Goodwill alive and well after disaster
JOHN M. GLIONNA
ULLE, SRI lANKA, JANUARY 14 For years, this bohemian beach town on scenic Arugam Bay was a colourful stamping ground for surfing fanatics, backpackers and pot-smoking Rastafarians in dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-shirts.
They drank at bars alongside local fishermen and rice farmers. About 60 thatch-roofed resorts and eateries such as the Aloha, Hang Loose Hotel and Cool Spot restaurant — run mostly by Sri Lankans — lined a busy thoroughfare where motorcycles buzzed past ox carts appearing like holdovers from another time.
Then the tsunami struck, turning this hip little resort into a rubble-strewn wasteland. More than 1,000 of the village’s 6,000 residents are dead along with many tourists. A thousand residents are missing — ‘‘taken by the sea,’’ as the locals say.
Only three hotels remain — The Ali, Mermaid’s Village, Dean’s Place and Rustling Palms. The ghostly ruins of the Stardust have been left to sink into the sand. Its owner, a Dane named Peer Goodman, drowned in the water. Amid the adversity that would drive away some less determined entrepreneurs, the few hotel owners whose buildings survived have become the town’s ambassadors of goodwill.
Places such as the Hideaway, a grand turn-of-the-century house surrounded by several thatched cabanas, have turned themselves into free-of-charge headquarters for foreign doctors and relief workers, journalists and Sri Lankan military men. At the Siam View Hotel, the French Red Cross has set up a clinic and pharmacy at the site of a former Internet cafe, where each night at the second-floor bar, beers are tapped from warm kegs and relief workers, reporters and others anxiously keep up with the developments of the international relief effort on cable TV.
As the relief workers and physicians arrive from around the globe, those Sri Lankans who have the means to do so — natives as well as transplants — have made the newcomers feel welcome.
At the Hideaway, which has seen its share of damage, two cabanas and acres of gardens were lost to the rush of water. The waves washed up on the grand front porch, turning the once-secluded resort into beachfront property. Now, electricity is scarce and owner Vernon Tissera can afford to run his generator for only a few hours each day.
But rather than gouge visitors, the Hideaway has thrown away the bill. Three times a day, a local chef working for the Tisseras serves up spicy Sri Lankan delicacies and gourmet meals to people who are little more than strangers.
The hotel’s Toyota Land Cruiser is one of the few remaining privately owned vehicles in this town.
Now the vehicle has become a makeshift taxi, and Tissera, his two sons and grandson ferry relief workers and supplies to and from the beachhead. The Tisseras have enlisted a dozen villagers, homeless and unemployed after the tsunami, to help put the hotel back together. ‘‘We need to help people — you can’t be material-minded,’’ said Marlene Tissera, Vernon’s wife.
Relief workers say such hospitality makes a difficult job more do-able. ‘‘It makes it a pleasure to do this,’’ said Mark Stinson, a San Francisco-area doctor working with Relief International who is a guest at the Hideaway. At the Siam View Hotel, which is playing host to the French Red Cross, agency nurse Jean-Michel Pin likens owner Manfred Netzband-Miller to Mother Teresa. ‘‘Without him, we’d be living in tents, or worse,’’ Pin said.
Still, Marlene Tissera has a hard time fathoming how the waves that once drew so many tourists here have transformed the tropical paradise. ‘‘We’re just shattered, all of us,’’ she said. When she talks about the destructive wall of water, Angela Mitchell’s eyes widen. Just before 9 am on December 26, the Hideaway manager recalls, she heard people shouting: ‘‘The sea is coming! The sea is coming!’’ And the tourists and villagers came too, in droves, fleeing the oncoming wave.
More than 100 stood on the roof of the old hotel. Mitchell, a 54-year-old native, moved the crowd and several vehicles behind the building for more protection. Her plan worked: No one at the Hideaway was killed.
Hotel owners such as Vernon Tissera promise to rebuild both their own land and the town. Down at the Siam View, owner Netzband-Miller embodies the keep-on-partying spirit of the old Ulle. — LAT-