Euan Ferguson witnessed first-hand the devastation wreaked by the tsunami. Six months later he returns to Sri Lanka to see how the island is putting itself back together
Sunday June 19, 2005
There are many extraordinary aspects to Sri Lanka - to both the pre-tsunami getaway, favoured by the kind of people who read books before they get on planes and are unashamed to call themselves 'travellers', and to the post-disaster island, slapped on to the world map in the most brutal way possible in the very last week of last year.
The mad misty highlands, for instance, high as an Alp and chill as Wales and filled with tea shops and memories of Empire. The gruelling, twisting roads, which make you realise, when you think of the British planters of 150 years ago doing the same journey by ox-cart, what a bunch of dedicated, inventive, stubborn, crazed, greedy bastards they all were. The beaches and the surf, of course, of which you've never really seen the like. And the sapphires, and the spices. But, most of all, the people.
I don't know about you, but if I'd lost half my family, my house and my livelihood to a freak once-in-10,000-years Act of God, then been fed repeated half-truths by my government about when I might have a home again, and then saw a bunch of plump whiteys stepping out of a minibus spilling insanely valuable US dollars from their designer pockets, I might fall upon and harass them with very little moral compunction, and quite possibly a small sharp fish-knife.
Instead of which, six months after the wave which robbed so much of the island of life and hope, the reaction to western travellers is courteous, smiling, wary, respectful - even in the more ravaged parts, where trawlers and dredgers still lie high and broken on the dunes; even from the youngest and hungriest children.
It might be argued - most particularly by the monks (who seem to live something of the life of Riley here, being kept in free food and reverence and clothes, albeit those weird big orange nappies, in perpetuity by the very poorest people in the land) - that Buddhism, and belief in karma, are responsible: I suspect it has as much to do with the universal free education system, the astonishingly high levels of literacy and an ingrained idea of respect for others, particularly elders: three things which we in the far richer world seem fairly panicked at our clumsily inability to get right these days.
Whatever: I have been panhandled more often going down New Bond Street than in the ruined coastal towns of Sri Lanka, where a casual $5 tip will today feed a sizeable family for three days. It's all fairly sobering.
Almost six months ago, the day after Boxing Day, I flew to this island to witness the destruction left by the tsunami. We had all seen the television pictures, yet the aftermath still seemed oddly unbelievable. How could this have taken place? Half a year later, the feeling is intensified. There, just out there, the sea is lying, stolid and sparkling and magical, lying as it surely always has. Yet here, just beside the road, lies still a ruined train, a boat in a shop, and there, beneath those coconut palms, is a mass grave. You will find yourself, should you come to Sri Lanka, splashing out from the safe warm sea at one point only to turn back and stare at it, wondering: trying to imagine just how strange and terrifying it must have been to witness it going so wrong.
The question is: should you come? The answer is: good God yes, for any one of several reasons. If you're of a vaguely cost-conscious bent, there will be no better time than in the next few years, with half-price air fares and hotel managements bending over with the light suppleness of cocoa palms to provide tailored deals.
If you're more altruistic, then there is, simply, no better way to help the survivors of the tsunami - not just around the coast but throughout the island, the entire economy of which has been caught in the backwash - than by bringing your tourist pound.
If you're more misanthropic and simply want to avoid Americans, this is your place. The hotels say that hardly one has been spotted, even in the highlands, since Boxing Day; presumably the relevant state departments are advising that ay-rab waves will wash them to their knees the second they land.
You should come without misgivings. No one will expect you to keep politely quiet about the tsunami, or gloss over it awkwardly: nor will they expect you to spend any of your time looking for good works to do. It is enough that you are there, and later you will go home and speak well of the place, and while you are here you are spending something. It might seem nothing to you - it should seem nothing to you - but the 150 rupees (about 50p) you spend on sweet roadside coconuts, hacked open by machete, for a party of five will wreath the vendor with smiles: his family eats that night.
There are a couple of ways, not many more, to get rid of fair amounts of Western money very quickly, and have a thoroughly good time doing so. Both involve resorts with the Aman- prefix: the brand new Amanwella resort in the south-east, and the splendidly refurbished Amangalla in Fort Galle, at the south-western tip.
The Dutch-built fort is an astonishing place, not least because its high old walls kept the bulk of inhabitants completely safe on Boxing Day while the rest of the low-lying town of Galle was devastated. Now, at last, it has a hotel to do it justice - in history, in style, in the splendid feeling that you couldn't be anywhere else in the world.
The New Colonial hotel, as it had been known for a couple of hundred of progressively peeling years, has been given terribly careful treatment by the Aman group. This is where pop stars and politicians will come, even though privacy is such that you won't know they're there.
It's all heavy wood, warm leather, light linen and hidden trellised courtyards of flowers and cocktails; it has, of course, a splendid verandah, and grand piano, and fans, and the most professionally easy service on the Indian Ocean's landfall. And very good cold local beer.
It's not cheap. Some veteran Sri Lankan visitors, accustomed to the excitement of finding one of the many gems of cheap guest-houses around some of the most splendid beaches in the world, are growing mildly worried at this new way forward for the island: big, rich hotels on all the best spots. And there are certainly fears locally that the government's daft new law forbidding re-building near the beach will only really affect the poor (who actually need to live, again, right by the beach) while being blind-eyed if a hotel chain comes along with a subtle enough bribe. Some fears are doubtless justified. It would be horrible to see the island shoreline transformed into Fuengirola. But, for the moment, I'm convinced these new Aman hotels are a good thing. Partly because they're supremely lovely, and partly because, while the average amount spent per day by tourists is just over £20, those at five-star properties are estimated to spend about £270, and a huge percentage goes back into the local economy.
Unlike some expensive chains, these hotels do not fly in cheap labour from five corners but employ and train locally. The £5 spent on a couple of beers creates income for the local woman who launders the napkins, the tuk-tuk driver who collects the empty bottles, the sister of the wife of the man who ups the lights as darkness falls.
Post-tsunami, the Amangalla was, although not even properly open, an epicentre for aid and communications: it is very much a part of its town and local life. And it's not even on the beach.
You stay there to revel in luxury in the morning, and make day trips - to Galle town itself, to spice farms, temples, paddy-fields, gem merchants and tea plantations - and in the evening wander back for a cocktail and shower before leaving its splendour for a twilight walk around the ramparts, evening wind and hotel wine both starting to cool. From here, throughout the whole undamaged fort in fact, with its map-shops and gem-sellers and coffee-stops, it is hard to credit the damage which was done below the walls, in Galle itself. Today, down below, shops and bars are open, wry smiles have come back, and the bulk of the detritus has gone from around town. The national cricket pitch has regained some of its dignity. The purple VW I saw upturned in the middle of it, six months back, has gone - even if this and countless more memories,savage and surreal, remain.
For the beach, you may want to take the two-hour road trip for a couple of days at the sister Amanwella, a splendidly isolated new hotel where crazed surf batters an empty half-mile of near-white sand while you down smoked lobster and white wine yards away.
These two are in the high, true-quality end of the market - these and The Beach, a Sri Lankan-run hotel north of Colombo which refutes the myth that the locals can't do stylish perfection.
Elsewhere, throughout the island, you will receive unfailing standards of kindness and service, and all fatter wallets will pay for is varying degrees of luxury.
You will, if you travel, see sights which will burn themselves into your memory's hard-drive. The plantations, high in the central hills, where the armies of white-saronged villagers pluck the top three green shoots only of every bush and help create much of the world's most renowned tea: you can visit the factories and watch the process. The staggering vistas on the morning's drive south from 6,000 ft back to, literally, sea-level: it's like Norway with heat and smiles and cinnamon trees. The safari park at Yala, where you can see pretty much what you can see in a similar but bank-breaking African tour: we watched the sweetest baby elephants, and hyenas and flamingos and a leopard, and did that safari-park hushed-tones thing of stopping to look at a crocodile in the water then growing bored because it just looks like a bit of a stick and it's not killing anyone - and retire, dusty, to a rather fine hotel with a creaky open bar on the top floor, cooled and soothed by the sea breeze.
A slight word of warning: the roads, as I say, are not marvellous. A trip estimated at one hour can stretch easily to three and you've lost half a day, so plan ahead properly for a trip to the highlands. Prioritise your tea and temples and elephants and don't try to race between them all in one day. If you can stretch to an extra couple of hundred pounds, take the small Sri Lankan Airlines domestic flights. They will save you days of buttock-numbing minibus and taxi driving. But don't be tempted to hire and drive yourself, because you will get very, very frazzled at the local driving styles, and very possibly die.
Do feel free, around the coast, around the displacement camps, to visit. Take sweets for the children, or shampoo or biscuits or something, though don't be tempted afterwards to think you're God, because the brown-eyed adoration is overwhelming. You're a bloke carrying biscuits.
The cash you might want to hand to the courteous village elders, who will explain, translate, show you around and mouth off, quite justifiably, about Colombo sitting on so much aid money, and the pointless law which forces many to still live in tents a mile from the coast rather than rebuild their beach-side homes (in some cases 80 per cent undamaged and easily rebuildable) - this cash, direct into the hand, and the money you will spend that evening on fine food and happy accommodation: this, truly, is beginning to make a slow difference.
Despite the incalculable grief and loss at the time, some of the situation, six months on, is not as bad as I had feared at New Year. Then, when bodies still lay buried and swollen in Galle, there were terribly real worries that the stagnant water would bring an aftershock of disease: you could practically see fat mosquitoes breeding in the culverts. Such water, it turns out, was fairly swiftly removed. This, and the sterling efforts of a number of volunteers from overseas, meant the feared epidemic did not arrive.
Then, all talk was of the fish being inedible, contaminated by death. Today they are fresh and supremely edible on every menu. On my last day I went out from The Beach hotel in a small dhow, hung a hook over the choppy side, and the chef grilled my three mullet and two parrot-fish for lunch.
Much is better than could have been hoped for. This glorious island's full potential for recovery, and for the delights it can bestow, won't however be properly restored until we all begin, in heavy numbers, to go back. I feel lucky and privileged I was allowed to be one of the first.