listening to this brave man who got his chance to start over, that I didn’t even notice I was getting sunburnt.
Regardless of what palmistry and divinations say, no one in this world knows what the future brings. There is only one thing for sure –the sun, that sly, cunning, sneaky sun, which we all love, will come up every day on the east side and will peacefully fall asleep on the west side. However, in those few hours of light in between, build your own world, your own small castle and its gates because you never know what the dawn might bring.